PUG Life

…the Ultimatum Game has been tried in a variety of different cultures, and it turns out that selfishness and market forces are indeed correlated. The surprise is that they are correlated in the opposite way you might expect. Markets support generous interactions with strangers rather than undermining them. What this means is that the less integrated market transactions are in a given society, the less generous its members will be to one another in anonymous interactions.

Far from being incompatible with communal sharing, exposure to market logic actually increases our willingness to transact generously with strangers, in part because that’s how markets work. When I am selling something, the economic nature of the transaction actually erodes my interest in how (or whether) I know the buyer. The market acquaints people with the utility of making transactions with people you don’t know and with the idea, however implicit, that those transactions are an appropriate way of interacting with strangers.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

PvE MMOs, like markets, teach us to value strangers. Even if you think they are tremendous idiots, they are potentially of value to you. They stock the auction house and buy your stuff. They fill out your groups and rarely do so badly that they cause a wipe. You may have had quite a few random dungeon groups where you won without speaking to some of your teammates. It is hard to prey upon strangers, easy to coordinate with them, hard to suffer much at their hands, and very easy to squelch them if they are problematic. Putting your virtual life in strangers’ hands is just something you do on a daily basis. Jerks are notable rather than the assumed default. The closest we get to “nature, red in tooth and claw” is when many people want to click on the same thing at once.

Plato’s Republic is introduced as an argument against the view that justice is helping your friends and hurting your enemies. Markets (and MMOs) have done more for that view than philosopher-kings ever have, promoting a cosmopolitan perspective that strangers are more likely to be potential partners than threats. Once you are used to the view that you trade value for value, and there is no transaction to be had unless you both value trading/working together over what you can do separately, every transaction is a likely mutually beneficial one (otherwise you would not do it). There are MMOs where you kill anyone who is not obviously part of your alliance, but most of us are self-conditioning to view strangers as neutral-at-worst rather than neutral-at-best.

: Zubon

9 thoughts on “PUG Life”

  1. A very insightful point.

    I wish I could add more, but I’ll have to chew on the point that you’ve made. Just wanted to acknowledge an excellent post.

  2. Hmm; I do agree that MMOs are mostly positive conditioning on the stranger front, but for all the neutral-at-worst delights that strangers can offer there is always a cost to interactions – time.

    Personally I could be much more generous in MMOs – in terms of sociability and shinies – if I were only willing to expend the leisure time too.
    If I could simply help people with their combat goals without the prospect of dealying for them now or fielding further request later… no problem!
    If I could dispatch each item I loot to a needing home – rather than the vendor – with a single click… a-ok!

    I’m massively more willing to help people in a work-place or other real-life setting, where in my wiring it’s the ‘proper’ use of time as a decent human being.
    But, when I’m gaming, my own time is just that: my own time.
    If I viewed my fellow players more as potential partners than potential timesinks, I probably wouldn’t have disabled the local chat channel in pretty much every MMO I’ve ever played. ^_^

    To put a little twist on Oscar Wilde’s famous quote:
    “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either convenient or inconvenient.”

  3. Unfortunately, these results don’t quite ring true for the average person. It goes against the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism.

    One of the justifications for capitalism (Objectivism for those keeping track of these things) is that it channels humanity’s natural desires and selfishness. If I have a bunch of money you want and you have a car I want, then we arrange a trade that benefits both of us. Ideally, that is away from “unfair” restrictions (like government regulations), we should both feel like we benefited from the transaction. Following our “rational self-interest” (reasonable selfishness) causes both of us to benefit. This isn’t to say that generosity can’t be part of the system, but it’s not an expected part.

    We can see how this applies to PUGs pretty easily. WoW’s dungeon finder primarily reduced the cost of finding a party (making a transaction). People didn’t join a queue for altruistic reasons, they wanted to make a transaction where four other players fulfilled the roles that were strictly required to personally benefit. We can see from the countless stories of “gogogo”, dropping at the first sign of a wipe, whiny DPS, or the self-importance some tanks and healers placed upon themselves that altruism was about the last thing on many peoples’ minds.

    I think the disconnect here comes from a macro vs. micro perspective. Taking a wide view, people probably can be more generous to each other in some situations given that the free market shows the advantages of being able to cooperate with a stranger. But, in a micro environment where selfishness is the rule of the day, I some think people are less inclined to be generous overall. And, as with most things, it’s going to be the negative experiences that stick with you more.

    My philosophical meanderings.

  4. This really doesn’t add terribly much to what’s been said already, I just wanna say I want to hug all of your brains. There are some smart cookies here.

  5. I wonder now if your run of the mill vanilla MMO (depending on your taste for vanilla that could very well mean all of them) simply doesn’t encourage players to value other players by design.

    As a soloist I can see this very well every time I log in. To anything. Most of what I do doesn’t require others and the only times I need to tap into the community for assistance, I only need 4-5 of them and this cooperation is kept strictly at a per-encounter/instance basis.

    In other words – MMOs largely don’t tend to go for community-wide goals in which players do need the input (whatever that input is) from large amounts of other players. It seems this sort of thing is always abstracted.

    Take a nation at war, for example. Say, the U.S. in WWII. “Going to war” meant a huge nation effort; production, transport, logistics, security, the army itself, etc. A coordinated effort of all directly involved. Now compare this to, say, Horde vs. Alliance and while we’re instructed to grok that there’s a conflict there, there is no coordinate effort towards it. Players can perfectly exist without minding it one bit and without having to do anything to further that factional goal.

    So I guess we don’t tend to value more players past our immediate group for the instance (and that’s temporary anyway) or our immediate guild because the design doesn’t require us to. We’re given no tangible, in-game means for us to assign value to our faction/server/game community. They exist as an entity, somewhere around us, and we rarely need to come in direct contact with it.

    The flipside to all this is that, in some cases, it’s better this way; counter-intuitive as it might sound, you don’t want to put a player’s fun in the hands of other players because it will backfire sooner or later. When players aren’t around, don’t want to collaborate or just feel like being asshats, that player’s fun is gone. Imagine if -everything- you could do in an MMO -required- the active input of other players and you’ll see this point clear and why we generally don’t want this.

    If MMOs are capitalistic in nature I think it’s only because socialism hasn’t even been tried properly yet in them.

  6. He’s wrong on this, possibly because he hasn’t had much of the interaction he claims. I don’t want to write a book, but markets do not increase generosity through transactions, market sanctions do. When sanctions don’t exist, people do not act generously and value strangers at all.

    Two quick examples: getting your corp bank scuttled by a spy in EVE, paying 500% markup on an HDMI cable at Best Buy. Neither have effective sanctions, so both get away with it as much as possible.

  7. Hell of a way to think about MMOs. I think the point about strangers is a tad too generalized though. Most capable players find random strangers either exceedingly incompetent, or extremely obnoxious.

Comments are closed.