Using RPGs to show why incentives in politics are broken

Photographed by Coolcaesar on July 4, 2014 from Gatineau, Quebec.

Photographed by Coolcaesar on July 4, 2014 from Gatineau, Quebec.

Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.
— Ted Turner

I fundamentally want to disagree with Ted’s quote, however, I have not yet been able to disprove his quote completely. It may not be the only way we keep score as a collective but it is the strongest universal measurement of keeping score that currently exists.

In western society money is synonymous with power and influence — there are a few people that break this model and have influence without wealth — but those cases are few and far between. The 2016 election of Donald Trump shows a direct connection to wealth and influence.

I’m about to delve into a strange place — a cross section of politics, economics and role playing game mechanics (both single player and massively multiplayer online roleplaying games lovingly referred to as MMORPG). You’ve been warned.

One of my favourite games of all time is Skyrim. It is a single player role playing game with excellent game mechanics and storytelling. The first time I played the game through I built a magic/caster character — my character became fairly powerful and I managed to complete the game and enjoy the story arc with appropriate amounts of tension, frustration, and having to restore from a save point after a dragon ate my wizard’s face off.

The second time through I broke the system. I played an archer character and discovered a way to combine the skills of blacksmithing, enchanting and potion making that made my archer a walking god. The dragon that would challenge my caster to an epic duel would fall to a single shot arrow before they could even see my archer.

I did this all within the allowable game mechanics of Skyrim. The publishers of Skyrim, Bethesda, probably don’t care — in fact, they ship their games with an editor tool so that I could create a similar character just by editing the game to make it exist. As I’m in a single player world, the only one who is impacted by my gaming of the system is me. There are some tradeoffs, for example, the epic final battle with Alduin the Evil Dragon ended with two shots from my character’s bow rather than an epic battle of wits, tactics and strategy it was from my first play through.

What happens if you break a system like this in a game where there are other players? Other people? Would anyone care that I broke the system mechanics to be able to become a super powerful god within the construct in the game — particularly if they could not access the same path to power?

The short answer is that this can and does happen in the online version of this type of roleplaying game. The MMORPGs like “World of Warcraft” and “Destiny” have millions of players every day competing against the challenges set forth by the game developers and also against each other in contests of skill called “Player vs Player (PvP)”.

The game designers (Blizzard for World of Wacraft, Bungie for Destiny) want to maximize the number of people playing their game — the more players that play their game the more revenue they collect. Therefore, there’s incentive to make the game as appealing to as many people as possible.

Occasionally, people break the systems in the same way I broke Skyrim’s mechanics. A certain weapon, a certain combination of skills, racial traits or character traits creates an unbalancing of the system such that the game mechanics have to be fixed. The gaming community refers to this is the objects in question getting “nerfed”.

In “nerfing” the objects causing the unbalance, the game designer makes a conscious decision to try to rebalance the system to maximize the benefit to everyone. If a particular weapon is too powerful in PvP then the game is no longer a test of skills, strategy and tactics but one of simple dichotomy — if you have the weapon you’re going to win, if you do not have the weapon, you will lose.

If you have the weapon you often don’t see the advantage that you have — afterall, you also have l33t skills in the game and that’s the reason you’re winning. If you’re getting killed every 5 seconds by someone else who has a Prometheus’ lens then you may feel differently.

How you feel about a certain weapon, trait or skill being nerfed correlates to whether or not you benefit or lose from the exchange. For those who do not have the super powered weapon, class, or skill, the nerfing is a welcome addition to the game mechanics to restore balance and fair play. If your favourite toy is nerfed you’re going to be very upset about it.

In short, the people who make the rules of the game are incented to make it fair and equitable to everyone by making it more or less achievable for anyone playing the game to win and advance their individual score. In a PvP ecosystem, the game maker gains wealth by creating equality and enjoyment for all playing the game because they end up attracting and retaining more subscribers.

There are two different incentive models: those who make the rules of the game and those who play the game. For those who play the game, it is the ability to score highest in PvP contests; for those that make the game, it’s cash in the real world.

Now imagine what would happen if the incentive models began to mix. What if, by accumulating points in PvP combat in a game like Destiny, you could also increase the amount of wealth obtained by the makers of the game. What if you could donate 100 points of your Destiny Tracker Score to Bungie and then Bungie could use that to get 2 additional subscribers instead of gaining subscribers by making the game attractive to play.

Suddenly the players who have the most points in winning in Destiny can influence the makers of the game. The top players in the game who have the unbalancing gear no longer need to get nerfed because the game maker gets what they need — subscribers to drive revenue. They no longer rebalance the rules to make the game equitable to anyone because they can actually benefit more by sustaining the unbalancing of the game. The top players with the top gear continue to win every game, but donate enough money to Bungie to allow them to replace any subscribers they lose through the unfairness of the ecosystem. The top players of the game are happy because they get to continue winning and not have their gear nerfed, Bungie is happy because their revenues continue to go up, and the players that leave the system disenfranchised don’t matter to either party.

This is basically what has happened in the free market society — we have allowed our incentives to intermix.

There are two basic systems within the western society — the political system and the free market system. The free market system way of keeping score is dollars. The political way of keeping score is votes.

Our political mechanics make the rules of the free market system by which we all play in on a daily basis. Our subscription cost to play this game is one vote. If we assume that the political system ran the game the way that Bungie and Blizzard must then the politicians would seek to balance the system so that it’s equitable for anyone playing in the system. If one particular mechanic within the system, a particular company or particular loophole — it would get nerfed — because if they did not make it fair and equitable for everyone they would lose votes.

In the free market system we keep score by money — it’s how we accumulate points. However, we have allowed the points system to become intermingled. A player in the free market can give significant money to politicians which allows them to buy votes. The “game maker” is no longer incentivized to make the game fair for all but instead look to make the game maximized for those who can also maximize their score — how to attract the most voters.

The difference between the real world and subscribing to the MMORPG is that we can’t cancel our subscription. I believe that in order to improve our democracy we have to separate out the incentives — free market is money, votes are not able to be influenced by money — or we have to change how we keep score.

If we do not, no one is going to be there to nerf the things that make our real world unfair and inequitable. Our game is broken.

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