Monday, February 05, 2007

Computer Games, Dual Maximands, and Libertarian Paternalism

In the computer game _World of Warcraft_, each character has a quest log used to keep track of his current quests. Currently it has 25 slots, which means that if you have 25 quests you have accepted but not yet completed you cannot take another one until you deal with one of those.

Suppose someone proposes that the number be increased to 50. A possible—I think correct—argument against doing so would be that a larger quest log would make the game less fun, since the player would be less inclined to focus on a particular set of related in game projects. An obvious libertarian response to that argument would be that if a player found the game more fun with only 25 slots in his quest log he could always choose to leave the other 25 slots empty, thus imposing the old rule on himself.

Thus the restriction, assuming (as I do) that it cannot be justified in terms of the effect on other players, appears to be a form of paternalism, a restriction imposed on the player "for his own good." It is libertarian paternalism insofar as it is coming out of a voluntary transaction between the player and Blizzard, the company making the game. Yet standard libertarian arguments seem to imply that such a restriction cannot improve the game and might make it worse, hence that it should not be in the interest of Blizzard to impose it.

What is wrong with the argument is that the player is engaged simultaneously in two rather different maximization exercises. One exercise, within the game, consists of trying to play it as well as possible—to gain experience in order that his character will go up in level, to collect gold, to get useful artifacts, to achieve whatever he has decided it would be fun to try to achieve. The other exercise, seen from outside the game, is to have as much fun as possible playing the game.

From the in game point of view a policy of always leaving half the quest slots empty makes no sense, since there will be situations where accepting a 26th quest makes it easier to achieve the in game objective. Part of the fun of a game is trying to play it well, and such a policy is inconsistent with doing so. Hence, from the out of game perspective, having Blizzard limit the number of slots is a way of aligning the incentives of the in game version of the player—to play well—with the objectives of the out of game version of the player—to enjoy the game.

I took World of Warcraft as my example because it is the game I am currently involved in. The same point would be even clearer in the context of a single player game. It is, I think, obvious that such a game is sometimes improved by imposting restrictions on the player that the player could, in game, impose on himself—because imposing those restrictions on himself would make no sense from the in game perspective as player even though it would make sense from the out of game perspective of one choosing to play. And in the case of a single player game the question of effects on other players does not arise.

It may occur to some readers that the situation I have described in the context of a game is in some ways similar issue to the issue dual maximization in ordinary life. Some people argue, persuasively, that it makes sense to think of each individual as two people, a short run pleasure maximizer and a long run self interest (for economists, present value of the future utility stream) maximizer. The second person tries in various ways to control the first in order to get him to give up short term gains in order to get greater long term gains. Thus the long-term me makes a resolution not to have ice cream for desert until he has lost three pounds, in the hope of imposing a cost in shame on the short-term me that will persuade him to keep the resolution, and so give him a reasonably short term incentive to eat less.

One might argue—some do—that paternalistic government policies can be justified as ways in which the state supports the long-term me against the short term me, and are thus analogous to the "paternalism" exhibited by Blizzard towards its customers. While this makes some theoretical sense, there is one very obvious and important difference. Blizzard's incentives are in most ways aligned with those of their customers, so it usually pays them to impose restrictions only if they make the game more fun. The government's incentives are not aligned with the interest of its citizens, long run or short run, so arguments that justify government intervention in our lives as some form of paternalism can be used—repeatedly have been used—to mask policies that benefit most of us in neither the short run or the long run.


Anonymous said...

Moreover you don't have to play WoW, you can play some other MMORPG without quest restrictions, or you can not play at all. There is no sovereignty of a game over you. Competitive States with not territorial sovereignty is just like anarchy, even if those states happen to offer paternalistic services.

Glen Whitman said...

This seems closely related to a more general point about the rules of games. Some kinds of rules are constitutive of a given activity (to use Frederick Schauer's terminology). The rules that define how chess pieces move do restrict game play, but they also define game play. Remove enough (any?) of those rules and you are no longer playing chess; thus, the existence of the rules is what enables you to play. Thus, constitutive rules do constrain behavior, but in a rather different manner from the way in which other rules like those imposed by a government do.

I suppose the main difference between chess and WoW is that WoW's game equipment (software) enforces the rules, whereas a chess board does not. People who want to play pseudo-chess (a game very much like chess in which rooks can move diagonally) instead of chess are free to do so -- but most chess players choose to play by the actual rules anyway. So the question is, if players could choose between WoW with the quest restriction and WoW without the restriction, which would they choose?

mlesich said...

You may actually want to consider the possibility that the limitatin was imposed for technical reasons, too many quests might actully slow the server down

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Anonymous said...

One idea behind RPG's (and for this matter FPS's) today is to simulate some sort of real life tasks/rules for example the need for your character to walk or the concept of gravity. This differs from other games such as chess which are based on other stricter more mathematical rules. I agree that the 25 entry quest log is at that size to make it more fun for gamers and a balance of short term and long term goals increases playability but another idea behind it could reflect on a more real life problem. This limit to 25 may stem from the idea that your character might only be able to memorize 25 at a time similar to how real memory works.

Also as posted above, certain rules might be set out because of resource limitations. Although in this case I don't think its such a big problem as it wouldn't take much memory to store a few more quests in a log book.

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