Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #205:

Strategic Insights: The Free Rider Problem

by Shannon Appelcline

Over the past several weeks I've been discussing questions of individual cost versus community good and how they can be applied to game design. Thus far I've written on The Prisoner's Dilemma and The Tragedy of the Commons. This week I'm going to be finishing up that discussion with a look at a final model, called The Free Rider Problem, an economic issue of paying for what you get, collectively.

Defining the Free Rider Problem

The Free Rider Problem has, like The Tragedy of the Commons, been discussed by philosophers since at least Ancient Greece. One of my sources suggests that it was best formalized by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action. Olson states:

Unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.

More specifically, the Free Rider Problem addresses whether individuals will pay for a community good, or whether they will freeload, presuming that other people will do so for them. It's the most applicable to widespread benefit systems like a labor union or governmental services. Clearly everyone benefits from higher wages, from police departments, from fire departments, and from other services offered globally. However, without compelling reasons, many people would hope that the benefits would continue without their individual help. The typical answer to this problem has been to require participation. Everyone must (usually) join a union and everyone must pay taxes, for example.

However in a situation without such mandatory participation, the Free Rider Problem rises up in its entirity. This tends to result in one of two things. Either a smaller number of people pay an undue portion of the cost, or the whole system collapses because too many people freeload in an attempt to gain individual benefit. Tragically, many of these freeloaders would have been willing to pay the costs if they knew that collapse would otherwise be the result.

Based on these definitions, we can include the following requirements for a good model of The Free Rider Problem:

  • Some sort of shared benefit.
  • Degradation or loss of that benefit through insufficient support.
  • Personal gain through not offering support.

Applying the Free Rider Problem to Board Games

Generally the Free Rider Problem faces the same issues that the Tragedy of the Commons did when we applied it to boardgames.

First, we have to assume a shared resource at all. As we already discussed last time, this type of model isn't common in board games, but given the three topics we've been discussing, we're probably already thinking about it.

Second, we have to create a method for a resource to fail if insufficient support is offered. This could mean that we have to model degeneration, as we did with the Tragedy of the Commons, but it's also possible to imagine a more all-or-nothing approach, where the resource becomes totally unusuable if insufficient support is offered. This might work well as a blind bid, where players all simultaneously offer up their support, then grit their teeth if they find out it wasn't enough.

We finally have to address the results of the Problem in a board game environment. To create the most interesting Problem we probably need to offer five tiers of results:

  1. The player who freeloads off a resource successfully.
  2. The player who pays more than his fair share but still earns off a resource.
  3. The player who doesn't have access to the resource.
  4. The player who freeloads, and then accrues some penalty when the resource collapses. (This is ultimately a tier that isn't required by the Problem, but is required by good game design.)
  5. The player who pays more than his fair share, then has the resource collapse.

Note that we consider players both involved in this particular Problem (#1-2,4-5) and those who aren't (#3). This is important because in an alternate situation where everyone in a game were involved, freeloading becomes the most viable strategy, just as we similarly saw the defection strategy in an all-player Prisoner's Dilemma. Conversely, having just some people involved in an individual Problem allows them to be punished in the larger game if their individual resource fails and rewarded if it doesn't, which is what's ultimately required to make the Problem interesting.

Existing Free Rider Mechanics

Remarkably there's a game out that explicitly and purposefully models the Free Rider Problem, Bruno Faidutti's Terra. He discusses applying the paradox on his web site.

In Terra, each turn players can either play cards to address global problems or else they can hoard them to score personal points. The biggest problem that it has is that noted above: because the players all rise or fall together within a single Problem, the winner is always the one who was greedy, provided that everyone didn't lose because of his greediness. Some players have suggested that the game would work better if it really "mattered" whether everyone won or lost, and that's the same idea with having a subset of players participate in an individual Free Rider Problem. It has to matter if everyone fails.

Another game that sort of skirts around the problem is the very recent E.T.I. Therein players are trying to stave off an alien invasion, and they do so by constructing projects. Each project has varying levels of Defense--which holds the aliens off--and Fame--which gives the player victory points. Clearly, fame-hoarders are free riders, just like those people that save up their own cards in Terra. However, because Defense ultimately applies to an individual player's survival (and thus success), the decisions aren't quite as all-or-nothing as in Terra.

More broadly, the Free Rider Problem is a part of the social fabric of any strategy game where other players can do something at cost to hurt the leader. To give everyone else a better chance of winning, one player must make the expenditure, and if everyone jointly fails to do so, it's to all their deficit. (Usually this devolves into the last-possible person making the game-saving moving, which is a simple but workable solution.)

A Free Rider Mechanic

To explicitly model the Free Rider mechanic as a game system requires very specific costs and returns. I've come up with two examples for this one.

The Market. Imagine a set of markets, each offering different goods, and each allowing multiple players to participate. An individual market allows players to turn the specified good into money and also has a set running cost.

Players start out by laying out their goods for sale, then secretly offer up an amount of money to pay the running costs for the market. If the running cost is paid by the secret bids, then each player gets to sell his good for a very tidy profit. If the running cost is not paid, then each player loses his good entirely.

Thus, there's alll the balances I talked about--excessive gain for the participants if the market succeeds and excessive loss if it fails--and all in a very organic manner.

The Subway. It wouldn't be the Free Rider Problem without an alternative game mechanic that models some sort of public transportation (in brief). Imagine a game where the object is to move passengers around a subway system, but where all costs are paid in common by all the players.

During the game, passengers ride specific subways. Each turn, a blind bid is held for each subway. Depending on the level of success of the blind bid, the subway could continue at its normal speed, go slower, or go faster, thus contributing to the success and failure of the players using that particular subway.

Applying the Free Rider Problem to Reality TV Show

In my last article I talked about how the Tragedy of the Commons applied naturally in reality game shows like Survivor, for example when a player ate more than their share. Similarly, the Free Rider Problem applies naturally in such game shows to those players who sit around camp not helping while their fellows build shelters, get food, etc. Because it's a real social problem, it's become a natural part of the game.

Survivor has occasionally made it more obvious who the Free Riders are by, for example, giving food and goodies to players who opt not to participate in an Immunity Challenge--thus placing the burden of forcing out opponents on a smaller group of tribe members. Similarly Big Brother has given people tropical vacations and cash in return for losing points in a head-of-household or veto competition. These situations have both resulted in recriminations and other social problems, underlining the importance of the issue.

Reality shows could choose to make the Problem an even more explicit part of the game if they wanted. For example, if each player was given a personal luxury at the start of the game, they could be secretly asked to turn them in to earn more food for their group, and some players would and some wouldn't.

Similarly, voting could introduce the Free Rider Problem. Each player could secretly be offered the option to cast a vote or to get some personal benefit--like a call home. Inevitably with these incentives, Free Riders would develop, and in some unexpected cases, a collapse of a system would occur, for example if the wrong person got voted out.


It's interesting to see that the Free Rider Problem has received a decent amount of attention among reality TV shows, which just shows how much room there is to implement it in board games, particularly those that allow any sort of temporary alliance.

That's it for my intensive looks at these three problems of individual v. community good. Next time I'm going to more broadly address a final question: aren't they really all the same thing?

[ <— #204: Strategic Insights: The Tragedy of the Commons | #206: Strategic Insights: Three Community Issues —> ]

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