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Jan 03, 2008



Nope, not confusing. I think our brains are built to read tokens in precisely that way. They're built that way via the Steen/Owens play-module. The Steen-Owens module makes fun a core drive, like sex and hunger, a source of intrinsic reward. Fun.

The brain is built to understand the collection of meaningless tokens as a fun thing to do.



Do you think that reputation and lud (aka "gamer capital") are partially responsible for the "inefficiencies" of real world economies?

Alternately: money/tokens/points/comic books are all fun to collect and redeemable...for something. I think part of the difficulty that students of these phenomena have is in the limited definitions of value that are used in economics and other social sciences, but also in the culture as a whole.

I would add things like "love", "beauty" and "intelligence" to Ted's list in an attempt to expand the concept a bit so that the idea of Fun-as-value/useless-Quest-gold-as-value is not so hard to understand or account for in the market.

Physical gold is just as much a token as virtual gold. And in a free exchange-based marketplace, isn't the real determinant simply the agreement of value by both parties?


Great post, Greg, and all of this connects of course to lots of stuff Julian has been saying about labor and games (you may have linked to him and I missed it).

I agree that there is something at the core of us, anthropologically speaking, that is involved when we talk about what commands people's attention in games, but there seems little reason to reify what it is into a drive for "fun." Jean Piaget and others identified how, developmentally, humans find a balanced mix of the expected and the unexpected compelling, because that's how we learn to act -- we create a reliable picture of how the (uncertain) world works (rather than, say, a "true" one), and how our own fallible actions may affect it. Well-designed games tap into this, but not because they're tapping into a "fun" trigger (but it might be useful to use the term "play" to account for it), but because they catch our attention in their presentation of pattern and unpredictability (including the unpredictability of our attempts to play it). If we charge that mechanism with the normativity of "fun" our claims about it become less descriptive, and more politically charged.


@ Thomas -- no, forgot to link to Julian, but yes -- ludocapitalism is the question, I suppose.

@ Ted & Thomas on Ted - I'll read the article by Steen (thanks) but I'm frankly kind of agnostic as to whether we locate the impulse to participate in games in some kind of hard-wired evopsych drive account or whether we point to some other causality.

To say that humanity has a "drive" to play games doesn't do much to get at the questions I'm interested in, i.e., the tensions that I see between markets, reputation capital, and ludic frameworks. For instance, what if Askville listed, instead of Quest gold, the dollar value of the Amazon gift cards that a person had accumulated? How would that be interpreted differently than Quest gold?

@Harris: "Do you think that reputation and lud (aka "gamer capital") are partially responsible for the "inefficiencies" of real world economies?"

Well, in my account, no. In the accounts of some others, yes, but the problem with those accounts, I think, is that they often limit themselves to values that can be quantified in markets, so they miss values that don't fit with that particular methodological approach.

I'm not an economist, but the deep problem seems to be with the very notion of efficiency. It works well when you can compare two models with a fixed measure of value, but those models are invariably simplifications of reality and often times the values we grapple with in making decisions are incommensurable.


I think economists' notions of efficiency are in deep trouble.

The basic concept involves the degree to which an agent achieves its objectives. It's actually defined negatively, as in, to have resources that satisfy your objectives to degree A, but only achieve them to degree B, where B < A, is called inefficient.

In models of the firm, the objective is profit. In models of individual choice, the objective is - something, anything. A numerical function called utility is defined over this (anything), and achieving higher scores in utility is considered better.

The problem: in policy circles we think of utility and happiness as the same thing. I know, I know, any economist who stops to think about it says that happiness and utility are not the same thing. But the facts on the ground are that policy discourse assumes they are the same. Rarely in the policy process do we discuss making people happy in some kind of concrete way. We talk instead about who gets what money.

As a result, the practical approach to efficiency assumes it is basically about maximizing gold. If not maximizing gold, then maximizing things.

But neither money nor things have much to do with happiness in a distributed information society, in an age where the family is following the tribe into the dustbin of history, to be replaced by social network software links.

It gets worse. Any reasonable definition of economic progress depends on human well-being. To what extent are happy humans also humans who have high well-being? You can shoot everyone up, and we'd all be happy. That's not well-being, however. For humans, well-being requires dignity.

Can we update our sense of efficiency, our sense of achieving goals for humankind, for a concept like dignity? Dignity invokes the spirit, not the voice of reason. It would have been so much easier if a person with one more dollar, one more token, one more gold piece, also always had one more Dignity Unit. That was probably close to being true in 1920. It's not true any more.

Games shoot us a little dopamine, persistently. They connect us to others. Integrated into a full and rich life, they can enhance well-being. But a 'game' of obsessive token-hunting, by a people starved for happiness, is not the dignity we deserve.


Anthropologically speaking, animals often care more about being "better" than peers than being "good." I remember several reports that showed that animals were happier not when they had "enough" (status, food, mates, etc), but when they had "more" than others in their group.

I think it might be the same in this context. I've tried all the major "answer" sites as part of my work; our company provides a system for libraries to engage in virtual reference, and these services (to a degree) are in the same space.

I like the game-y-ness of what Amazon is doing. The thing I'd like to see, though, is more rankings based on percentage of responses deemed useful or best. That way, my "score" doesn't just indicate a total amount of time played, but how well the quest givers (questioners) think I've responded. I'd sooner read/trust somebody who has provided 10 answers, 8 of which were voted as "helpful" and 5 voted as "best," than somebody who has the same score out of 5,009 responses.

In that way, score would end up being comparative in a helpful way. And if it's helpful and compelling... that's more fun. Or at least more... something.


@Greg: I share your agnoticism about exploring impulses -- all too often the mere idea of them comes to stand as a self-confirmatory, unfalsifiable explanation, and that's not productive. Like yours, my own interests lie squarely in the social constructions in the mix here. My only concern in voicing the above was that (a) we recognize the biological/developmental component here as at least a *possibility* (if an almost impossible one to explore reliably, and in any case only a partial answer at best), and (b) that when we do, we don't ask it to do more than it can; i.e., tie it to some imagined grand human function.


It's an interesting idea, but hardly anything new. While the use of "experience" or gold or whatever does somewhat abstract the monetary function, it's not terribly different than Student of Fortune or even the defunct Google Answers.

I suppose Student of Fortune is a better example actually since it actually displays the "earned bounty" amount, which is kinda like the Amazon EXP system. But obviously not quite the same. It'll be interesting to see how all this stuff plays out.


This was also done on the old site Knowpost before - answer a question, get XP, ask a question, spend XP.

I don't think incentive-based systems work as well when the required input isn't deemed intrinscially valuable - that's why Mechanical Turk is nice, it forces the requester to attach value to it (and in a form others generally agree is valuable, too!)

Maybe we could set up a Q&A site where you offered up something tangible (all the junk in your closet) for a good answer - it could be framed like a game show.


For me, that would be win-win, I think -- all that junk in my closet has negative value!


I am a bit late in this thread, but that was a great post -- thanks, Greg! Thought-provoking comments, too.

So my takeaway from the post (whether or not you intended it) was the question of to what extent can you take things such as US dollars, game coins and various kinds of intangible reputation and describe them as facets of a more general concept. Something that incentivises and structures action and relationships between people in ways similar to how money does, but also differently. The benefit would be the ability to rigorously model things like peer-production systems or the effects of RMT in a MMORPG.

Edward pointed out that economics already tries to do this with the concept of "utility". Socio-economics applies economic reasoning to areas outside the traditional sphere of economics. But sadly, the dream of a positivist sociology that would discover the "laws of the society" was shattered a long time ago already. There doesn't seem to be any shortcut or unifying theory.

Thus, while peer production and "price systems" may not be that different in their mechanics after all, I think it is not necessarily because peer production systems would ultimately be based on some sort of quantifiable barter for reputation and other "capital", but because money economies can also be viewed as social structures, drawing attention to complexities hidden by economic models. I think you reached a similar conclusion.

But here's a funny idea: since economic analysis is a great tool in cases where it works (i.e. the models correspond to reality), would it be possible to try to design systems in such a way that they are more amenable to it? Instead of trying to find theories that fit the game, make gameplay fit the theory? Would it be possible to design complex systems where users' incentives for action are extremely transparent, instead of (or in spite of?) becoming muddled in the dynamics of social structures and subjective values?

Edward wrote:

Games shoot us a little dopamine, persistently. They connect us to others. Integrated into a full and rich life, they can enhance well-being. But a 'game' of obsessive token-hunting, by a people starved for happiness, is not the dignity we deserve.

I wonder whether dignity is an axiom in your value system, or whether it is derived from something else? If someone wants to spend their whole life playing a MMORPG, can you find ethical justification for stopping them? Are meatspace games (work, family) always ultimately morally superior? I know you must have been thinking about these questions.


Hi Vili -- those are great questions, and though I've been thinking about them, I think you've clarified the issues here wonderfully.

One person I've benefited from in this area is Viviana Zelizer (Julian actually made me aware of her work), who has done some nice work in exposing how currency is not as fungible as we often pretend.

I'm really intrigued by your idea of making matters more transparent. It is hard for me to think of a reason why that should not be a goal. Ideally, if our social structures (in MMORPGs or elsewhere) could be made to conform and operated within our ideal measures of what value and currency should be, then who could argue against that?

I suppose the problem -- though I can't articulate this as well as I should be able to do -- is that some of our ideal values in society can't be comfortably situated within market systems. That said, I think games are a domain where there is far greater flexibility (as an ethical and cultural matter) in that regard.

Anyway, those are some very intriguing thoughts and were very helpful for me. Thanks!


I think it's odd that you can't see other people's answers if you want to answer. So answering is like a test? They don't want us to cheat?


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