The Home Invasion

Game Design in the Transfigured World


The Argument

  • In the imminent world of fast-constant-ubiquitous net, new reputation economies will pervasively reshape culture as dramatically as the invention of money. Entirely novel kinds of human interaction will spawn new social classes, power structures and lifestyles. Reputation economies will be abstractions of relationships, in the same way that money abstracts material wealth and labor.
  • In this context, reputation economies will benefit from simulations originally developed for electronic and tabletop roleplaying games.
  • Who can engineer this new social institution? The people with the most appropriate skill set: game designers.

Always On
Node, a company in the Welsh town of Usk, makes the Node Explorer:

This is a robust location aware media player – a small hand held computer with stereo headphones, which downloads relevant information from a server, guiding the user via GPS (Global Positioning System) as they walk around their environment. The Explorer’s integrated location sensors and hidden wireless technology are able to pinpoint the exact location of its user, triggering high quality images and broadcast quality sound and video, in the form most suitable, such as language, age group, and particular interest or special needs.

Museums and sports consortia are buying Node Explorers right now. Can anyone doubt that in a few years we’ll have gadgets like this in cell phones? First, we’ll use them as automated tour guides, or color commentary on big events. But eventually, someone will stop pointing his phone at the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the World Cup final, and start pointing it at you. What will he get? Your home page or Livejournal profile? Maybe at first, but what about another ten years on, or twenty? What about your great-grandkids, a hundred years on?

Once we get true ubiquitous computing, when we’re perpetually (un)wired, we’ll gradually develop instant access to every public fact about everybody. Online World will meet Meat World. A stranger on the street will ask you to loan him $20, and you’ll actually seriously consider his request. Why? Because you can see his name and address. More importantly, you can ping his whole social network and see how many of those who trust him are people you trust, or are trusted by people who are trusted by people you trust…

We’ll all be living the Kevin Bacon Game, instantly sussing all six degrees of separation from anyone we meet. Your standing with your immediate group of friends will remain important, but that social connection will extend powerfully to their friends, and their friends of friends. Among people who know you, you’ll still have a reputation; but in the larger world, you’ll have a simulated reputation.

What is a “simulated reputation”? It’s how people judge you if they’ve never heard of you. It’s your clan rank, forum karma, eBay feedback rating. It’s the size of your MySpace personal network and the strength of your World of Warcraft guild, but interoperating with and transferable to every other network. Simulated reputation generalizes from recognized institutions like military rank, knighthoods, titles and Who’s Who listings – some particular organization’s badge of approval. What if no organization handed out the badges? What if you made your own badges? Glory, brownie points, hacker leetness, street cred – Cory Doctorow’s 2003 science fiction novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, calls it “Whuffie,” a term he used in high school.

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.

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.

About the author