2019 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Pro-social economics for games

I hesitate to submit this topic because of my profound ignorance. In the past, this lack of personal experience can lead to a group that BSs for the weekend and then has to do huge amounts of research afterwards in order to salvage some sort of publishable result.

The big question
What are the key connections between: A. Joris Dorman’s internal economies (sources, sinks, pools, transforms, etc) and B. recent social game design discussions around the Trust Spectrum, friendship formation, group formation, social logistics and anti-toxicity? Our group might:

  • Identify and name key concepts of pro-social economics as they apply to games
  • Demonstrate with examples of those concepts
  • Describe how these socio-economic tools help build more robust social game systems (and communities)
  • Describe how they help us avoid current failures.

What is the source of this esoteric topic?
What I’ve found is that as soon as we start designing robust social systems, we jump deep into the realm of systems design. We immediately leave behind any sort of pure social psychology and start layering in an economics backbone.

  • The basic cross-over: We need to manage resources, time, concurrency and other player logistics. What are these resources? How do things like zero-sum, positive sum, currencies (of various sorts), communal resources interact with social physics in our small virtual worlds?
  • The complexities of trade, both in terms of virtual goods and political capital. Clever humans start gaming the system, usually in highly coordinated, adaptive groups. This directly drives dominant social strategies and erodes most utopian ‘good intentions’.
  • Failures of naive capitalism. Such systems inevitably run into the limitations of capitalism: unmitigated corruption, inability to value public goods and weak long term planning.
  • The need for governance: In order to deal with societal failures, you need legislative, executive and judicial systems.

It feels like in order to build rich, robust social systems, a working designer needs to tackle the economic foundations and ramifications of that system.

Where do we start?
There’s conservatively a 150+ years of dense writing on these topics. And as far as I can tell, much of it is incomprehensible rhetoric highly specific to the time and place it was written. So I’d need 2+ decades intense research to be mildly educated on past thought experiments. (Despite my socialist leanings, Marxism and its faux scientific rants-masquerading-as-theory is an absolute blight on search engines. Nothing builds on past discoveries; just a century of wordy folks bickering.)

And let’s also be clear. Most of the *good* work out there involves laboriously constructed but completely untested models. These are proposed with the hope of convincing some government in the next 50-200 years to maybe (pretty please) give it a try. Or they rely on natural experiments (which are mostly commenting on stuff that happened in the hopes of boosting a pet theory)

There’s very little experimental stuff outside what you can do with Mechanical Turk or a tiny captive herd of WEIRD young grad students. And of course very little of this is associated with making games.

Some references
So I’m ignorant. But it feels like I should at least making an attempt to ground this investigation. In that spirit, here’s a horribly incomplete list of reading. If people were to read these before November, it might be better than just sitting around in a circle jawing.

Basic game economies:

Basic social psych for games:

Economics focused reading:

  • A Survey of Economic Theories and Field Evidence on Pro‐Social Behavior: How economists talk about some of these topics. https://www.bostonfed.org/-/media/Documents/Workingpapers/PDF/wp0606.pdf
  • Voting systems: Ultimately voting is ‘just’ an internal economy (vote are resource tokens). Most voting systems are simplified due to their need to be implemented by humans (they are board games) What is the computer video game version of a voting system where we have full access to all the tools of an expert systems designer? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting
  • Radical markets: Interesting thinking around applying bottoms-up market signals to social systems (instead of relying so much on government intervention.) Hmm…worryingly close to libertarianism, the kissing cousin of objectivism (both philosophies that seem to obstinately ignore everything outside the sociopathically selfish 20ish male. You know: Individuals.) https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Markets-Uprooting-Capitalism-Democracy/dp/0691177503
  • Cybernetics and economic systems: Essentially asking the question what computer systems can do automate command-and-control economic systems in a cost effective fashion. Crazy talk in the 60s when the Soviets were using human computers. But maybe more interesting now, especially since corporations are already doing this internally at a vast scale.  Nothing here is actually surprising to a F2P economy designer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetics#Cybernetics_and_economic_systems

Questions for those with a passing interest
Questions worth answering before tackling this topic (which feels like a black hole)

  • What else should a designer be reading on this topic? The reference list above is obviously, woefully incomplete. 🙁
  • What is a narrow scope we could tackle at Project Horseshoe in a productive manner?
  • Is it possible to get enough people together who have knowledge of these topics that the weekend would be productive? The best sessions are ones where everyone contributes something to the stone soup. So…who has an economics, political philosophy and/or social psych background? Maybe a small group?

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