Designing Real Life

Lately, if I give my mind sufficient idle cycles, it may meander over to matters of social commentary in ways that only high gas prices and an upcoming presidential election can.

Considering how hopeless it would be to assume that a humble layman (let alone a computer game addict) such as myself could ever have any chance of understanding the U.S. political landscape, I instead have had fun with this thought instead: “What if we frame designing our societies in real life in much the same way as if were designing a MMORPG?”

Real life could be said to be more complicated than designing games in that the creator of the rule system has a whole lot less freedom over governing the nature of reality. If we wanted people to stop killing themselves in “Middle East Conflict: The MMORPG,” we just code it so players can’t attack players. No such luck for reality.

That said, the comparison still works in a certain level. The laws and other functions we adopt as a society are definitely intended to have the effect of the “carrots” (incentives) and “sticks” (punishments). These really function pretty identically to the mechanics of a MMORPG, only presenting difficulty in making sure they’re properly enforced so they work.

In an example of a minor MMORPG snafu, you might accidentally make a single repeatable quest the most desirable in the game by giving a disproportionately larger reward than the other quests. The result is that players start fighting over the mobs involved in this quest while all the other content in the game goes unused.

The same thing happens in real life in the scenario of a blue light special resulting in this season’s favorite Christmas toy being on sale for 80% off. You could hear the cries of trampled housewives from the next town.

Incentive: Money

This brings me into the whole concept of capitalism and how it’ll either work or fail depending how it’s designed. The idea behind money in real life, as in a game, is to provide an incentive for the citizens/players to act.

MMORPGs generally make gold magically appear off of every mob you kill. Sooner or later, it accumulates to the point where you’ve bought everything you could ever want and the mobs still keep dropping gold. When inflation happens, it’s game breaking, money becomes more and more inadequate. Eventually, you simply can’t function without a higher level player providing some seed money.

The same applies to monetary systems in real life. To even start to open the can of worms that is economics would take the economic training of a legion, so I’ll stick to reiterating the moral we just learned: “Allowing people to sit on a massive amount of money requires a design that generates more more and this will inevitably lead to inflation.”

The American dream is to get rich – accumulate, accumulate, accumulate. However, from a MMORPG design perspective, does this really work? The result of haves and have-nots mirrors reality to a startling degree. As an societal incentive, money seems off – it needs to circulate more than it does, perhaps be rendered unable to accumulate at all.

To keep the players seeking the proper incentives, and doing the right thing, is key. So why is it that it seems the people involved in wrongdoing make so much sometimes? From a MMORPG design perspective, it’s clearly faulty.

The Designer Is Key

You really have to hope that those in charge of designing the game want to make a good game. If you’re not designing for the good of the game, then what are you designing for?

Take the example of the power mad Dungeon Master who slaughters the entire party with an impossible challenge just so he can have the satisfaction of winning. No game can survive that kind of treatment for long, and therein lay the danger of corrupt officials in office.

In this way, it’s clear that it’s absolutely imperative that those who make the rules have the best interest of the people in mind. Otherwise, the “carrots” and “sticks” end up in the wrong place, and the game gets less and less enjoyable. In politics, that game is what governs the way you live your life.

That said, it is important to give the designer some leeway. Your politicians are only human, after all. However, the placement of the carrots and sticks are awfully telling as to their actual intentions. Who is being given the greatest incentives, and why? It’s probably a bad sign if the designer is afraid to tell the players why they needed to make the adjustments they did.


So, the next time you hear of some major political altercation, frame it in the perspective of if you were designing a MMORPG. Why did the designer put those carrots and sticks where they are? How will it impact the world you live in? The result might be humorous or shocking, and maybe you shouldn’t take it too seriously, but in any case it should be an interesting exercise.

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