The Home Invasion

The Home Invasion
Game Design in the Transfigured World

Allen Varney | 29 Nov 2005 11:00
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From the prologue: "Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: In the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn't starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented - your personal capital with your friends and neighbors - you more accurately gauged your success."

Doctorow's novel doesn't deeply analyze the tech his Whuffie requires (what the book's narrator calls "that process stuff"). The book doesn't discuss who devises the rules by which people earn reputation - who keeps the system from being gamed to oblivion - who has the greatest experience in reputation simulation.

That would be game designers.

The Simulated Age
Simulation is the abstract modeling of real objects, phenomena, events or relationships. Practiced for centuries in warfare, simulation entered the wider culture with the arrival of practical computing; it first transformed science and economics, then aviation and other engineering disciplines. Simulation hit pop culture in the 1960s via hobbyist board and miniature wargames, and later in Dungeons & Dragons and thousands of tabletop and computer roleplaying games (RPGs).

Those who equate simulation with, say, flight simulators may not see how RPGs fit the definition. But every RPG tries to depict character abilities in a believable way, either realistically or according to the implicit rules of a fiction genre (fantasy, superheroes, space opera, cartoons, etc.). Most RPGs simulate combat in detail, and many also model skills, devices, vehicles and environmental effects. Some notable paper games quantify sanity (Call of Cthulhu), culturally conditioned personality traits (Pendragon), inter-character relationships like trust (The Mountain Witch) and romance (Breaking the Ice), and the willful escalation of conflict from words to violence (Dogs in the Vineyard), among many other interactions. In fact, paper and computer RPGs comprise the most comprehensive and finely grained body of simulations in the world.

The field's broad range indicates the strength of simulation. If you can quantify fear and anger, trust and distrust, romance and hatred, what human relationship can you not model? And having quantified these relationships, why not tackle the big one, the killer app, that fundamental instrument of social order? Why not simulate reputation?

The skills designers use to create roleplaying games are the same skills they'll use to devise reputation simulations.

Utility-Scale Simulation
The reputation economy is a disruptive innovation, like steam engines, cars, containerized shipping, personal computers and - the closest parallel - money. Developed 3,000 years ago, money has transformed the entire world, thoroughly and repeatedly. Like simulation, money is a deep idea; we keep gaining new insights about it, century after century.

Money is an abstraction, a tracking score for promises; it doesn't exist, yet people organize their lives around it. Money has not conquered the world, but seduced it. Unlike failed ideas such as communism, everyone buys into the idea of money because they see its benefit to them personally. Similarly, over generations, everyone will buy into a reputation economy. Its benefit becomes obvious to anyone who tries to, say, borrow $20 from a stranger.

The reputation economy will arise first in Earth's most heavily networked population, the communication industry's lab rat, South Korea. In North America, megacorporations will probably introduce the idea unwittingly, as part of corporate-sponsored online "lifegames" that reward real-world consumer loyalty with virtual-world advancement, and vice versa. Consumers will earn status in these proprietary games, using systems created by game designers; players will conduct business and earn real money, proving the value of such status. Inevitably, hackers will create some open source file format, the future equivalent of today's XML schema, to allow easy interchange of reputation across multiple games.

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