What games can teach us about justice

One decade ago, Edward Castronova woke economists up to the fact that virtual worlds like Everquest contain legitimate economies, and suddenly everyone was talking about them as living economic laboratories. I’m interested in how such worlds can cast light on our political economies, and particularly the question of what’s fair and what’s just.

This NPR Planet Money podcast (“From Harvard Economist to Casino CEO“) about how Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s CEO, a former Harvard Business School professor, Gary Loveman, uses empirical data to shape the gaming experience. Yes, this is “gaming” as in gambling, but the relationship to Farmville and World of Warcraft is more than semantic. Just like WOW and other online games, modern casinos have access to a deep amount of data about user behavior through their rewards cards. But unlike Blizzard, Caesars cannot tweak its formula to guarantee particular results — for example, making sure that newbies win enough to keep them coming back. They can know who all the flailing newbies are, though, and dispatch employees to make things right for them (e.g. comp them some extra coins, dinner, or a limo). As Loveman observes, the goal is to comfort the newbies who fall into the low “long tail” of gambling returns.

Caesars’ approach to resource allocation has interesting implications for what a just distribution of resources might entail in a larger game – the game of our real economy. After all, Caesars isn’t providing a safety net for losers because they care — they do so because it’s good for business. Companies like Blizzard and Zynga are similarly tweaking their rules constantly to ensure maximum profitable participation rates. How might what they are learning inform the way we think about the rules of our political economy? Can game worlds – whether Caesars Palace or Azeroth – provide a Rawlsian space to experiment with different notions of “justice”?

The virtual and the real Washington, DC

Having so recently finished Fallout 3 (review coming soon!), I found myself contrasting images from today’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial with that same location in the virtual, post-apocalyptic Washington DC portrayed in Fallout. The game had generated some minor controversy when its marketers plastered the real Metro Center subway station with ads that included an image of a bombed-out Capitol Building. (Metro Center appears in the game as well).

Update: Here are contrasting images related to yesterday’s Inauguration:
The Mall in Fallout and in real life

The Fallout series satirizes the Cold War and in particular the aesthetics and politics of the 1950s, as seen through the lens of the Regan era (it was inspired by the 1988 title, Wasteland). And it’s cynical in a late Cold War, 99 Luftbalons kind of way, depicting both government and society as dysfunctional, greedy, and selfishly tribal. This was politics à la mode, but the hundreds of thousands gathered today around the Reflecting Pool attest to a new zeitgeist, one that makes the old cynicism seem out of place.

Ian Bogost on Games and Politics – liveblogging from Harvard KSG

Nicco Mele of Dean for America fame has been hosting a weekly study group on politics and the Internet; today he’s brought in Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Persuasive Games to talk about politics and video games. Ian has been ruminating on this topic a bit of late, most recently on Gamasutra, where he chronicles the “Birth and Death of the Election Game.”

Nicco’s relationship with Ian goes back to 2004, when Persuasive Games helped the Dean campaign design a video game to explain the Iowa Caucus.

Ian’s starting with his usual love for Animal Crossing. No need to repeat that here.

Relevant elements of games:

  1. Models capturing behaviors
  2. Roles simulating an experience, constrained by rules, leading to empathy
  3. Worlds that enable an immersion through imagined expertise

This allows games to give complex problems relevance in the context of our world. This is quite the opposite of usual politics and reductionist political rhetoric.

Politics as setting the rules for the roles that will play in a model of our future world that we’re in the process of constructing.
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