Friday, January 30, 2015

Power Creep

So it's been awhile since I've posted. Usually that happens because I'm trying and failing to write what I want to write, which is a couple of sequels to my last post. So since that hasn't gone anywhere I'll post this, which was mostly written already. Enjoy!

"Power creep" is a common design problem for certain kinds of games. It refers to the continual influx of new game mechanics, rules, items and other changes to the game that are more powerful than the previous ones. It can be a problem for any game but especially for collectible games that are always releasing new pieces and games with lots of downloadable content (DLC) releases like MMOs. Basically, there's a strong financial incentive for game designers to design new releases to contain ever more powerful stuff so that players are forced to buy the new release in order to remain competitive. But even without a financial incentive, game designers want their new releases to be successful and add something to the game. So when they design new components, they tend to add new things to the game without fully understanding how those new components will balance with the existing game. A game designer gets an idea, it makes sense to them, becomes their baby, they give it more power than is appropriate for the pre-existing balance of the game, and it usually at least partially blinds them to its possible effect on actual players who aren't interested in a cool new game mechanic except for how it affects their ability to win. In other words, sometimes power creep is not the result of greed but rather a consequence of the game designers' desire to introduce something new and cool into the game without fully understanding how players will utilize the new components. This inability to predict how players will respond can be mitigated by smart game designers, but never eliminated completely. Human beings have free will and can always come up with something unpredictable, even in response to a very restrictive set of rules. 

I remember fondly my high school government class, mostly because of the mock legislative session we had. At the time, Democrats were in the minority in the U.S. Senate, so that's how we modeled our session. The teacher, without saying it, intentionally put all the more assertive students in the Democratic minority, and that meant me. I was ready for anything: abortion, foreign policy, taxes, whatever. Bring it on. I was assigned to a committee charged with writing and debating a bill on performance-enhancing drug testing for athletes. I then realized not only was I not ready for anything, but that I had no idea what to do. I asked the teacher what a Democrat was supposed to believe on the issue. He purposely ignored the question, teaching me a very valuable lesson: Nobody is telling people in real life what to believe on issues. Decide for yourself. I had my heart set on playing the "bad guy", but I had no idea what the "bad guys" were supposed to believe about drug testing for professional athletes. So I did the only thing I could do: I came up with a bunch of bullshit I pulled right out of my ass. I didn't care about the issue. I didn't know anything about it. But I was absolutely sure that if I got my ideas into the bill that meant I had won, no matter whether the ideas were good or bad or even well thought out. The only problem was that I was in the minority and had no hard power. The only power I had was the power to convince those in the majority to agree with me. I kept saying stuff that I thought sounded good, not even knowing what I was doing, and continued to be amazed every time the "Republicans" simply agreed with me and wrote whatever I had said into the bill, even though I was the bad guy with no power. By the time I was done, I had turned the bill into a several page monstrosity which involved the police and the FBI and stopped just short of stripping athletes naked and hog-tying them in a cell for twenty-four hours before their drug test.

That episode stuck with me for years. I think about it often now that I've become more interested in politics and government. More and more, I wonder if that is not exactly how most legislators behave. The business of legislation is viewed as a game, and the winners are the ones who get their ideas written into bills and get them passed, regardless of any real life consequences caused by those ideas. I realized that mentality naturally results in ever more rules and restrictions made up for no good reason other than to satisfy the egos of powerful people who have no idea what they are doing to regular people. The end result is a steady erosion of freedom for the nameless, faceless people who must live under these boondoggles. Everybody needs to add something to the rules in order to believe they have accomplished something, in order to advance their careers, in order to gain the power and status they want. (If you don't believe me, then tell me when was the last president who didn't try to revamp our healthcare system? Healthcare revampings to U.S. presidents are like pyramids to the ancient Egyptian Pharoahs. It's a big sign written with his piss on everyone else's lives reading, "_________ was here.) The more important the rules, the better, and that usually means more elaborate, more restrictive and more ridiculous. It's power creep, and it's an even more serious problem in government than in game design, because those pieces are now real people. The game has real consequences.

Most of the time people really do want to make things better. Most of the time it's an honest attempt to correct real problems. And every time, it all sounds really good. But people still have free will. They will still do unpredictable things causing unintended consequences. The reaction of the game designers/lawmakers is almost always the same. They get pissed off and fight back using their power to try and smack everyone around whom they think is following the letter but not the spirit of the law, and the cycle repeats. More regulations and rules come down the pipe, all intended to restrict and limit people's actions into a tidy little box somewhere inside their tiny little minds. But one way or another, the attempt always fails because the world is bigger than that, and these people never actually have the power they think they do to control other people's lives. Worse than that, most of them really don't have any idea what they are doing.

The good news is that the gaming community has come up with a pretty good solution to the problem. Instead of game designers making a game all by themselves and releasing it to its fate, now many online games are first released as beta versions. They allow a certain number of people to play the game as beta testers and ask them for any input they have. Gamers view being a beta tester as a huge privilege and often brag about it. After all, they get to play the game before anybody else, and they get the opportunity to maybe offer ideas that actually have a chance at being implemented before the final release. Beta testing works so well because instead of releasing a game as a finished version and having everybody complain about its flaws, the game is acknowledged from the outset to be faulty and needing improvement, and suddenly everybody becomes enthusiastic about trying to make it better, usually without being paid. In exchange for having a little humility and giving up a little bit of control, game designers get a whole lot of work done for them for free. Instead of gamers hating the game for its flaws, they become enthusiastic about helping to fix those flaws. Many game designers have found this process to be so rewarding that "open betas", meaning anybody can participate, are becoming commonplace. Some games are so open that there is barely any distinction between the beta testing phase and the official release, since game designers can and will still try to improve the game based on player feedback even after the official release. Open Betas tend to prevent power creep because the players know the dynamics of the game better than the game designers and they have a motivation to prevent what already works fine from being superseded by a new rule. This results in a better, more balanced game.

The bad news is that this sort of thing does not always work with politics and legislation, despite the fact our system was always set up to work this way. The main problem is the gamers, the people, don't seem all that interested in giving their input. The only people who do seem to be groups with a major financial interest, that is special interest groups, in the outcome of legislation, perverting and distorting the process by nearly eliminating any and all non-financial concerns. The Tea Party presents a major challenge to established financial interests in government, and this is why everyone hates us. We are horning in on their business, which is the manipulation of public law for private benefit.

The Tea Party is a game-changer in our political system because it represents a large group of people who have never been politically active before but are now trying to influence the system in the way the system was originally designed to work. It was originally designed in the same way as a beta-tested game. The process was meant to be open, honest and transparent with lots of input from the general population. The Federalist Papers, one of our country's founding documents and still an important political treatise, were originally written as newspaper articles published for all to read and consider as the entire nation deliberated over ratification of the Constitution. The original ratio of representatives to people was about one for every thirty thousand. Today it is about one for every seven hundred thousand. This an artifact of our increased population mostly, but it has become a major factor limiting the involvement of the general population in politics. The internet represents a solution and another game-changer in politics because it allows immediate and widespread dissemination of information and communication. It is now possible for a Tea Party style movement to have a real affect on our politics through the input of information from the general population, which had for the most part given up on influencing the system in the 20th century. This can only be a good thing, and I look forward to the way politics will change in this country because of it.

Now that's whack.