Thursday, September 03, 2009

Video Games, Economics, and Psychological Warfare

The Rationalist, like most 9 year old boys, loves to play video games. He could live his whole life without watching TV as long as he could play with his Wii. One of his favorite games is Mario Kart, a racing game which depends heavily on "power-ups" which the racers use in the midst of the game. Some power ups are offensive and can be used to injure other racers, others increase speed or make your vehicle indestructible for a short time.

Besides the strict racing portion of Mario Kart, there is also a "battle" mode. Characters accumulate coins or pop each other's balloons to earn points. The team with the most points wins. Pretty simple

In the last couple of months we have been using the Wii with our WiFi connection. Players can race real-time with other players from all around the world . This has fascinated The Rationalist. Knowing that his competitors are not simply computer-programmed characters, but are actual people who are simultaneously racing him has made his game that much more exciting. He spent the first month with WiFi racing people from Japan, Germany, Canada..etc.

More recently he has become obsessed with "battling" people and it has been an interesting thing to watch......or, more accurately, hear.

Not long after starting to "battle" his anger level started to rise and there would be explosive shouts and howls of frustration.


Because playing humans is much harder than playing a computer. Computers are indifferent and while programmed to be competitive are also fair.

The Rationalist has incredible skill in Mario Kart. In battles he accumulates points rapidly, quickly leading the pack. As a result, he becomes a target for the other players. Certain battles have a limited amount of coins. After they have all been accumulated, the only way to earn more is to attack other players, causing them to drop their coins, making them available for other players to swoop in and get.

This is war, folks. Limited resources with a high value which can only be taken by force. Anger at those who have the most resources. Grudges towards players who are better than most at accumulating those resources.

The Rationalist soon learned that being one of the best brings negative consequences. Some players would continue to target him even after he had lost his coins, simply out of spite, or to prevent his meteoric rise to champion coin collector again.

The game was no longer "fair" in the sense that it was even-handed towards every player. Instead the game had incorporated vendettas, economics, and the perception of an acceptable amount of "success" into a chaotic free-for-all.....which was quite fun but also more challenging than The Rationalist was used to.

The only way for The Rationalist to win was to continue to be one of the better players.....and to continue to hone his skills in fighting off the players who wanted to take him down.

There is a corollary somewhere in all that to the way society really works in a "grown-up" world.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Coalitions and cooperation are just starting to become part of the gaming world. In our evolutionary past, that is how we learned to deal with bad actors and the conscienceless. That's what we do in real life now, to prevent sociopaths from ruling every social situation. Folks band together. People make arrangements to lower their risk.I don't think it's well available in Wii games yet, but the potential for learning a lot about competition, cooperation, and social enforcement is enormous.

I can see some players enjoying protector or enforcer modes: I'll play for myself just like everyone else. But if some players cross over from competitive to just mean, I will spend the rest of the game hunting them down to punish them for that. Fun. Very satisfying.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for blog swapping with me... I'd love to hear how you got from Park Lane to Florida... There is much to catch up on... For example: Do you miss George Michael? How about the Bangles? Your old BFF Kim S? No, we don't have rabbits in TX. I'm at JULIE B.