The story I’m going to tell here is delicate, biased to my vantage point alone, and deals with drama. As such, standard disclaimers apply:
- While I’m not censoring names (because everyone involved is using gamer handles anyway), remember that real human beings are on the other side of these names. Don’t seek them out to harass them.
- Take this tale with a grain of salt; it’s only one side of a story (and even as far as I can see it, there were no evil people, merely misaligned goals).
Kelvin is a player I’d met on the previous server cycle, the one I joined late. Good guy, who’s primary fun in the game appeared to be establishing and organizing a government to allow people to coordinate. The way Eco works, if players build a seat of government and some relevant policy-control buildings, they can establish laws and organizational structure. Laws are (generally) voted into force by the population and, once active, are enforced by the game engine; for example, a popular one on many servers (and one Kelvin included) taxes people one coin for chopping down a tree, but refunds that tax if they also chop down the stump and gives them a few fractions of a coin if they clean up the tree debris that’s left over by a felled tree (thus encouraging loggers to maintain a clean work environment, which fosters rapid regrowth of any deforested areas). With such policies, you can create some nice soft incentives for players to cohere and operate as a group, which is great for coordinating to stop the meteor.
You can also shoot an entire server’s worth of players in the collective foot.
You can probably guess which happened, since this story got written.
But Bismarck did it, and Bismarck was never wrong
After Kelvin drafted, and the community ratified, a basic Constitution outlining a voting process and other fundamentals, we’d districted the world for highways (always useful to let players know where building a property will eventually connect to road access), and Kelvin had established a mint, a currency (Crowns), and a treasury, a government restructure law was passed. This law declared several ministries and established some responsibilities for them and the nomination and election process.
The first of what would later prove to be several eventual missteps was that here, the ministry included “The Backup.” The Backup was a player who had some unilateral authority to act with emergency powers; whereas the general window for a vote on a new law across the entire electorate was 24 hours (to account for all timezones), the Backup could propose a law under an 8-hour window that could only be voted upon by the two other ministers in the game (Infrastructure, in charge of making the roads districted out; and Plenty, in charge of maintaining a functional economy). This isn’t the most insane thing in a videogame setting; it’s possible for key players to get bored and leave, or for emergencies of all sorts to pop up, so someone with the authority to resolve such issues is quite helpful. But if you’re hearing echoes of a Weimar Republic Chancellorship in the role, well…
There was also one key mistake made at this point. Though the position only had a term of four game days, Kelvin established himself as the only eligible candidate for Backup.
Still, the mint was running, Crowns were the currency of the land, College Technology University was researching and publishing, and times were good.
Times get bad
Two missteps happened at approximately the same time. Having failed to take copious notes, I can’t remmeber what led to what, so I’ll tell these stories in parallel.
The desert nation
Luke, Aleks, and a third player whose name escapes me at present set up a community in the desert, far southwest of the capitol. There, they operated as a team, pooling resources and trading with each other. Since they were so tightly-knit, they were able to just use Luke’s credits as a local community currency before Kelvin established the worldwide Crowns currency.
After establishing Crowns, Kelvin set up rules for everyone to get some via a couple processes (paid to vote on laws, paid for various pro-social activities, and everyone got a ration of 200 to start with as well as a currency exchange from Kelvin credits to Crowns). Kelvin made is way around the world, urging players to switch their local stores from the personal credit currencies to Crowns to boost the economy. College Technology University declined, as the whole plan was to use my credits to track donor clout, not as a back-and-forth exchangeable currency.
As Kelvin told the story (to my memory), when he reached the desert nation of Luke and Aleks, he recommended they also switch and they chose not to. They didn’t see a need to trade with the rest of the server, as they were self-sufficient. This worried Kelvin, because he’d seen such insular, self-sufficient communities on previous servers; the meta of the game is such that a tightly-knit commune can sometimes splinter off from the rest of the world, rush the tech tree, and build the necessary hardware to stop the meteor before everyone else could catch up. Kelvin dislikes seeing this; as he explained to me, he thinks it takes the fun out of the game for everyone.
The story from the other side (as Luke explained it to me later) is that they saw a guy roll into their town, virtual pockets full of a currency that he himself controlled (at the time, Kelvin had forgotten to empty all the currency that flowed from the mint to his pockets into the government treasury, and ownership of currencies is public knowledge in the Eco game engine), demanding they switch their local store over to his currency. He also suggested they were overcharging for an item they built exclusively at the time (steam trucks, I believe, which get around decently fast). Luke did some quick math and noted that with the amount of currency Kelvin was holding, if they switched to Crowns he could immediately buy all their trucks.
Regardless of what happened, the desert community politely declined.
Gaming the vote
One of the laws Kelvin had passed was an incentive for people to vote: every vote would pay 20 crowns from the global treasury to encourage people to participate. Problem is, this law was misconfigured. Whether it was a game bug or failure to understand the nuances of the legal scripting language in game, this law paid out for every instance of voting… And you can change your vote.
One of the players in the desert community became aware of this fact, and toggled their vote back and forth on one of the outstanding laws, pulling over a thousand Crowns out of the coffers of the government. Was this cheating? Yes and no. Obviously not the intent of the law, but the law was enforced by computer and the rules were followed precisely.
Sidebar: Hey kids! Are you excited about digital contracts? Do you salivate at the idea ‘Code is law?’ Do you want the future of money to be scripted interactions that are mediated by computer, with no human intervention mathematically possible, where the rules of the contract are followed algorithmically and absolutely? Stop wanting that.
How to disincentivize the behavior you want
The government now had a problem: they had a powerful community of players ignoring the new currency, and one of those players had just managed to (validly as per the rules, but clearly illegitimatly) leach a large amount of Crowns out of the government. To attempt to address this, Kelvin used the Backup authority to pass, via a short time window with the consent of the ministers, a halt on trading in non-Crown currency and a tax on the
This law as followed quickly with two further emergency-passed laws attempting to claw back the ill-gotten gains from the two players who had exploited the pay-for-vote law.
I’m a pretty firm believer in the incentives theory of human behavior: in general, people will do what they think is best given the incentives put before them. While these laws were intended to incentivize use of Crowns and to protect the currency, players perceived them as follows:
- Those in charge were trying to make Crowns the only thing available
- The management of Crowns was capricious; those in charge had the authority to take all of the Crowns of a player and would exercise that authority unilaterally
For the desert community, the incentives were straightfoward: use a capricious currency of a hostile government, or just… don’t? They were self-sufficient and even without the availability of Luke credits, they could trade amongst themselves with pencil-and-paper fine enough, because they had side-channel communication. What they now couldn’t do was participate in the global economy (especially since their largest store of Crowns had just been “taxed” away by the government)!
The icing on the cake was the discovery that while technically the laws allowed for anyone to propose a law, in practice… it was impossible. When Kelvin set up the government, he forgot to authorize all users to access the various government function buildings. In essence, we had a capitol building with barred doors.
Eco is not a game of physical violence. You can’t fight someone, you can only modify content on plots of land you can access, and attempts to modify the physical landscape to hinder other players can be seen as griefing and stepped in on by the actual admins (who had thus far generally stayed out of our local drama).
But it can absolutely be a game of political intrigue and economic violence.
Messages on Discord to the game admins were answered with an observation about the rules nobody knew: if someone builds a second capitol building, it can be used to propose laws (up to and including altering the Constitution) under the currently-existing laws. And so it was that the desert community pooled its resources and built a second capitol, allowing them to re-draft the Constitution and remove the previous government from power (by effectively removing their offices). By a 70/30 vote of the population of the server, the government passed from the hands of a previous de-facto cartel to… A new cartel.
I won’t pretend the new government was fundamentally different in structure from the previous one. The core positions (a small set of ministers and a Backup under a different name) remained intact. The new government was made up of Luke, head of the desert community, and a couple of other individuals. But even if dictatorship is risky, sometimes a change in dictator is all you need to move forward.
My only regret in this whole story is that I know there were some hard feelings. Conversations got heated and players said some spicy things to each other. It is my hope that most involved with this story will take it as an educational experience regarding how quickly a well-intentioned plan can go off the rails through something as basic as a breakdown in trust, and how the same facts can be interpreted differently by people on different sides of a story. I’ve told only the side I could see… Ask Luke, Kelvin, Angry, Thorinbur, or myriad other players in this tale and you might get a different side.
But what about the College?
Oh right, the reason I’m writing any of this at all.
In general, the College plan continued to work well. People showed up periodically when they could afford to donate surplus goods to get skills they wanted unlocked and move up the donor ranking board. The Sally Struthers energy helped too, and the fake ad reads became popular on the server.
The College began as politically neutral in the Crowns drama; our position as taking mostly donations meant that the fate of Crowns didn’t strongly impact us. However, we became collateral damage in the fight against the desert community using its own currency. Since the College’s own credits were also a non-Crown currency, the ban on such currencies impacted us as well. It was at that point I felt I had a choice:
- Negotiate with Kelvin to get an exception authorized for the College, which I expect he’d have granted.
- Shut down the free skill library because even giving scrolls away for 0 personal credits counted as personal credit transaction.
So we made a choice.
While I could have sided with Kelvin’s approach, I felt that it would have been hypocritical to buy into the notion that a free skill scroll forum was okay, but a trio of players working together was not; meta-bending collaboration is meta-bending collaboration.
With the economy ground to a halt, we were unable to buy resources on the open market to complete research goals. The drama also left a bad taste in players’ mouths, and we saw active participation go down. Things became so bad that I was forced to make a choice: two of the skills we were researching required mechanical components that a Machinist could make, but I was saving my skill for Advanced Masonry. But with not nearly enough machined goods on the market, I finally bit the bullet, burned my own skill point, and set up a machine shop.
The darkest moment was when I found myself so in need of resources that I sold off a chunk of the campus to afford them. When a player learns a new skill, they are awarded five land deeds, which allow for exclusive control of a 4x4 segment of the map. Since CTU collected skills, I had access to a large quantity of deeds. But like any good university, I hoarded them. Having to sell them off… That cut deep.
But, at last, the dark times were behind us. Our community came out stronger, under new leadership, with the economy healed and nothing to worry about. Overhead, we had blue skies.
Join me for part 3 next week.