Series Info...Engines of Creation #5:

Consent of the Governed

by Dave Rickey
July 29, 2003

WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Anyone who has worked on one of these games very quickly becomes aware of the quasi-governmental role the operator finds himself in. It is the developer who holds the power over the online world, not just of life or death, but of existence or non-existence. As the entire world is a product of machine code, things are possible for the online game operator that simply could not happen in the real world. Repeal the Law of Gravity, sweep back the tide, give out $50 every Thursday, few of the things that limit the authority of even the most extreme of dictators is beyond the capability of an MMO operator, if they decide to do so.

And even so, so many of the same sad stories have played themselves out, in some sort of hyper-accelerated recapitulation of history. Repeatedly, the developers have found themselves for having failed to deliver on "promises" they didn't even remember making. "[Class X] is a formidable fighter" is a disposable piece of marketing fluff to the developer, but to the player who reads it and bases on it his picture of the character of Class X he will create in the game, it represents a solemn promise. And so the developer and the player stare at each other in mutual incomprehension, unable to grasp why the other cannot see the blatantly obvious truth of their position, brought to stammering, incomprehensible rage by the other's obtuse refusal to talk *sense*.

There's a very old idea, with its roots in the Enlightenment, of an implicit Social Contract between the powers that govern and those that are governed. Like many Enlightenment ideas, slight variations of the idea have been invested with almost religious importance, so my interpretation of it is sure to get me attacked as a heretic by *somebody*. As may be, to me the Social Contract breaks down to this: A self-sustaining dynamic where the powers that govern do nothing to trigger revolt by those that are governed.

Note that I say nothing about agreements, explicit or implicit, by impartial rational judges or otherwise. Very simply, those that govern do so, mostly in their own interest. Those that are governed simply get on with their lives, except when something makes them unsatisfied (whether actually a result of the governance or not). Both sides simply ignore the desires and actions of the other unless it is brought to their attention in a way they cannot ignore. On those occasions, those that govern are primarily interested in making the governed return to their state of blissful ignorance, those that are governed for their own part mostly want the same. However, the logic triggering the actions of both is mostly opaque to the other. Even when explicitly explained by a knowledgable interpretor, neither will really understand what the other is saying.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the operation of online games. Certainly the divide, at least at this initial stage, should be very narrow, with tech-savvy hardcore gamer geeks making up both sides. The developer simply wants to make the game, do something interesting for a living, and make money. The player simply wants to play the game, hang out with their friends, and have fun.

Yet the mutual incomprehension is as deep and complete as anything to be found at a protest rally turned riot. Game developers cannot comprehend why anyone could be willing to admit that Class X is not weak or unenjoyable, and yet still insist that it is not adequate. Players cannot understand how the official description of a class can be so different from the reality of how it plays, and the gap considered unworthy of attention.

The parallels go deeper, at the head of every game development team sits an executive (absolute monarch, King) who has the final word on everything in the game (his Word is Law). However, this executive is usually far too busy with business issues (affairs of state) to deal with the day to day operation of the game, so he depends on senior managers (Crown Officers) to manage it. They in turn deal almost entirely with their own staff (the court). At the lowest stage of this hierarchy, you have the CSR's (the bailiffs, judges, and tax collectors) who deal with the actual customer (the mob). No-one below the level of the development staff (the court) has even enough authority to speak with those that can make decisions (the court again, with approval by the Officers), no-one below the senior management (Officers) has the authority to speak to the executive (the King) and the whole point of this structure is to keep the only person with real authority (the King) from even knowing anything at all is happening, if he has to get involved he feels there has been a failure by his subordinates.

So in the end you wind up with a literally Byzantine bureaucracy whose over-riding goal is not to be caught holding the bag when something goes wrong and the executive in charge is forced to make a decision directly. And woe to the poor bastard who decides it's their job to be the bearer of bad news (at least beheadings are out of fashion). None of this is the result of any conscious effort to recreate the evils of feudalism for a digital age, it's simply the natural human response to a power dynamic that places absolute authority into the hands of a single person when the scale of that authority exceeds his ability to actually exercise it. And we're a long way from granting players a seat at the table, we have in most ways not even reached the Magna Carta (which placed limits on the power the King could exercise against the nobility, and didn't do much for the serfs).

However, there is one significant right open to the players: The right of departure. If not for that, we might have to repeat the whole sorry evolution, step by step. But if the players leave, the recriminations inside the court are likely to get interesting, but the players, at least, will not have to care. Raph Koster, in his Small Worlds talk, mentions how online game developers need to adopt the PR techniques of politicians in order to manage online communities. I would go a step further, and claim that they need to adopt the actual techniques of political organization those techniques operate within. It is necessary to find ways to dilute authority in order to create the checks and balances that can actually manage these worlds, rather than just avoid rebellion, before we can really hope to see progress and truly durable games.

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