Legos, Cliques, and the Invisible Hand

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Comments: 4   (latest January 25, 2013)

Tagged: legos, player content, mmos, kids

Legos are not a game, but you can play games with Legos. Two teachers at a child-care center in Seattle talk about Why We Banned Legos, and how they brought them back in. (Link via coffeeandink.)

A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew -- and space and raw materials became more precious -- the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn't play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. [...] As they closed doors to other children, the Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how "cool pieces" would be distributed and protected.

(from Why We Banned Legos, Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin)

This is a microcosm of the player-created content economy, to which so many modern MMO games and social web sites aspire. The MMO games rely directly on "cool pieces" -- resources of limited availability. Content-sharing sites like Youtube don't have explicit limitations, but the experience crystallizes out around scarcity anyway; eyeballs, attention, popularity. Social capital, in short.

I am a devotee of the gift economy. I have been ever since I got to college and fell into the decadent stews of free software and free (Usenet) conversation. (Before that, there was pirated software. Which was shared by us junior-high-school reprobates in the same way, once we'd pried it loose from the DRM-encrusted, clearly-unworthy hands of the software industry. I'm not making excuses, I'm just explaining my roots.)

I use the gift economy as a model wherever I can. It's built into Volity, our nascent board-game site; it's my plan for Boodler, my half-finished sound-effects project; it underlay my suggestions for player-created Ages in the now-cancelled Myst Online. But equal opportunity does not mean "fairness". Do we have an explicit notion of how to offer equal fun, in the face of social power laws? (That is, the inevitability that a few people will wind up famous/important/influential.)

Legotown was not, please note, the result of simplistic selfishness. These kids had strong attachments to fair play, concensus decision-making, and generosity:

Carl: "We didn't 'give' the pieces, we found and shared them."

Lukas: "It's like giving to charity."

Carl: "I don't agree with using words like 'gave.' Because when someone wants to move in, we find them a platform and bricks and we build them a house and find them windows and a door."

These children seemed to squirm at the implications of privilege, wealth, and power that "giving" holds. The children denied their power, framing it as benign and neutral, not something actively sought out and maintained.

(names of children have been changed by the authors)

The kids negotiated rules; they planned to spread the fun around. Their response to resource shortages was to propose community standards, such as building-plot size limits. Nonetheless, they wound up in a situation where a few children -- including Carl and Lukas above -- effectively excluded the rest.

Being eight and nine years old, they didn't have a clear grasp of the differences between intent, self-image, and outcome:

During the boom days of Legotown, we'd suggested to the key Lego players that there was an unequal distribution of power giving rise to conflict and tension. Our suggestions were met with deep resistance. Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like "Somebody's got to be in charge or there would be chaos," and "The little kids ask me because I'm good at Legos." They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

Oh ye with social capital on the Internet, raise your hand if that's never been you. Mm-hmm. It sure sounds like me, in many contexts.

The Legotown story continues through discussions between the teachers and the children; a demonstrative trading game as a microcosm of the microcosm (yay!); a supervised Lego building project; discussion of the kids' principles (shared power, collectivity, creative expression); and finally the rebuilding of Legotown, under a new set of rules -- developed by the children -- which dealt directly with access rights, community standards, and resource management.

And I'm using polysyllabic words, but all of these things are right in the forefront of kids' minds. All of them are linchpins of every Internet community and game world, from the first design document to launch day to popular peak. Go finish the article, and you will recognize them on sight.

So what do we do with this perspective? I have no answer beyond "Remember it, and be mindful of what you do." So I will tack.

I have a theory -- not tested at all -- that whenever you build a social structure, you should plan for schism. What happens when this falls apart? What happens when you have a screaming argument with your partner and he walks out? What happens when someone starts a competing group? What happens when someone wants to join, but he doesn't like you so he never bothers? (That's the hidden "schism", more damaging than the overt screaming argument, because you never see it -- that person's potential contribution just evaporates.)

In a command model, the answers are simple and merciless: somebody wins, somebody is cut out. You try to make sure you stay on top.

The gift economy wants to avoid this struggle. It doesn't always succeed. I propose that one major cause of failure is the fear of schism. A group (or person) gets the notion that they are necessary. That means that any rival, whether from within the group or outside, is an enemy -- they're not bad people, of course, but they'll bring down the whole community with their challenge. And then begin the rules, the definitions of who's a member, and all the other cruft of command.

More subtly: the group's goals change from "empower people" to "empower our people". I mean, it's not subtle when I say it like that. But when the Uru Guild of Writers was setting itself up, there was tension between two notions: "Our goal is to help people create Ages" vs "Our goal is to create Ages". And it's not a semantic triviality. In the former case, if a rival Guild arises, that's great -- they're helping more players create more Ages. Our goal is being accomplished. In the latter case, a rival Guild is creating Ages... hey, that's our job! We're failing at our goal! What gives?

Even if there's no notion of controlling Age creation -- and that notion certainly arose in the Uru community -- the Guild still has to worry about being made obsolete. New creators might create Ages for them, thus leaving our Guild to wither and stagnate. Which is a legitimate fear, but it drives people to defend their turf.

I'm sorry; I burble on about the nonexistent future of Uru. The generalization: love your schisms. Cheer your rivals. Define your membership as everyone who hangs out with you, not as everyone you accept. Make sure your social structure is not threatened by outsiders; provide paths by which they can organize without you; choose aims which are strengthened by their work "against" you.

That way, when something goes nasty in the state of Denmark -- or Legotown -- you won't have any motivation to either block or co-opt them. Which will do wonders for keeping the drama-gnomes away.

One more quote, which is somewhat about power, but entirely about why we're here. In the toy game I mentioned, the winners in the first round got to change the rules for the second round.

Kyla added this rule to the game: "If you have more than one green [high-value piece], you have to trade one of them." [...]

Kyla: "I wasn't trying to make other people feel bad. I felt bad when people felt bad, so I tried to make a rule that would make them feel better. It was fun to make up the rule -- like a treat, to be one of only three people out of the whole group."

Yeah, kid, that's it -- not the "only three" -- but the "make up a rule". Work with that.

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