Editor's Note

Editor's Note
The Dick Tax

Russ Pitts | 31 May 2011 13:03
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"It would be so nice if you weren't here." - Charles Grodin

The big man at valve, Gabe Newell, has announced via an interview with Develop that he is exploring alternate revenue models for online gaming. His plan: charge people for being dicks and reward those we aren't.

This reminds me of the excellent book by the actor Charles Grodin, in which he recounts a tale of shooting a movie on-location in an old woman's home. The woman, who for some reason had become disenchanted with the continual distraction of having a house full of filmmakers, said to Grodin: "It would be so nice if you weren't here."

That is, essentially, what Newell is saying to certain customers of his business. Gabe's new plan would essentially create two classes of player: Good Guys and Bad Guys. Good Guys would be those who are well-liked (or who create things like hats) and Bad Guys would be those whom others do not enjoy playing with. The Good Guys would be charged a minimal fee to play or be given rewards for playing, while the Bad Guys would pay full price, and perhaps be charged extra to engage in optional activities like voice chat.

"The industry has this broken model, which is one price for everyone," says Newell. "That's actually a bug, and it's something that we want to solve through our philosophy."

This should sound familiar to you, and not only if you've read Grodin's book. What Newell is espousing is the evergreen utopian ideal that goes something like this: If only everyone were different, everything would be perfect. It's a nice thought and a particularly insidious one because in spite of being simple to the point of absurdity, it's practically improvable, which to those of "the elephant deterrent is working because you can't see any elephants" school means it is therefore The Truth. Yet no evidence actually exists that this theory is, in fact, truth and for good reason: It isn't. It's just a theory. One that people in ivory towers like to throw around when they see something nasty they don't like.

Why does this theory fail? Because people do not change. That's not to say that specific people do not - on occasion - change. Rare individuals certainly do, from time to time, make change in their own lives. But the vast, teeming organism that is human behavior cannot and will not change. Ever. As the great philosophers Depeche Mode once said, "People are people." So why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully online, you (or Gabe) may ask? See the first part: People are people.

Utopian idealists who seek to create a perfect world by harnessing the power of individuals to change almost unilaterally fail to notice that when those individuals are doing so, it is for the same reason that others do not: for their own self-interest. Change is not motivated through a desire to create a perfect world, it is motivated by the desire to better oneself, or one's station. If utopian idealism alone were enough to foster rapid and meaningful change on a global economic or social level, there would be no crime, nor pollution, nor violence. The fact these things still exist points to nothing more or less than the fact that self-interest is and always will be the prime motivator for human beings. People are people.

That's why Valve's proposed program is compelling. It posits that a perfect world - in which people who play together online are pleasant, positive and productive - is, in fact, possible, but that it will only come about if the behavior of individuals can be moderated by manipulating their self-interest. Charging mean people more money to be around nice people sounds like a great plan on paper, but assumes that negativity or positivity are changeable states that are entered into willingly. They aren't. People typically behave the way they behave because that is who they are. While I'll be the first to acknowledge that the anonymity and seemingly consequence-free interactivity on the internet tends to breed dickishness, the unavoidable truth is that most people who are dicks online are also dicks at home. You just don't notice because you never go there.

Let's assume, though, that there's some meat to this theory. That people are, in fact, malleable and can change their ways when properly motivated. Is charging them more or less depending on their behavior going to influence their behavior? I suggest it will, but not in the way Valve expects.

No matter how much the company may skew the definition of "Good Guy" toward those who are simply "slightly optimistic," the fact is that many, many people will be left out. You will have a class of individuals on the positive end who are the beneficiaries of discounts and kickbacks, and on the other end, you will have those who are saddled with the full retail price of the game they are playing and being charged extra for the extras. In the middle, however, you will have those who lack the time to be noticeably popular, the skill to be successfully competitive or the creativity to make hats.

In order to make the benefits of positivity appetizing enough to motivate change, the disparity between Haves and Havenots must be substantial, but in creating a substantial divide between the two, Valve will, in essence, be contributing to the problem of negativity, not avoiding it. Average players of average likeability and creativity will likely become disenfranchised and alienated, discouraged from participating at all once their own, less visible brand of positivity will have been invalidated, or less richly-rewarded.

That's not even to mention the possibility that those who are most likely to be gigantic assholes online are just as likely to shrug off the additional expense as they are to avoid it. The rate hike may even encourage more negativity, since those who choose to behave badly will, after paying full price (a Dick Tax, in effect) feel emboldened and validated, having paid for the right to engage in their dickish behavior. Can one genuinely deny members of a community the right to behave as they wish after charging them a premium for the way they behave? It will be interesting to find out, for sure.

Let's set aside dissent for a moment and assume this plan is brilliant, and that it cannot possibly fail to elicit the desired result: an absence of dicks. What's left? Taking the plan as-presented, with the assholes out of the picture, what will be left is a utopia free of negativity in which everyone on a server gets along with everyone else, and all is positivity and light. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The only problem with this picture is its flawed perception of human nature.

We are, in fact, talking about a competitive environment. Even among friends, online gaming can be a source of strife if one player wins too much, or another too infrequently. How long, then, until these perfect, positive people start to piss each other off? I'd wager not long, people being people.

What then? Do the definitions of Good Guy and Bad Guy skew? Do we cut away an ever-thinner slice of digital humanity until the community whittles itself into nothingness? This would, in fact, ultimately result in the desired goal and I would argue is the only way to achieve it. For the only perfect community is the community of one - or of one mind, and historically speaking, all well-intended utopian pogroms end the same: in tyranny.

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