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Why Political Science Can Take Game Development to the Next Levelby@JenniferYi
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Why Political Science Can Take Game Development to the Next Level

by Jennifer YiFebruary 7th, 2023
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As gaming communities have become larger and face-to-face interaction between gamers has become less common, game companies and others have been called in to regulate behavior. The social contracts that accumulate around playing are the sine qua non of the games we want to play the longest and the most.
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As a child of Korean immigrants, I felt out of place in my public school in Washington State. Then, a teacher introduced me to checkers and chess. Suddenly, I was playing with the other kids after school. I was relieved to have found a social outlet that I felt like I could comfortably fit into. I still did not feel like I fit in anywhere outside of that. But, the games provided a safe space for me to socialize and start to thrive. They gave me community. 

Later on, the Commodore 64 entered my life. I found a new sense of belonging through video games and the larger groups of players I was exposed to. By the time I entered college, I was building gaming computers and playing competitively. I was hooked and having loads of fun. I had found my niche... but, well, let's just say my relationship with gaming communities has been complicated. 

I won’t bore you with examples of the bad behavior I encountered in the late 1990s as a first-generation Asian woman devoted to gaming. Suffice it to say, my life experiences have deeply influenced my career in the video game industry. 

After 20 years of marketing and shipping titles like Halo and other blockbusters, I’m certain that the social contracts that accumulate around playing are the sine qua non of the games we want to play the longest and the most. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau with a controller 

While I was building those gaming computers in college, I was also majoring in political science. Some of it resonated with the arc of my experience with other gamers. 

Eighteenth-century French political theorist Jean-Jacques Rosseau wrote that a near-perfect democracy could be achieved only in a small country. He gave the example of Geneva. But when a country grew too big, he argued, centralization of power was required to keep things together. Similarly, as gaming communities have become larger and face-to-face interaction between gamers has become less common, game companies and others have been called in to regulate behavior 

Regulating behavior centrally, however, is usually difficult and almost always inefficient. Managing disparate data threads with more and more advanced computing is the current answer. Even governments have tried this in their sphere.  

Worries of tyranny or bad policy, or all of the above have emerged. Social media and other large companies have tried to work it out. They’ve found themselves stirring controversies and breeding frustration.  

What to do? 

Shared accountability is good if not essential for the sustained success of businesses and communities, the ones we want to be a part of the most - for the longest. 

As gamification becomes more prevalent in education, business, and other aspects of life, it's important to establish that accountability is about more than honor and integrity. It’s vital to user and customer experiences. Games and game studios and publishers will succeed or fail based on how they build and empower healthy, positive communities. 

It’s an old problem, but new technology offers a possible way forward through this dilemma. Imagine creating a social contract in a gaming community by recording positive and negative contributions in a decentralized manner, producing an archival system that the community can use to self-curate. A record of gamers’ deeds would have two upsides. It would provide clarity on bad behaviors while also, conversely, allowing the community to celebrate and increase positive behaviors. 

Not getting thrown out of Geneva, the game 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was told to leave Geneva, the small democratic community he idealized... but which also found him subversive. So how do you have a community that is democratic, but not intolerant? 

Tallying positive and negative actions implies and necessitates value. Communities could represent this value in the form of assets. One would generate data to be recorded on to the distributed system according to their gameplay, interactions with others, and other metrics that a given community decides. Gamers could have vaults where they would store these behavioral assets.  

The values here are real, so the stakes are, too. 

First, communities can peg virtual and actual goods and services to digital assets generated during gameplay. Gamers have been spending real money on virtual artifacts for years. Gamification, the rise of better data containers, NFTs, and other developments herald how these transactions will become increasingly sophisticated.  

In this community, the technology brings heroic and bad actors to the surface, documenting their admirability or toxicity and allowing other community members to decide how to engage them if they consistently behave like champs or jerks. Most importantly, the value inherent in the data within the system also provides incentives not to impersonate a hero, or to prevent bad actors from simply creating a new avatar and reintroducing their toxicity to the community.  

Here’s a caveat to this vision. We need to make sure that gaming community members retain ownership of their data in perpetuity. They shouldn’t have to give their data away for free unless they choose to do so. And they need to enjoy at least the possibility of their data generating ongoing value (or revenue) streams over time if others keep demanding it. Granting folks control of supply will make them appreciate the value of their data even more, of course. 

This may provide one way to avoid just having a smaller intolerant community that strangles itself. Socrates was hated by those who had power in the democracy of Athens. The permanence of the data on his thinking and actions has redeemed him as part of our democratic and philosophical condition. Exile can be reversed.  

And a better answer may not be the technology on its own. Rather as research into online communities has shown, who makes up the founding of the community, and what initial behaviors they set down in their data-driven social contract can constitute the moral fiber that keeps a community on track. 

In this way, the archival system can serve as a decentralized Constitution, but the games and communities that thrive will have to be ones whose initial social contract sets good though flexible standards. 

Room for growth 

Gaming communities are only getting bigger. Exciting, safe, empowering, enriching ones don’t need to be so hard to come by. Luckily, a confluence of different forces today – the increasing diversity of gaming communities, gamification, and new technology – has created the conditions where gamers can launch their own revolution.