Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Theory of Games

Game Theory has been a recurring and unexpected theme for me in recent days. I've had dreams (worried ones) about a course I took in it that is long since over, and I've managed to get at least one close friend hooked on the stuff. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with Karinth or any kind of popular game at all, but is a section of economics that attempts to mirror and explain interactions by phrasing them as a head-to-head competition, a game between two players with each using a selection of strategies in order to reach their goals.

One of my favourite theories is known as the Tragedy of the Commons (what is it with me and sad stuff?!). To give a brief synopsis, this game takes one of the most obvious economic goals (if you get more benefit than it costs you, it's good) and sticks it into a certain situation: where there is a common resource that is shared by many yet owned by none. The traditional basis for this was the centuries-old tradition of every village having some communal grazing land (the village green) where people could leave some livestock to feed. You could also substitute international fishing waters or whatever suits your fancy, really. Anyway, we have this little village that has gotten by for centuries on traditional, back-home values like hard work, respect, community etc etc. They've developed a healthy unwritten code where everyone is careful with use of the common land and helps to maintain it and ensure that it keeps in good condition for the future, and everything's happy.

But no! As time passes, the community changes. You get new folk coming in from different backgrounds: some city folk with summer cottages, some big farm produce wholesalers buying up land, or just a general deterioration in the community atmosphere and the development of a more "modern" every-man-for-himself mentality. So now what happens to the grazing land there? Well, clearly, the more people use (and abuse) it, the less valuable it becomes: more animals, less grass for each animal, less time for the grass to grow back, and so on. Hey, this is economics anyway, not farming. Just as clearly, these unprincipled new folks are going to keep bringing more animals to the commons as long as they get some benefit from it (it's free, after all).

So, the logical end result? Left to their own devices, the community will use, re-use and abuse the common land until it is totally worthless. This scenario still goes on everywhere: farming, overfishing, to the extent that it has been known to cause international incidents - think about the issues regarding endangered animals that are still hunted.

This blog isn't about the rights and wrongs of whaling, sealing, poaching or whatever. This blog is about Karinth and text-based gaming. We have a community: a free one, one where we trust all of you to your own devices with minimal interference, one where the community and quality of interactions between players determines the survival of a game just as much as the existence of good grazing land determines the fate of a village. Most of us have probably played games where members of the player community have tried to attain dominance by taking advantage of the game and other players, by undermining the enjoyment of others. The nature of this kind of game means that your behaviour as players will directly impact the enjoyment of others, and the value of the game itself. Think about it.

A quick shout out to the Owl, whose blog can now be seen in my favourite links area to the side there. Please take a look and say hi, but be forewarned: she's way smarter than me, so make sure your brain is locked down tight.

1 comment:

Owl's perch said...

A good point that muds are rather like the commons. Most of the villagers (read players) happily partake in the available ground. But when they begin to overuse it by consuming the goodwill that helps to keep the mud up and open...

Of course, the problem is how to correct the perceived cost and benefit, so that the individual's choice is beneficial not only to themselves but to the other players and the mud at large.