There’s a fine line to be drawn between doing a topic to death and contributing something worthwhile to an ongoing debate, especially one that’s been so widely and consistently covered as Linden Lab’s relationship with its users, however i’ve been pondering something of a new line of enquiry – for me, anyway – that i thought you might like to consider.
Since an awful lot of the current feeling from the residents’ camp seems to be running along the lines of ‘The Lab are plain crazy and are pursuing a path of utter madness’, to which the Lab’s response has been, well… nothing, i’ve been running a few scenarios through my head in an attempt to try to find whether there’s anything at all that might explain what is really going on, and – rather fittingly, you may think – i’ve come up with Game Theory.
i’m not going to go into Game Theory in any depth, like so many theories, it can get insanely complex and i find that it’s usually much better to stick with the basics. (For example: String Theory – the universe is held together by bits of string; Theory of Relativity – the universe is held together by your relatives; Theory of Evolution – it’s always evolving, etc). Game Theory is used across multiple disciplines, particularly the social sciences, economics, business and, of course, gaming and is concerned with the rules that govern how people interact to achieve a desired outcome.
Let me give you a very basic and simple example of Game Theory in action…
We’ll take 2 people, let’s call person ‘A’ Lynne Donn, and person ‘B’ Rosie Dent. We’ll put them in separate rooms and offer them a million bucks, subject to the following rules:
- If both Lynne and Rosie elect to share, they’ll both get half the money;
- If either Lynne or Rosie elects to share, and the other elects not to share, then the money goes to the selfish one and the other gets nothing;
- If both Lynne and Rosie choose not to share, neither will get a penny.
In this scenario, Game Theory suggests that the best strategy is always for both to choose to share – that way nobody loses. It doesn’t preclude taking other options, but to do so introduces significant elements of uncertainty and risk, and with them a whole range of other variables that need to be considered, including circumstance and human nature. Anyone who’s ever watched ‘Golden Balls’, or perhaps ‘Deal or No Deal’, will understand exactly how this works.
Let’s apply this sort of thinking to sl and Linden Lab: Both residents and Lab have historically been ostensibly in the same position, that is, one of mutual benefit and gain. As long as the Lab provided and maintained the sl platform for the benefit of the residents, the residents would build the world, populate it and provide an income stream for the Lab – a win/win situation equivalent to Lynne and Rosie sharing their cash – an assumption that the residents have always made. Unfortunately for us, it’s a false premise that fails to take into account that, unlike Lynne and Rosie who are, as far as we know, equals, there is a fundamental inequality between the Lab and sl users that we need to take into consideration.
Imagine for a moment that Lynne is already a multi-millionaire and that Rosie is destitute: This changes the relationship between the two in a manner that is likely skewed against Rosie. It’s probable that Lynne will opt not to share, since the risk for her is low – a million bucks would be nice, but it’s not going to be the life-changing sum that it represents for Rosie, much less 500,000 if she was to share. Rosie, on the other hand is almost fated to lose – whether she thinks big and risks going for the lot, or plays things cautiously and shares, the chances are she’ll go home with nothing because the game is weighted in Lynne’s favour. Of course, neither Lynne nor Rosie knows this, but Lynne still has the overall advantage and knows that her element of risk is comparatively low.
The same is true of the relationship between us and LL – we are not equals in a partnership; the Lab always has always had the upper hand. If that doesn’t feel right to you then consider who ultimately has the power of veto – it’s the Lab that controls the servers, the Lab who have the ability to throw the ‘off’ switch and, more recently, the Lab who have started to call the shots about third party viewers and now have full control over the ‘shared user experience’. They resonate with Lynne, whilst we are the destitute and desperate Rosie on the other side, hoping against hope that Lynne will do ‘the right thing’ and give us the break we ‘deserve’ – misplaced faith in the benevolence of human nature might offer us a grain of hope but Game Theory predicts that we’re stuffed!
There are those who might suggest that it makes no sense for the Lab to ‘take the money and run’ and that may well have been true in the past, but times have changed. Linden Lab is no longer a one-trick pony – they’re diversifying and exploring the market and even if we all quit and moved to Opensim tomorrow, the loss of sl wouldn’t necessarily spell the end for LL. Indeed, as the poor Rosies in this infernal partnership, it seems that we’re in a no-win situation: If we do stick around, it’s unlikely that we’ll be happy with the sl of the future, if indeed it survives – alternatively, if we choose to do what so many are advocating and start investing our time and energy into other virtual platforms, then we’re sending a powerful signal to the Lab that it makes perfect sense to deprecate sl and invest their own time and money into more popular and profitable ventures – if there’s falling numbers and less investment in the virtual economy, then what incentive is there to the Lab to maintain sl?
There is another – somewhat uncomfortable and unpredictable – option; one which breaks the rules and introduces a whole new element of risk. What happens if Rosie refuses to play the game, walks away and refuses to let the end result be decided until she’s good and ready? It’s a risky strategy, but it’s a perfectly valid one. What if we refused to be cowed by the Lab’s strategy, began investing in sl as we never have before, shouted about the good things on the social networks and in the blogosphere, engaged with the Steamers and worked with them to create environments that they would want to use, kicked the griefers and hasslers out of the welcome areas and gave noobs a proper inworld introduction, even – God-forbid – reached out to the vampire and zombie communities outside sl and told them what sl can do for them? What if we, the residents, could make sl the place it can still potentially be, despite the difficulties and the lack of co-operation from the Lab? It is within our power… dare i say, ‘your world – your imagination’? Or is it simply a risk that we just don’t have what it takes to even try? There’s no guarantee it would work, but neither is there any guarantee that it won’t – sometimes you just have to make your own rules.
It may be a virtual world… but who say’s it’s not a game?
Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games
Hiding out in tree-tops shouting out rude names
-Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside
-Whistling tunes we piss on the goons in the jungle
It’s a knockout
Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers