January 31, 2007

Farewell, Sweet Bunnies

by Nick Montfort · , 10:00 am

Liberty Arcade is a collection of interactive games that illustrate fundamental concepts from the social sciences. These games are designed to provide you with a better understanding of the underlying processes at work in modern, complex societies. Play the games, have fun and, by all means, think for yourself!

Tragedy of the Bunnies Very well! Let’s check out the quarterless arcade of The Institude for Humane Studies, “a unique organization that assists undergraduate and graduate students worldwide with an interest in individual liberty.” The game from Liberty Arcade that I’ll look at now is a simple but telling one, Tragedy of the Bunnies. It was created in 2004; the author doesn’t seem to be credited anywhere obvious. This exceedingly straightforward Flash game comes complete with an explanation of the “Moral of the Story,” so that if people don’t learn through gameplay, they’ll still be able to discover that…

As any economist will tell you, people respond to incentives. If there’s a valuable resource lying about in a commons—picture a pizza at a frat party—people will try and grab as much of that resource as they can before the resource is depleted. This response is natural—it’s an example of people responding to incentives. In other words, in a zero-sum game, you need to “get while the getting is good”. The more other people get, the less there is for you.

The game presents a “public bunnies” and “private bunnies” version for play, each with two rounds. To have bunnies in the second round, some bunnies must remain unplucked in the first so that they can reproduce. In the public version, insane bunny merchant opponents almost inevitably remove all the bunnies so that one cannot proceed to round two. In the private version, the player has his or her own bunny pen. This insulates one from the insanity of other bunny merchants, who are known to have overplucked in the past. But it gets better – fortunately, the advent of private enterprise seems to soothe the mania of the computer-run bunny harvesters, who learn to behave themselves.

The game is an interesting contrast to Jason Rohrer’s more communalist Cultivation, which offers a richer model that is not perfect, but gets at the core issues in a much more playable, enjoyable, and rich way. I think there is some use in the core model of Tragedy of the Bunnies, in some settings, but there are several problems with the poverty of the simulation as it is offered. Rohrer’s game shows people responsible for locating seeds, planting them, and watering them – across many “human” generations – and allows for private/public mixing by allowing intersecting plots. In Tragedy of the Bunnies you can only annihilate the rabbity targets or spare them. Perhaps the most interesting critique of the game would not be based on the limited, didactic gameplay per se, but would note that it associates libertarian philosophy with the reductionist one-click removal of creatures from the environment, although the more commons-oriented game that deals with similar topics considers the environment and the life cycle in a much richer way.

On a more purely social scientific note, I have read about and have directly seen behavioral economics experiments; these have revealed limitations in the simplest classic models, such as the one this game seems to be based on. It’s hard to take seriously a model that represents the ecology and community (even in a sketchy way) when there is such good evidence that people’s utility functions are not simply linear in bunnies. People also appear to value equality of results to some extent, or something like it, feeling guilty when others do worse than then and envying those who do better. I don’t see this captured directly in either Cultivation (which is not trying to be a game about economics) or Tragedy of the Bunnies (which is). Perhaps both of them leave a least a bit of room for players to contemplate this. You can see your neighbors’ results and think about them as you assess how well you did, after all.

Incidentally, the seeming insanity of one’s the opponent may be motivated by some underlying economic model that is implemented in the game. But it’s impossible to tell in this simple system. The limited interaction and opaque nature of the simulated NPCs keeps the player from learning more about anything like this.

While Tragedy of the Bunnies isn’t a stellar game, I’m glad it was made. It is yet another attempt to crate a playable computer model that encapsulates arguments – economic arguments, in this case. I don’t find it very fun or persuasive, but it does manage to be dialectic, as it was intended to be. It gives serious gamers something to think about, bloggers something to write about, and game developers of different philosophical and economic leanings something to react to in kind, if they care to do so. Perhaps it will lead to a richer libertarian answer to Cultivation, to games that incorporate behavioral economics, and to other ways of thinking about society through games. That would be a decent achievement for a Flash program that just lets you click on rabbits.