The Video Game Theory of Global Politics

I am back from a wonderful vacation in Colorado (sorry for the hiatus in blog posts!), which concluded with three days at an Aspen Institute conference on the emerging “pull economy.” Historically, our economy has been a “push economy,” driven by corporations trying to anticipate (and create) consumer demand by aggressively “pushing” goods, services, and marketing onto consumers. But now, information technologies are starting to empower online consumers and communities to “pull” exactly what they want, when they want it, from the marketplace – and from commons, which can be even more efficient and responsive. This shift has some profound implications.

I will have more to say about this topic after I finish writing the report for the 2005 conference (my annual assignment) and it is published, but in the meantime I am reminded of an insightful presentation made last year by conference participant Gilman Louie, the President and CEO of In-Q-Tel. In-Q-Tel is a venture capital firm that was created expressly to identify and invest in companies developing cutting-edge information technologies that will be useful to the CIA and the intelligence community.

Last year, Louie – a veteran of the online gaming industry – offered some astute insights about global politics based on the collective behaviors he has observed in massively multi-player online games (MMPOGs). These games – Quake, Civilization III, Diplomacy, Navy Seals, and many others – have literally tens of thousands of players at any given time. While there are obvious differences between online games and “real life” (no one really gets hurt; no real estate actually changes hands) there are also many intriguing similarities (identity and respect are paramount; group dynamics of competition and cooperation matter).

What might MMPOGs have to say about collective behavior in the global commons?

In a successful commons, recall, there is a shared understanding about how a collective resource should be allocated among the various participants. There is a rough consensus about what is “fair.” But what happens if a significant minority of commoners regards the allocation system as unfair? Conflict rises. Dissent and disruption are likely. The very stability of the commons is threatened.

Based on his deep knowledge of MMPOGs, Gilman Louie suggested that the behavior of online gamers holds some important lessons for how the U.S. should behave in the global political economy. The following account summarizes Louie’s thinking, and is drawn from my 2004 Aspen Institute report, “ Information Technology and the New Global Economy.

It is important to understand how “network effects” are changing the dynamics of international politics, trade policy and commerce, said Gilman Louise of In-Q-Tel. The basic scenario mirrors what occurs in massively multi-player video games, in which tens of thousands of players participate in the same online game. “Everybody is playing the game and having a good time,” said Louie. “But there’s always one player who wins all the time, and everybody resents it. So different groups decide to band together.

After the winning player, there is a second-tier group. They are really good players, but they really hate the guy who always wins. (Think France, Germany and China.) So in order to figure out how to win the advantage in this “net war,” these players go offline. They use instant messaging to conspire how to take down the first player – because you never want the first player to win because that’s the end of the game. You’ve got to keep the game alive.

Then there is a third tier of players who want to be in the second tier but aren’t good enough. They know they can’t win, even if they partner with someone. But the second tier doesn’t want to partner with third-tier players because it considers them a distraction. We see this in the EU [European Union] right now; they don’t want other nations in. So the third-tier players try to “make nice” with the first tier and maybe get some scraps.

Finally, there is a fourth tier of players who either quit by going off to another game or decide to become disrupters. Some become isolationists and say, “I’m not going to worry about the rest of the world; I’m just going to put a big wall around myself and deal with my own internal problems, have my own religion and my own point of view. I’ll talk to myself and feel better.” Others become disrupters, whose job it is to make sure that nobody else can win, so that everybody loses.

Louie illustrated the mindset of the disrupter by telling a story told by Russian schoolchildren:

A Russian child, Alexis, sees a bottle and kicks it over. A genie comes out and says to Alexis, “I’ll give you one wish.” (This is a Russian genie, so he gives only one wish.) And the genie says to Alexis, “I’ll give you anything you want, but you only get one.”

Alexis is annoyed, and says, “I’m a Russian. I don’t give a damn. I don’t need anything. Go away.”

The genie says, “No, no, no. I see Peter across the way, and he has a cow. You don’t have a cow. Why don’t I give you a cow?”

Alexis turns to the genie and says, “No, I have a better idea. Kill the cow.”

The Russian story captures the essence of what Louie calls the “video game theory” of the global economy. The moral of the story is directly relevant to the United States, said Louie. “We’re so far ahead of the rest of the world that we have got to ask ourselves: Who are going to be our competitors? Who are going to be our allies? Who are going to be our disrupters? And how do you play out this game for the next 20 years?”

By the terms of the video game theory, it becomes critical to prevent spoilers from ruining the game for everyone. The “winners” have a new imperative – call it self-interest – for preventing certain players from defecting and becoming disrupters. “Without some way to keep everybody ‘in the game,’” warned [James] Manyika [of McKinsey & Co.], “you run the risk that others will try to disrupt the system. You must appeal to some notion of fairness, as opposed to simple economic rationality, or this effort won’t be sustainable.”

… Gilman Louie reported that in global role-playing games and long-term scenario planning sessions, one of the best ways to deal with disrupters is to keep everyone committed to the game by making it seem as if anyone can “move up.”

Louie said, “The multilateral engagement strategy seemed to work best. If you are a smart leader in a game – in other words, you are the winning player – you never allow yourself to be the winner. Your job is to keep the game going and interesting for all the other players. And the way you do that is to purposely make some mistakes along the way so that other players can gain some ground. And you help players. You bring them back and help them believe that they can go from the third tier to the second tier.

“I offer that up as one strategy for a successful ongoing game, which we are calling the global game now. Defining victory as the United States winning at everyone else’s expense will cause the world to choose the spoiler alternative.” The shrewdest long-term strategy for the United States, said Louie, is “suboptimal behavior” because it helps prevent defections that could easily disrupt the game.

To me, it is an open question whether the “suboptimal strategy” proposed by Louie would indeed be perceived as fair over the long term by “fourth-tier players” (i.e., demoralized developing countries). Potential disrupters might regard a broad re-negotiation of the fundamental “rules” of the global political economy as the only way to establish “fairness.” In any case, it is clear that global competition must be constrained by some sort of global cooperation, as in a commons. That is the only way to preserve the shared planetary environment and moral universe that are the basis for human life.