I've been following an interesting discussion around A Tale in the Desert. Andrew Tepper, aka Pharaoh, commented on the first use of the legal powers of that game's citizens to have another player banned, by wondering why the relatively expansive political power that the developer-sovereign of the game cedes to the players hasn't been used more often and more pervasively.
Tepper writes, "I fully expected this unique form of in-game democracy that we use, to breed an ever-growing, increasingly intrusive government, just as real-world democracy often does. In fact, one big advantage I saw to Tellings was the chance to undo the implosion that I thought was inevitable. The culture that evolved in ATITD was just the opposite, and I still don't have a good explanation. The force of law has always been applied with the lightest touch. And it's not just in law that Egypt has been cautious...In three years we've elected about 20 Demi-Pharaohs, players with the power to permanently exile up to 7 of their countrymen. And in three years, that power has never been used..."
I don't think I'm nearly as surprised as Tepper seems to be. Partly because I think his expectation here invokes a common form of cyberlibertarian narrative about contemporary American politics that is at the least an over-simplified hypothesis about the development of post-1945 liberal democracies, that refers implicitly to some kind of universal tendency of individuals to surrender freedom to authority.
Partly because, as some players have also observed, the size of the playerbase of A Tale in the Desert promotes a more trusting and close-knit community (an issue Raph Koster has been writing about lately). Partly also, as some ATITD players have noted, there's a selection filter here, that ATITD is a boutique product far less likely to attract the kinds of griefers and antisocial players who players in other synthetic worlds might desperately wish to control or expel, and far more likely to attract people with a lively interest in participating in the political affairs of their synthetic world.
It's also a question of time, however. Not a surprise that a historian would insist that this is a question of history and accumulation, I suppose, but this is where I think most synthetic world developers and even some scholars of synthetic worlds remain remarkably ahistorical or presentist in their expectations about how worlds will develop or their explanations of why worlds develop as they do. It's not that these explanations are insensate to the history of a particular world, but that they don't take contingency seriously in relation to that history. Instead, they look for structural or consistent explanations of historical structures, and think that a particular structure of game design or mechanics will reliably produce those structures in future iterations of similar designs.
I certainly agree that many existing synthetic worlds, including ATITD, have deep drivers and attractors embedded both in their designs and in the pre-existing social and cognitive predispositions of the players drawn to them, that re-running the game again from scratch would lead to convergent evolution of the gameworld in many respects.
But not everything. Here I'll crib from Gould's A Wonderful Life, as I'm often wont to do, with a healthy nod to ideas about emergence and the concept of path-dependence.
If the governance capacities ceded to players in ATITD have been used lightly in the gameworld's first two iterations, that might simply be because no one ever tried to use them otherwise. That sounds intuitive and obvious, but a major divergent branch in the political or social history of a virtual world or community is always one impulsive moment away, one possible event from happening, one serendipitious (or tragic) heartbeat distant from the world that comes into being.
I think the broader history of virtual communities (and the real-world) is a pretty good demonstration of that. Julian Dibbell's justifiably famous account of LambdaMOO is a good example. You might think that it was inevitable that once certain governance capacities were ceded to the inhabitants of that community by Pavel Curtis, what followed was inevitable, but I think that would be profoundly wrong. Even Mr. Bungle did not make the shape of politics and governance that came into being after his actions inevitable by his actions: for a considerable time, the community hung in an indeterminate space where many political roads and structures were conceivable. The institutions which the community created afterwards created new tools which defined and expanded the capacities of intrusive power, but their use was occasioned also by the history of prior conflict, prior action, of the contingent manifestation of particular individuals into that social space, and then of the accumulation of many contingent actions which became a kind of emergent structure of political life that no one could then undo or act outside of.
So maybe version 3 of A Tale in the Desert will be the one where a player--perhaps just for the experimental hell of it--tries to persistently and influentially act more napoleonically, or methodically explores their antisocial capacities the way that a LambdaMOO player named "Sunny" did once upon a time. That fork in the road is always there, just never taken up until the day that it is. The only problem, of course, is that once you step down some paths, you can't ever back up to the crossroads.