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Law professor Lawrence Lessig: Vast online games need a political structure

June 07, 2017

If you create an online world, would it turn into some kind of utopia or a hate-filled reality like The Lord of the Flies? And can game developers do anything about which way it goes?

Lawrence Lessig thinks so. A law professor at Harvard University and a constitutional law expert, he has been helping new democracies form legal frameworks for new constitutions, and now he is participating in an interesting test by helping Berlin-based independent game developer Klang build the political framework for the upcoming massively multiplayer online game Seed.

Lessig doesn’t want to dictate some ideal form of governance like a model United Nations. He thinks that players should have a choice about how they govern themselves in an online world, and he also believes that players shouldn’t be burdened with political structure until they need it.

Most games pay heed to their economic structures so that the game can generate revenue for the developer. But Lessig believes a political system is also necessary for players to believe that they should invest their time in the game.

Seed is an online multiplayer world that will also have a lot of artificial intelligence, and it uses Improbable’s SpatialOS platform for cloud games. Improbable is an online games infrastructure company that recently raised $502 million from Japan’s SoftBank. Klang itself has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Greylock Partners, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, and Unity founder David Helgason.


Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: We don’t see a name like Lawrence Lessig on many games we cover. How did this come to be?

Lawrence Lessig: I met Mundi in Iceland by accident, at somebody’s house. He described this game, this universe they were building. We had a long conversation about the theory, the ideas behind games. I’ve taught a course at Stanford with Julian Dibbell, who wrote about games for Wired for a long time, about virtual worlds and gaming. It’s always interested me.

After talking for a while, we moved on to how they were going to govern these places, the structure for governing. It was clear that no one had really thought through that much. That’s what began our conversation about whether there was something fun to experiment with here.

GamesBeat: Covering online worlds, people always use the terminology of the in-game economy. But they don’t always add the notion of an in-game political system. Is that something new here?

Lessig: Most people don’t add it because it’s such a boring problem. [Laughs] Most people don’t think about anything interesting when they think about governance. Obviously the game they’re building isn’t a governance game, but what everyone realizes is that, especially when you invest such an incredible amount of your time and energy into building places for playing a game like this, you need some confidence about how the place will evolve.

What we’ve been talking about are ways to give people in the game options for how they’d like that governance to happen. The options range from the simplest, most minimal—basically, from as little government as possible, to things like monarchy or different forms of democracy. You can randomly select people for office. We want to enable, in the lowest-cost way possible, the lowest number of cycles, to enable these different options, and see how these worlds evolve. Which ones work well? Which ones cohere with the kind of gaming that’s happening?

I obviously start with no clear intuition. Just an eagerness to see how this might evolve.


GamesBeat: Why do you think it’s also in some ways necessary? When I think of some of the politics that happens inside games, I think of player revolts that occasionally happen when developers change the rules or do something users don’t like. Usually they have no form of representation to communicate back to the developer. In some ways, I can see why some kind of system could be important.

Lessig: That’s the exact kind of case that motivates the desire to think about a structure of governance that gives people confidence they need to invest the time the game wants them to invest. But on the other hand, we don’t want to set up a model United Nations and expect everybody to hang out and debate the topics of the day. The way I’m thinking of it, it’s quite functional. The question is, “How can we structure it to allow it to serve its function of providing security and confidence for people playing the game, so they’re more willing to play the game?”

What I hope to see from it is that we can learn something about which of these structures works most easily, is most coherent with the spirit of people playing the game. I want to structure it in a way that allows us to observe, across a wide of range of worlds, exactly what seems to work and what doesn’t. It’s a wonderful environment to both serve the function of building confidence inside the game, but also let us learn an enormous amount about what types of rules structures and templates for governance tend to work better than others.

GamesBeat: One of the particular real-world problems I’ve seen is a company changing the pricing on virtual items. They got more expensive to buy with your time relative to buying them with money. That caused a big ruckus among the different clans and groups of people in the game. The clans held a boycott. But there were different competing interests. Some of them publicly supported the boycott, but then played the game anyway to try to get an edge on people who’d stopped playing. Another group offered to leave the boycott if the developer would favor them specifically.

Lessig: One of the interesting trade-offs here—my original work in the area of the law of cyberspace was to try to emphasize the way in which technology itself can be a kind of law. Code is law. When you imagine something like what you’re talking about – a set of players in a game wanting to effect a boycott – that boycott could be effected through an agreement. Everybody all says they want to boycott. Or in principle you could imagine a boycott being effected through code. We’re going to lock ourselves into a boycotting behavior.

It’s not clear which is more conducive to building strong communities. Many people think that the more you embed in code, the weaker the community that you develop becomes. People need to learn how to do things for the right reasons, as opposed to being forced to do them by technology. That’s one of the complicated trade-offs. There’s no way to answer that question in theory. You have to play it out and see what works and what doesn’t. This might be a context where we can do that kind of experimentation and see.

GamesBeat: Are there some things you’ve studied outside of games that can apply here, figuring out this game’s political system?

Lessig: In my day job I’m a constitutional law professor. I’ve done a lot of work in developing and building constitutions in developing nations. I did some work in Georgia in the post-communist period. I study and teach comparative constitutional law. When I was originally talking to Mundi about this, it was recognizing that in some sense, this is a problem I live with in my ordinary work as a law professor. We don’t ever really have an effective context in which to build and test these different structures.

There are lots of different kinds of democracy. The ability to imagine how you can structure the tradeoffs among them—this is a way to bring to life the kind of work I do in comparative constitutional law. That’s what made it exciting and interesting for me. We obviously are just beginning to map out how it can work. It’s an overriding objective that the work that we’re thinking about through governance structures not interfere, but just enable activities inside these worlds. I want to see this develop very slowly. It’s important that it’s developing at the ground level so we can do it the right way.

GamesBeat: I’ve seen a couple of clear tribes of people in different online games. There are the people who spend very little money but a lot of time to earn their status, and then there are people who spend a lot of money, which makes the world profitable for developers. They both seem like necessary groups, but they have different interests. I wonder how, when a game developer has millions of players—you can’t talk to everyone. Do they set up some kind of structure to communicate with the wealthiest players, or the players who spend the most time?

Lessig: Part of the question here is who should be deciding that. For the same reason you had this insight now, about this symbiotic relationship where both are necessary, you can imagine the community itself enabling some kind of preference or special connection for some, because they’re seen to be more valuable inside the community. From my perspective, we need to come in without any biases about that. We need to think, in a very efficient way, how to enable the community to make those kinds of decisions and implement them. And when they implement them, do they implement them technically, or do they implement them through understandings that are enforced by norms?

I think what we’ll see is that these different communities will have different objectives. Those objectives might fit with different forms of governance. One thing that’s argued about in the real world is that it might be better to have a democracy where, instead of having elections for people who want to represent others, you just randomly select 500 people to be the legislature. It’s a pretty low-cost way to govern, because if they’re really representative, those 500 people can speak for the group, and nobody has to worry about campaigning or anything like that.

You can imagine that becomes an attractive way for certain communities to govern themselves, where the people in those communities have no desire to engage much in politics. They just want to make sure that somebody is in place assuring that the system continues to work in a way appropriate for the community. But that could be very different in another community where people feel committed to developing a robust public recognition, and as they do that they want to be more engaged and participating in it. If we can enable these communities to make choices about the appropriate form they want, then I think much of the energy involved can take care itself. We can learn a lot from what’s working and not working.

GamesBeat: I’ve heard before that some game companies also have a sort of VIP concierge for their most active or richest players. That seems to have a parallel in our government, where lobbyists draw the attention of lawmakers.

Lessig: The lobbying system–nobody ever planned it like that. The frequent flyer system at airlines is kind of the same thing, except people did plan it like that. Obviously frequent flyers are valuable to airlines. At this stage it’s impossible to look inside the worlds of the game we’ll develop to have a sense of what will make sense there. But from my perspective, the objective is just to make sure that whatever does make sense can be developed collectively in the easiest way possible.

GamesBeat: It’s almost like you’re trying to create the structure, but not dictating the details.


Lessig: It’s important to make two qualifications about it. Yes, we want to enable the structure. We don’t want to dictate the substance of what the structure decides. I think we also don’t want to dictate that people spend much time worrying about the structure. Everybody expects these worlds will develop in incredibly rich ways and there will be all sorts of activity happening long before anybody worries about the question of how they’ll be governing themselves. The governance questions will emerge. Problems will come up and the communities of these worlds will have to work out how they deal with those problems. That’s when the taste for making these kinds of governance choices will emerge, the way it should naturally emerge.

Again, the objective is not to attract a whole bunch of people who want to debate the issues of the world. It’s just that people need the trains to run on time, which means you need governance that works, so let’s figure out the best way to make governance happen.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that in-game economics have been studied and theorized and talked about a lot in the games business, but politics haven’t so much. And yet when you think about it, this is probably the precursor to the Metaverse. If we’ll eventually all live in this kind of virtual world, it really does matter.

Lessig: It does. But what’s so exciting about this to me is that—in other online contexts, when governance questions come up, the infrastructure or the context in which those questions can be answered is really underdeveloped. Nobody thinks about that up front. You can have a conflict over changes in pricing or whether things can be traded or not, and then at that stage you have to have a way of resolving that conflict. Bulletin boards or other messaging systems become the infrastructure for that kind of resolution.

Obviously that’s incredibly inefficient. It’s all ad hoc. It’s conceived and implemented way too late in the game. What’s exciting about this is that the commitment is to try to think through these questions up front. Again, not to insist that anybody confront them or deal with them. We’re not saying the first 10 preference settings you have to make are governance settings. But at least to have it so that when these questions emerge – and they will emerge, given the economies of these places – there’s an obvious and efficient way to deal with them.

And not just one way to deal with them. It’s both the idea that we’re talking about how to deal with this up front and the idea that we’re not dictating one particular system over another. If a particular world wants to have a dictator who gets to exercise to arbitrary power however they want, have at it. That’s the choice of the world. But if we can enable these choices in a simple, efficient way, then I think we’ll see much more innovation around making governance work than when it’s an incredible hassle to imagine gathering everybody into a forum and having an argument about something.


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