Mastering the Tragedy of the Commons.
My experience with Commons reflects the difficulties of incorporating competitive play elements into direct impact and real world games. The goal of Commons is abundantly clear: locate and report problems for city governments to fix. The moment a leaderboard starts tracking victors, however, personal goals arise that may threaten the benign intentions of the designers.
By no means did my eager teammate wish to sully the game experience for anyone. In fact, he considered “breaking the game” a form of play testing. When Commons becomes accessible to the public, there will be those seeking to “win” for less altruistic purposes. For direct impact game designers, competition is a double-edged sword. Healthy antagonism drives engagement, spurning on players to do a little bit better than their compatriots. Yet competitors may also seek to win at any cost. Meanwhile, those trailing behind in competitive games may feel excluded and lower their engagement.
At the Games for Change Festival earlier this week, Stake Hold’Em, a large-scale card game designed specifically for the event, faced similar setbacks as Commons resulting from the game’s competitive elements. A leaderboard tracked the participants’ scores during the conference. As the game progressed the front-runners became more obsessive, while those clearly lagging behind began withdrawing from the game. It certainly did not help that the winner of the game would receive an iPad 2, which fed the fanaticism of the leaders. While the game succeeded in fostering networking opportunities between festival attendees at first, the game devolved into a quite serious sparring match between players.
Commons offers no monetary incentives to win so far and never should. Regardless, merely having a “winner” at all can threaten to spoil the charitable intentions of the game. I am inclined to suggest the removal of all competitive elements in real world games for good. If a game is fun enough to encourage play, why try to incentivize play any further by fostering antagonistic relationships? Simply put, many are simply not fun enough without competition. The solution? Rethink leaderboards, offer a variety of “win” conditions that refresh regularly, and try to keep cutthroat play behavior to a minimum. Some designers are trying to make the world a better place here and they’ll need to keep their players’ priorities in check.