Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mastering the Tragedy of the Commons

My latest PopMatters article is now live: 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.


  1. This was a fascinating read, Jorge. Thanks!

    I think Commons brings up a lot of questions both about "gamification" and the efficacy of games for social change.

    On one hand, I think getting people involved in their community is great. Attention to problems never hurts. However, like you, I'm a bit wary of making this a competitive thing. Ultimately, isn't "winning" the game getting the city infrastructure repaired? Is designating "winners" just detracting focus from the real problem and giving those with material and social advantages (e.g., iPhones, technological literacy, free time to play the game) an unfair advantage in getting their needs met? It seems that people have an innate love for points, and that this game is trying to exploit that compulsion to positive ends, but is this a sustainable or ethical approach to solving a problem? Should people really need an arbitrary award for civic engagement? Again, the effort is commendable, I'm just a bit uneasy about the execution.

    On a larger scale, it seems that this game might suffer from the Underpants Gnome business plan:

    Phase 1: Play game to identify problems
    Phase 2: ???
    Phase 3: Fix the city

    In this case, Phase 2 is getting politicians to act on the requests that come from the game. I have a hunch that city hall already knows that certain sections of town need work. The real trick is to mobilize the required political and financial capital needed to fix potholes. Is there any data that suggests that this game will somehow convince politicians to act on constituents' requests? Does it do anything to address the corruption and financial mismanagement that help cause infrastructure problems? Without long term political solidarity, elected officials have little incentive to take the requests that come out of Commons seriously. In the worst-case scenario, the game then becomes an ARG for wealthy people who actually benefit from the city's increasing decrepitude in twisted way: the worse the city gets, the higher their point totals. Places like Detroit or West Oakland would then be turned into high-point zones for people looking to win the game, rather than people who actually want to work towards change.

    All this comes off as overly cynical, as I think this actually is a very cool idea. I wish governments themselves would adopt a system like this and then turn it into a stat by which to measure elected officials. The number of high-value requests politicians acted on would be an interesting stat to have, especially when election time rolls around. Why not shift the "gamification" side of this game onto the politicians, rather than the people?

    I'm looking forward to seeing where all this goes. Good stuff!

  2. @Scott

    Only for city officials is improving a city a primary goal through the day. For most residents, and certainly for myself, I'll spot something that needs to be fixed and just shake my had at the inadequacy of our local government rather than do anything about it. So I think civic engagement coming second to "gamey" (ick) immersion is not necessarily unethical or unsustainable. The problem is when game elements subvert even the secondary goal (or the developer's primary goal).

    As for the Underpants Gnome business plan, you are absolutely right. I think hope barely shines through in a couple of places. One, if participants are aware their game info is being reported to city government then city officials cannot claim ignorance if the problem remains. In some ways it gives participants another tool to make claims on government. Second, if the game succeeds in changing citizens' outlooks on their own city enough to have them engage with their local govt. w/o the game as a mediator. Or at the very least, maybe a different game can handle the political mobilization problem.