September 26, 2007


by Mary Flanagan · , 8:50 pm

Michael Mateas and I are both representing at DiGRA 2007 in Tokyo. As you will see by the website, there are plenty of sessions here going on all week. I hope Michael and I can blog a few of the talks we found compelling.

Edward Castronova hosted an unusual interactive keynote yesterday, with a goal to demonstrate two things: the importance of the magic circle and fantasy, and the importance of creating sustainable systems.

Both of these things can manifest because of the particular rules governing these experiences. For the first part of the talk, Castronova explored the “tragedy of the commons” concept, one familiar to economics, political science, law, and game theory circles. The idea at least dates back to Aristotle, who said “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill” (Section III).

Using the common resource of coins and volunteers from the audience, Castronova modelled three commons systems: one based on Anarchy, one system based on a Dictatorship, and one system based on Democracy.

The tragedy of the commons exercise represents the idea of limited resources in a common pool (and sustainability). Of Castronova’s three versions of the game, the dictatorship featured the best outcome from the community (though Castronova himself chose the player who played the dictator, and by luck, the dictator was belevolent). Castronova made the point that “The free market vs the social optimum conflict each other.” This is a common problem: overfishing, pollution, traffic jams, etc. To Castronova, these are all classic market failures in economic discourse. In these cases, acting in self interest makes one miserable.

Castronova dramatically shifted during the second half of his talk to discuss “refuge” and the need for safe fantasy play spaces, the need for “protective covenants” to keep games played according to the rules. Invoking his new child and Tolkein, Einstein, and Jung, he argued for the sanctity of virtual worlds. His defense of the magic circle was adamant. Ending his keynote by calling for “Play by the Rules,” he made a case to allow for safe, gratifying social contracts to happen, and to matter.