The Home Invasion

The Home Invasion
Game Design in the Transfigured World

Allen Varney | 29 Nov 2005 11:00
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After decades, nations will start to treat their citizens' standards-based electronic reputation as a basic human right, the way some today advocate that broadband should be a utility like power and water. Legislatures may create government bureaus to regulate and protect reputation-granting companies. Then, international bodies will regulate the bureaus, a la the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Game designers - rather, reputation designers - might be licensed like accountants and lawyers.

It's not utopia. Reputation systems could mean the death of privacy, as if it weren't already coughing up blood. Transnational clans, cliques, and cults, united by mutual regard or loathing for a common enemy, might make high school look as egalitarian as an AA meeting. Imagine walking down a quiet suburban street, oblivious that all around you a silent war is raging in cyberspace, bank accounts being emptied, reputations destroyed...

But reputation need not doom privacy or enflame rivalries. These are design issues. All these problems require a lot of good thinking by the people best skilled in simulation.

The Catbird Seat
Designers who read this may think, "Yeah, whatever. Is there any way to make money off this right now?" Not quite yet, though they can look for a nice living in five to fifteen years (while at least one entrepreneur, some czar of the reputation industry, will earn a Michael Dell-sized fortune). Yet, to ask how to make money off reputation is to miss the point. Reputation will become a goal in itself, both parallel and equal to money. And the designers who engineer its systems will be best situated to earn it.

True story: A major national department store chain has a three-ring binder in the credit department of each of its stores. The binder lists the occupations considered most desirable among credit-card applicants; the higher an occupation's score, the more likely it is the store will give credit to an applicant with that job. The binder lists "Writer" as one of the most desirable occupations. Now, most writers are terrible credit risks. Why, then, the high rating? Because the binder's text was recorded by - right! - a writer.

But let us conclude on a more elevated note. The game designer today occupies a nebulous social role, a mutant cross of technician, scenarist, entertainer, architect and sometimes even artist. The upcoming reputation economy offers ambitious designers a larger sphere, a chance to change the world and eventually transform the lives of millions. If you're up for it, start planning.

Allen Varney is a writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. This essay derives from his Guest of Honor speech at the Consternation gaming convention (Cambridge, UK), August 13, 2005.

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