I wanted to jolt down a few thoughts I’ve been having about the game that I’ve been into lately, Eco by Strange Loop Games, while waiting for a chance to put all that stuff in my podcast XD. It’s in early access and it’s interestingly self-defined as “educational game”.
Not the dolphin
The pitch is pretty simple: it’s kinda like Minecraft, but in 30 days a meteor will crash and destroy your planet. So you have to develop anti-meteor laser before that. And there’s a twist: you can only be specialized in very few things, so you need to collaborate with other people in order to advance society.
Meanwhile, the game provides pretty thourough simulation of ecology, so you can actually pollute your way to doom before the impact. To mitigate that, the game allows players to self-organize economies and governements in order to orchestrate collaboration.
I think you can see straight away why this micro simulation of a society is pretty interesting to understand the real world. Its limited scope and minecraft style makes it way more “fun” and accessible than something like Eve online.
But there is a trick. There is a hidden meta-game. Eco is extremely flexible, so you can tweak the collaboration parameters and even remove the meteor completely. So your experience is going to vary a lot depending on which server you join. Which is incidentaly a great way to run many simulations of societies.
And here’s the kicker: the vast majority of servers don’t survive more than a few days. It’s pretty ironic that the game is called Eco, because I feel like it’s pretty rare to reach the point where you have to deal with ecology. Instead, I feel like the game is a lot more focused around economy. The goal of the meta-game becomes to build (or find) a sustainable server (society).
Admittedly making a sustainable server is going to be harder than in real life because in the game it’s pretty easy for a player to follow their novely bias and jump ship to another server. But maybe we could still learn something in the process?
How civilisations die
Low collaboration environments die out because the interactivity part of a multiplayer game is pretty important to keep people engaged. They feel like playing Minecraft in my corner so I quickly gravitated away from those.
High collaboration environements are more interesting. Typically they will revolve around some sort of implementation of a capitalist market where currency is the way for every specialized individual to standardize exchange value. The game does support multiple currencies, but I’ve yet to see a server that uses this and survives XD
If you don’t have some kind of system against vertical integration, monopolies emerge quickly. If you do, you build super strong dependency links between the players. Either way, your system is very vulnerable to perturbations.
A player not playing for a few days can cause a penury of whatever they’re producing, which impacts all the productions chains and ends up paralyzing the economy. Some people are too impatient and move on to other thing, causing a ripple effect and the society halts to a grind.
Players all have different rythms (which mirrors a little bit how people IRL have different capacities), but I’ve been very impressed by the amount of time people dedicate to the game. The meteor does offer a pretty good incentive to go fast, but the competition in the capitalist market is also a very strong catalyst. This all aligns to create an accelerating race to progress. Until it all crashes, of course.
How to make capitalism work
The lesson here is that capitalism is very efficient and pretty fun, and according by the number of people who confirmed that this game is addictive, it does play perfectly into human nature. But it’s a tricky beast and requires very narrow margin of conditions to operate correctly.
Whatever conclusions you may draw, it is very interesting to see these simulation at work. Inflation is a lot more tangible when it happens over a few days. It seems to me that economies tend to work better with a universal basic income to help casual players catch up and with protections against vertical integration to prevent monopolies and dynamize the economy.
My favorite server is called SoftCoreGaming (discord link) and seems to manage to create a sustainable environment by making strong government interventions to keep the rythm slow and friendly. It has a great player base and you should join us!
How to make the metaverse work
Admittedly this is all pretty handwavy, and I don’t know if the sample size of servers I’ve tried and of their population is enough to draw clear conclusions. But the question that came to my mind, and the one that brought me to write this little dump, is of course a meta one: what prevents my server from turning into the “real world” style feudal capitalism? Or more precisely, what incentivizes the admins of my server to penalize themselves with restrictions to keep the server healthy? And can we have the same IRL?
The meta-incentives to build a healthy sustainable system is usually survival, but IRL that happens on scale way shorter than the span of times the system deals with. Avoiding popular revolt is also a pretty good incentive, but that places the bar pretty low.
In Eco, the incentive to make the server sustainable comes from its very nature as a game. You want to make it enjoyable, because people don’t have to be here, they could do anything else instead. Ironically, this is exacerbated by the meta-competition between all servers. You have a strong incentive to try and make a great server, because players have so many other ways to spend their time.
At the core of this phenomenon, players time and enjoyment exist in a completely different level of meta reality, and you cant really have exchanges between the two realities. It’s almost as if you have a completely separate meta-market enforcing the alignment of the primary market.
It’s something I’ve already thought and written about. It appears that to prevent “pollution” from the primary market, you want the meta-market to be isolated. The ontological barrier between a game and the real world is impenetrable.
But the real world is ontologically closed. You cannot log off and go to another world. There is very little money cannot have an influence on. It can help you save time and provide recreation. Democracy and politics cannot function properly as a safeguard for alignment because they are heavily influenced by it.
I’m therefore left to wonder if there is another way we could build a meta-currency that we could isolate from money. I’m thinking along the lines of blockchain or entropy, but it seems pretty doomed, because there’s only a single ontological reality we care about. And the whole NFT fiasco is making a strong case that whatever new reality we can come up with gets co-opted very quickly… But if we ever nail that, and maybe only then, we could make capitalism great again? Or will that only happen when the simulation theory is proven true?