Thursday, December 17, 2009

Game design as government

(Apologies to Aldous Huxley)

For many years, I've been thinking about game design as a form of governance.
  • Game mechanics, rules and systems are comparable to laws
  • Players are comparable to citizens
  • The code and moderators that enforce game mechanics are comparable to executive activities.
  • The act of game design is the equivalent of drafting new laws, legislative activities.
  • Issue escalation and customer service are comparable to judicial activities.
Each of these topics provides years of future discussion. However, for the sake of brevity, I'll limit this essay to some thoughts on how a game government differs from a traditional government. Game governments have the following unique attributes:
  • Games are voluntary
  • Games allow for rapid iteration
  • Games excel at targeting individuals
Games are voluntary
The current crop of games are voluntary activities. In a traditional government, you are a citizen of the geographic region or nation in which you live. Membership for those who are born there is automatic. Renouncing or acquiring citizenship is a difficult activity with numerous costs. In most games players choose to operate within the magic circle defined by the rules of the game. Playing a game is seen as an explicitly voluntary activity.

There are several prerequisites for the voluntary nature of game to be realized.
  • Freedom to leave: Player should be able to stop playing the game when they wish. At the very least, they can step outside the magic circle and return to the rules of the real world. However, they might also leave one game and switch to another. The voluntary nature of games is threatened when the player can no longer leave. If you are part of a school program in which Wii Fit is a required activity, it rapidly becomes something other than a game.
  • Freedom to participate: Equally important, players should feel that their actions within the game are voluntary. Free will, or at least the illusion of free will, is necessary for there to be meaningful choices, deep experiential learning and mastery. Remove the players ability to explore the space defined by the rules of the game and at best you have rote mechanical work. At worst, you've created a crushing regime that teaches and enforces mindless obedience to a machine made of code.
Neither participating in a game nor leaving a game is without cost. All games create a self contained system of value where players are taught that algorithmic constructs are meaningful to their lives. There is always an opportunity cost involved in forming these values. There is also a cost to leaving the whirling blinking, pinging systems behind. The sword you worked for so hard in WoW has little meaning outside the game.

Games enable rapid iteration
Most modern networked electronic games involve code executing on servers. The code can be updated and pushed out to millions of players in minutes. Unhappy with the current laws? A few keystrokes later and your populace is now bound by a fresh, crisply defined reality. Traditional governments lack this speed. Laws are deliberated for months and years. They are slowly rolled out piecemeal by people and enforced piecemeal by people. People are fallible and each interpets the laws according to their biases. Some laws don't work. Some laws have inexplicable consequences that play out over many years.

There are several consequences
  • Metrics: First, metrics concerning large swatches of player behavior are readily available. In many cases, developers can set up tests that let them know if the rules they've created are generated the behavioral result they desire.
  • Scientific iteration: The player population is easily segmented. We witness this currently with A/B testing or with the rollout of Facebook changes according to geographic regions. It is possible to launch rules in a population subset, measure the results and then either kill the experiment or spread the rules more broadly if they are a success. At one point Valve had a saying that went something like "If this is a design decision that is a matter of opinion, don't waste time arguing about it. Instead play test it." What are the ramifications of using the scientific method on the generation of laws for humans?
  • Democracy of behavior: This leads to a fascinating reinterpretation of the 2500 year old formulation of democracy. You no longer vote by taking time out of your schedule and filling out a piece of paper. Instead, you vote by doing. The player's actions determine the tale the metrics tell. There is always 100% voter turnout because by choosing to play, you automatically participate in the legislative process.
Game excel at targeting individuals
Games are laser focused on the individual's activities. They deal with individual choice and individual rewards. A game knows exactly what a single person has done and adapts accordingly. Traditional governments create broad swathes of rules that affect entities or populations. Their hold on any one individual is powerful, but is very much a blunt instrument. Specifically, traditional governments lack the detailed knowledge of individual behavior, the frequency of feedback and precision of the reward structure. Wherein taxes are a feedback loop that occurs once a year, Pacman adapts to your actions 30 times a second.
  • Game designs are laws targeted at the mundane activities of free will. With Bejeweled we influence how your spend your free time. With Wii Fit, we reward or punish how you exercise. With Nike Plus we reward and punish how you move your feet. With Facebook games, we mediate how you socialize. In time, each of these will improve. In time games will target more and more activities. Travel, sleep, energy usage, medicine, love, sex, eating. If we can measure it, we can make a game out of it.
  • Pervasive law: These quotidian activities are the meat of life. As games spread throughout our everyday moments, we are suddenly in the hitherto unheard of situation where law affects 80% of our lives.
If you designed the rules that governed even a small portion of the lives of millions of people, what sort of world would you create? What are your moral obligations as a game designer? Are we still just talking about money? Are we still only talking about fun?

take care


  1. In response to the questions at the end, I would want to make playing the game a beneficial experience, and I would like to give the player a good taste of the game at the beginning so he/she knows what he/she is getting into--kind of like the "tour of features" in the first level of Metroid Prime. Those are just my initial thoughts.

  2. This is why I think games are so important. :)

    Such power to influence people's minds and lives, concentrated precisely.

    Let us hope this power is used for good, not evil. :p Have you been reading Daniel Quinn's books or something? ;)

  3. I've thought pretty much the same thing.

    Politics is itself also a grand game of course.

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  5. Knowledge of finite and infinite games' design along with the incorporation of interaction design methodology can improve the idea citizen-centered e-government greatly.

  6. Have you read Roger Caillois' "des jeux et des hommes". His theory is that games are actually the first form of government. He goes even further by proposing a typology of societies considering "what game there are playing": from the tribal society playing "simulacrum and vertigo" based society to the modern western society playing a "chance and competition" based game.

    So, games and governments are actually related from the beginning. But still, it is good to remember that, and keep evaluating how two systems using the same patterns can mutually enrich each other.

  7. I think you can't discuss "government" without addressing the issue of power relations, structuration and articulation. However, that would kinda kill all the fun of having discovered (yet another thing; this time) politics as something being essentially a game :P

    For example you would arrive at some tricky questions when you broaden the scale from particular games to whole platforms: Say you can leave or join a game whenever you want. But what about the platform that supports that game? Can you easily join it? Switch away to Mac or the iPhone? Nintendo Wii? X-Box? Is it misleading to think of freedom on the level of individual games? Is it the appropriate level to start a discussion about freedom/voluntariness of the player?

  8. Btw, there was a tweet today about a news article that was asking whether the Hobbesian or the Lockean vision about the nature of man is true. It was said that the behavior of players can sometimes decide what type of government a particular online games need. For example experienced players killing noobs resulted in the "government" creating areas in the game in which the noobs were protected from the "aggressors".

    You could discuss it the other way around and ask yourself whether the game you make to "govern" people is based on a Hobbesian or a Lockean (or whateverean) vision of man and life.

  9. Another parallel is cities and city planning, which is sometimes an arm of government.

    People choose to live in a city or state because of a number of factors: jobs, quality of life, size, restaurants, entertainment, proximity to outdoor recreation, availability of arts and culture, cost of housing and so on.

    So think about how a city must plan and design itself to attract the right clientele. I might be well funded schools, good mass transit, or tax incentives for new factories.

    Some cities and towns are successful indies (village band villages?) that thrive at their chosen level of size - "We are happy with 50,000 people and the citizens are happy too." Others grow and thrive (Portland, OR) and some die out (Detroit).

    And of course some cities have little involvement in their planning, but are what the people make it. A foolish government fights change for the good; a smart one recognizes change and embraces it. Of course not all change is good. Rising crime is not good for citizens.

  10. I believe this screed goes seriously off the rails at "democracy of behavior", which is not democracy at all. Game laws are imposed by a tyrannical oligarchy, limited (as all governments are) by the possibility that their subjects will rebel. As for "voting by doing", even slaves vote by doing: if they dislike slavery enough, they "vote" by running away.

    And as for law not affecting 80% of your life, you must lead a charmed life. Every time you set foot outside your house (if you do that) your conduct is regulated by law. Even if you see fit to walk in the street getting to your car, once you are driving, law is controlling 100% of your behavior. Even in your house, there are plenty of things you are forbidden to do.

  11. I get the sense that this article is concentrating mostly on online multiplayer games when it discusses games. It's a good choice in light of the similarity in governing many people versus governing many game players. I am intrigued by the possibility of the tools and methods of game design offering the design of a better government.

    I wonder, though, where the two subjects might diverge? One of the chief purposes of playing a game, as understood today, is to experience some kind of enjoyment through things like chance, vertigo, competition, simulation, collection, exploration and a host of other activities. Governments, on the other hand, might not be aimed at promoting the enjoyment of these activities. The idea that comes to mind is that of earlier societies when a government might be called for to ensure the security against physical attack of whatever people group it governs, or perhaps ensure that crops get harvested or stored.

    In this article, there is emphasis on responsiveness to individuals, but government seems to arrise more from collective needs rather than individuals. No one willingly accepts some government unless they are either coerced, or there is something important that they can best accomplish through accepting that government. With priorities and a collective nature such as they might have, governmental design must be different from game design, though perhaps particular tools from game design might better inform some aspect of government.

    So, did that make sense? Did I miss a point about either governments or about game design?