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An emerald the size of a plover’s egg

January 29th, 2005

Readers of my previous post will have noticed that I don’t know much about MMPORPGs In fact, I don’t do much gaming these days, though I chewed up untold amounts of then-scarce mainframe computer time playing Adventure in the 1970s. Still my foray into the field has left me the kind of excitement you get the first time you wander into one of these domains and find precious jewels lying about everywhere.

I’m very interested in the implications of online communities of all kinds, and the motive that lead people to contribute to such communities. My idea du jour, playing off some thoughts of Yochai Benkler is as follows.

There are all sorts of motives which might lead people to contribute to networked social capital, for example by participating in various aspects of blogging (make posts and comments, linking and blogrolling, improving software, various kinds of metablogging). Possible motives include altruism, self-expression, advocacy of particular political or social views, display of technical expertise, social interaction and so on. In general, these motives are complementary or at least mutually consistent. However, motives like these do not co-exist well with a profit motive.

Why is this? At a superficial level, it’s obvious that people act differently, and are expected to act differently, in the context of relationships mediated by money than in other contexts. Behavior that would be regarded favorably in a non-monetary context is regarded as foolish or even reprehensible in a monetary context.

One of the most important general differences relates to rationality and reciprocity. In a non-market context, careful calculation of costs and benefits and an insistence on exact reciprocity is generally deprecated. By contrast, in market contexts, the first rule is never to give more than you get[1].

Why is it more important to observe this rule in market contexts? One reason is that markets create opportunities for systematic arbitrage that don’t apply in other contexts. In an environment where trust is taken for granted, a trader who consistently gives slightly short weight can amass substantial profits. This is much more difficult to do in ordinary social contexts. Hence, much closer monitoring is required.

Similar points can be made about other motives. There are a whole range of sales tricks designed to exploit altruism, friendship, desire for self-expression and so on. Hence, to prosper in a market context, it is necessary to adopt a view that ‘business is business’, and to (consciously or otherwise) adopt a role as a participant in the market economy that is quite distinct from what might be conceived as one’s ‘real self’.

When I started thinking about MMPORPGs, I was worried that they would be a counterexample for my general argument. After all, this is a field where commercial gaming companies have mostly displaced spontaneous communities, and I was aware of the fact that items were traded on eBay and elsewhere, something which I supposed, on a priori grounds to be destructive. I knew there had been attempts to suppress such trade, but was under the mistaken impression that extra-game trading was generally accepted as a legitimate part of such games.

I posted my argument anyway, and was led to a treasure trove of discussion of these topics at Terra Nova. Most of it is broadly consistent with my starting hypothesis but there are lots of nuances I hadn’t thought of, and twisty little passages to follow up further. It’s hard to pick and choose among such glittering prizes, but for me the plover’s egg-sized emerald is KidTrade: A Design for an eBay-resistant Virtual Economy, linked here.

Going even more meta, it’s obvious to me that exploring the issues raised by online collaborative innovation from separate disciplinary perspectives, such as those of economics, sociology[2] or law, then trying to put the bits together, is not the way to go. The way to make progress I think is through a collaboration that combines a range of academic perspectives with actual lived experience of the collaborative process. For me, at least, blogs are the closest thing I’ve found to what I’m looking for in this respect.

fn1. The existence of gains from trade means that both parties to a market transaction can gain more than they give. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict: both could do better at the expense of the other.

fn2. It’s obvious, for example, sociology has a lot to contribute to discussions of role-playing and rationality, instances including Weber, Goffman and Hirschman. Most importantly, there seems to be some potential for insight into the question of the circumstances in which personality is role-specific in some fundamental sense, rather than in the trivial sense in which a role is defined by the performance of specific functions.

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