Cutthroat Capitalism

Wired, which is probably the best magazine that isn’t about PC games, recently ran a splendid article about the mechanics, finances, and theory behind piracy in the waters off Somalia. It’s a superb piece of magazine page design, which inspired me to have a little ramble over here. Anyway, the Wired team have now sent word that the feature has now been converted into a webgame, Cutthroat Capitalism, which places you at the helm of a pirate ship – well, a dot that represents a pirate ship – and sees you take on the role of hostage-taker and negotiator. Bag an expensive prize, and bargain for millions. It’s the reality of the process Somali pirates are working with, and the game they play for very high stakes, boiled down to essential to web-maths. Go take a look.


  1. Devan says:

    Hmm, I was trying to get the hang of the negotiation system when I got a “random failure”, and all my mateys jumped ship on me. Hmf! Spineless!

  2. jalf says:


    First ship I caught, I demanded $4 million, hit negotiate, and they offered $6m.

    Maybe I should become a pirate. Seems pretty easy. :D

  3. jhdsljkbvhj says:

    “Wired, which is probably the best magazine that isn’t about PC games…”

    Really? They always struck me as the magazine that explained nerdy stuff to people who thought they were too cool for that sort of thing.

  4. jonfitt says:

    Oh a pirate’s life for me!
    Seems like you can do quite a lot and still get away with it!

  5. Mike says:

    Cute. A bit all over the place, but cute.

  6. pirate0r says:

    A fun little game and quite educational, I do wish there was an option to get a faster boat. Too many a time was I outrun by container ships and oil tankers.

    My pirate captain did manage to amass a hoard of millions before his pitiful crew abandoned him, forfeiting their share of the $5 million ransom. I enthusiastically captured yachts and pretended the crew were billionaire playboys instead of poor Indian seamen who combined were worth a mere $1 million ransom.

    Many of my virtual pirate days were spent hunting my arch nemesis, the elusive cruise ship. I like to imagine the black dog was bursting at the seams with +65 year old US retirees from Florida, ready to scuttle the ship the moment I stop cordially negotiating for their return.

  7. Collic says:

    With a yo ho ho and a tee hee hee Somalian pirates are we!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  8. terry says:

    unpolitically correct pirates!? hot!

  9. B-B-Brian says:

    That is the most inspired piece of spam I’ve ever read, just above my post here.

    And the webgame’s good fun too!

  10. sigma83 says:

    I sure can’t wait to see glossy models and actors in sand ultra tall ugg boots, preferably of the female redheaded persuasion.

  11. sigma83 says:

    Also, arrrr.

  12. Tanner says:

    I would have to say that Mental_Floss is the best magazine that isn’t about PC games. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

  13. A-Scale says:

    Strangely, this has nothing to do with capitalism. I couldn’t figure the game out in a few seconds on my first try, so I knock the design team for that, but I will try again later.

  14. Jim Rossignol says:

    What it has to do with capitalism: the fact that piracy is a business venture, and the fact that they’re exploiting the wealth of trading companies that use the Gulf Of Aden.

  15. Heliocentric says:

    So mugging old ladies is capitalism?

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    You don’t tend to get millions of dollars in bounties for mugging old ladies.

  17. Pace says:

    I’d say organized criminal enterprises are actually quite good examples of capitalism. Just, you know, not legal ones.

  18. Pace says:

    Hmm, this got me thinking a bit. Criminal enterprises certainly have that ‘capitalistic spirit’, but I guess in this case it isn’t actually providing any goods or services at all. So maybe it’s not technically capitalistic? Fascinating. Or not.

  19. aoanla says:

    The service is “letting you go with your lives intact”, surely?

  20. Ian says:

    Interesting, but a bit hit and miss based on my first, short playthought. Will play moar.

  21. panik says:

    wired died long ago…its full of dads saying “hey, great beat”

  22. sigma83 says:

    They provide the service (letting you live) while requiring payment for the service (ransom) but at the same time created the need for that service in the first place (hijacking)

    My head. It is sploded.

  23. Ginger Yellow says:

    I’d have thought capitalism is based (at least in principle) on the idea of the sanctity/integrity of private property. Piracy seems to go against that idea rather strongly.

  24. sfury says:

    Here’s a related interview from Wired – Exclusive Interview: Pirate on When to Negotiate, Kill Hostages

    Cutthroat Capitalism indeed.

  25. sigma83 says:

    Live by the sword, die by the sword. No mercy for pirates.

  26. Shadowcat says:

    Every time I’ve perused Wired magazine, the writing style has quickly made me nauseous, and the horrendous graphic design rapidly escalates the situation as I try to escape to some other article. I’m pretty sure I’d actually throw up if I ever had to read one cover to cover.

    I used to occasionally wonder if my past reactions to it were excessive, or I’d just picked a bad issue to look at, and I’d leaf through one at a newsagent; but it’s always the same. I don’t second-guess myself any more on this one.

  27. Geoff says:

    We could put a cost/benefit analysis structure on the process of working your way up through the Communist Party and gaining more influential postings, but I don’t think our conclusion from that model should be that “Communism is Capitalist”.

    I’m pretty sure the voluntary exchange between both parties, absent coercion and force, is fundamental to Capitalism. That, and private property. I’m pretty sure that “the CEO of Enron was shady, and my insurance company won’t pay for my surgery” does not lead us indisputably to “piracy is the same thing as Capitalism.”

  28. Sonic Goo says:

    Piracy (and other forms of crime) is capitalism, but only a certain kind of capitalism. It’s the capitalism that’s advocated by the rabidly anti-government extremist right-wingers. Free-for-all, wild west, cutthroat capitalism. It the right’s equivalent of the anarchists on the left.

  29. Bullwinkle says:

    Capitalism requires the respect for property rights. In a pure capitalist society, the role of the government is limited to acting as the protector of those rights, and acting to enfore the specific laws of the market. Piracy is no more a *capitalist* business venture than bank robbery, or mugging old ladies. The magnitude of the sums doesn’t change the situation.

    I can’t possibly imagine what ‘extreme right-wingers’ has to do with it, either. Those people are anti-government, and not pirates anyway, but commit (or talk about) terrorist acts, blowing up goverment buildings and agents. They’re not advocating piracy.

  30. A-Scale says:


    What it has to do with capitalism: the fact that piracy is a business venture, and the fact that they’re exploiting the wealth of trading companies that use the Gulf Of Aden.

    Everyone seems to be stating their own personal feelings about capitalism, but to solve the issue why don’t we just define it?

    Merriam Webster says
    Capitalism: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

    Now will someone explain to me how piracy involves those things. It does not involve any means of production (nothing is being made, only stolen), nor investments as decided by demand and the free market, nor does it involve a free market (quite the opposite, in fact).

    Perhaps some of the people here have fallen into the trap of equating “capitalism” with “things I don’t approve of”.

  31. Jim Rossignol says:

    Go read the article this is based on. The point of which is that these pirates are also businessmen. The piracy outfits are pirvately owned businesses. They get investment, they reinvest in their infrastructure, and they have business models for how hostage taking goes down.

    Sure, it’s illegal as far as we’re concerned, but that doesn’t mean it’s not capitalistic.

  32. A-Scale says:

    Again, capitalism deals with products and services being sold and determined by the free market. Investment and businesses alone do not make capitalism. Fascist dicatorships often invest in businesses and work closely with businessmen to achieve their goals (see: Hitler), but that does not make their operations capitalistic. You are simply taking too narrow a view of capitalism, as seen in the definition.

  33. Geoff says:

    I did read the article, I actually subscribe and read the print magazine at home (how quaint!)

    I understand the dynamic – you could say that this piracy action game has RPG elements: with the gathering of resources and investing them into upgrades. But the term “capitalism” doesn’t just refer to any investment of resources into ventures which could yield more resources one day – that’s practiced by communists, mercantilists, totalitarians, you name it. When the resources involved are being seized by force, you’re not talking about Capitalism anymore.

  34. Lucky Main Street says:

    “The most commonly held notion about capitalism is that it is a free-market economy, however this interprets capitalism so narrowly as to make it almost non-existent.” – Frank Stilwell, Political Economy: the Contest of Economic Ideas.

  35. A-Scale says:

    “The most commonly held notion about capitalism is that it is a free-market economy, however this interprets capitalism so narrowly as to make it almost non-existent.” – Frank Stilwell, Political Economy: the Contest of Economic Ideas.

    I’m waiting on an alternate definition.

  36. Bullwinkle says:

    An essential ingredient of capitalism is the protection of private property rights. Legal and illegal has nothing to do with it. For example, a drug dealer or arms dealer who purchases his goods (or manufactures them) and then sells them to his customers is operating within a basic capitalist framework, despite the illegality of those goods. If he steals those goods, or kills his competitors to be able to sell those goods, then he is not respecting private property rights, and so would no longer be within a capitalist framework.

    Thievery of any kind is not capitalism. It doesn’t matter whether pirates consider themselves to be businessmen or not. Business =/= capitalist. State ownership of business under communism is still business, but clearly not capitalism.

  37. Pace says:

    Ah, now here’s the sort of completely pointless pedantic argument about semantics that I can get behind. Ahem; Somali piracy has a lot of traits which we normally associate with capitalistic economies. Most importantly, it’s a free enterprise. There was a, what we can call, ‘market niche’ to be filled, and some enterprising individuals started up an organization to acquire capital. They also negotiate prices, determining, what I’m going to call, ‘fair market value’ for various types of ships and crews. This is all very capitalistic, right? At least in spirit. The idea of capitalism was really defined as a contrast to the command/centrally controlled economy. That is certainly not what we have.
    However; of course this is still a criminal operation that, significantly, produces nothing. It’s purely parasitic. The drug trade for instance I think we could call capitalistic, but this? Well, perhaps not precisely. (I think capitalistic is better here than ‘capitalism’, since the latter refers to a whole economy, and we’re only looking at one small part.) Depending on what definition of capitalism you use piracy is pretty unlikely to fit it exactly, sure, but it certainly has a lot of the traits we think of as capitalism. Woohoo, this is fun!

  38. A-Scale says:

    Ah, now here’s the sort of completely pointless pedantic argument about semantics that I can get behind.

    When I want complete, soul crushing cynicism about literally ANY pursuit, I come to RPS. Whether it’s degrading games to the level of a pointless distraction from the real world or making fun of people for taking part in philosophical disputes, we’re your one stop shop for sadness and self hate.

    Somali piracy has a lot of traits which we normally associate with capitalistic economies. Most importantly, it’s a free enterprise.

    Must we continue to muddy well defined terms simply to fit our personal feelings about the issue?

    Free enterprise: : freedom of private business to organize and operate for profit in a competitive system without interference by government beyond regulation necessary to protect public interest and keep the national economy in balance.

  39. Pace says:

    Soul crushing cynicism? Sadness? Self-hate? Cripes, all I was trying to point out is that this is rather pointless. (I’d try to defend that but if you think otherwise, I’m clearly not going to convince you otherwise.) There’s nothing wrong with that, but taking it too seriously is just a little silly. We’re just arguing about the semantics of the title of this game not the meaning of life.
    That being said; why the free market definition? If you don’t like that, how about entrepreneurial? If you don’t admit that there’s something ‘capitalistic’ about this then you’re just being stubborn. Since you like definitions, wikipedia gives this one for capitalism:
    “Capitalism typically refers to an economic and social system in which trade, industry and the means of production (also known as capital) are privately controlled and operated for a profit.”
    Sure piracy isn’t a whole economic and social system but it’s an industry (please don’t give me a definition for that, it’s only a small stretch) that is privately controlled and operated for a profit. No it’s not going to fit any definition exactly but it’s in the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s close. It’s in the ‘I see what you mean there’ category, why argue this so much?

  40. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    Anyone interested in the capitalism aspects of piracy should take a look at The Invisible Hook. It’s an analysis of 17th century pirate practices and how they relate to natural and non-coercive cooperation (which is the essence of free-market capitalism). As the author points out, piracy isn’t actually capitalism (as the pirates are stealing things with coercion, not making and trading goods and services) but they operate under some of the same principles that make cooperation more successful in lawful activities as well.

  41. ack says:

    Alternate definition of capitalism:

    An ideology where the acquisition of the maximum amount private wealth by any means allowed by the holder of monopoly on violence is not only a goal but considered beneficial to societal development.

    Not personal feelings, just calm, cool observation.

  42. DRJ says:

    Ahh, these types of debates always get my blood running. As long as they don’t devolve into flame wars, they can be the most refreshing form of internet communication.

    The gap in understand is based entirely in scope. The same resource may be “owned” by multiple parties depending on the point of reference. One society may agree that PartyA owns a resource, while a different society may agree that PartyB owns a resource.

    Each society may fight with each other, but that doesn’t mean that each cannot be capitalistic.

    Look at piracy, not from a global perspective, but from a Somali pirate perspective. Let’s say that your view of the law is that anything that enters “your” waters is yours if you claim it. Under that structure you can believe in both piracy and ownership (seizure of property occurs in every society).

    Under that model, you now have multiple organizations fighting over scare resources (ships). They attempt to maximize their return by organizing, optimizing and providing the proper incentives for their employees.

    I agree that from a global point of view piracy is wrong, horrible and bad. But to claim that it’s completely remote from capitalism is to ignore the US’s capitalistic past in which we’ve trampled over the ownership rights of many societies because we simply refused to recognize their ownership.