I'm only about half way through the book, but I came across the description of some interesting sociological experiments in chapter 6 (section II). Here's the part that particularly intrigued me:
The explanation for people's behaviour might have something to do with an experiment called the "ultimatum game," which is perhaps the most-well-known experiment in behavioural economics. The rules of the game are simple. The experimenter pairs two people. (They can communicate with each other, but otherwise they're anonymous to each other.) they're given $10 to divide between them, according to this rule: One person (the proposer) decides, on his own, what the split should be (50/50, 70/30, or whatever). He then makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the other person (the responder). The responder can either accept the offer, in which case both players pocket their respective shares of the cash, or reject it, in which case both players walk away empty-handed.
If both players are rational [in an economic sense], the proposer will keep $9 for himself and offer the responder $1, and the responder should accept it, since if he accepts he gets some money and if he rejects, he gets none. A rational proposer will realize this and therefore make a lowball offer.
In practice, though, this rarely happens. Instead, lowball offers -- anything below $2 -- are routinely rejected. Think for a moment about what this means. People would rather have nothing than let their "partners" walk away with too much of the loot. They will give up free money to punish what they perceive as greedy or selfish behaviour. And the interesting thing is that the proposers anticipate this -- presumably because they know they would act the same way if they were in the responder's shoes. As a result, the proposers don't make many low offers in the first place. The most common offer in the ultimatum game, in fact, is $5.
Now, this is a long way from the "rational man" picture of human behaviour. The players in the ultimatum game are not choosing what's materially best for them, and their choices are clearly completely dependent on what the other person does. People play the ultimatum game this way all across the developed world: cross-national studies of players in Japan, Russia, the United States, and France all document the same phenomenon. And increasingly the size of the stakes doesn't seem to matter much either. Obviously, if the proposer were given the chance to divide $1 million, the responder wouldn't turn down $100,000 just to prove a point. But the game has been played in countries, like Indonesia, where the possible payoff was equal to three days' work, and responders still rejected lowball offers.
It isn't just humans who act this way either.... primatologists Sara F. Bronsan and Frans B.M. de Waal showed that female capuchin monkeys are also offended by unfair treatment...
Capuchins and humans alike, then, seem to care whether rewards are, in some sense, "fair." That may seem like an obvious thing to worry about, but it's not... The responders in the ultimatum game are being offered money for what amounts to a few minutes of "work," which mostly consists of answering "yes" or "no." Turning down free money is not something that, in most circumstances, makes sense. But people are willing to do it in order to make sure that the distribution of resources is fair.
Does this mean people think that, in an ideal world, everyone would have the same amount of money? No. It means people think that, in an ideal world, everyone would end up with the amount of money they deserved. In the original version of the ultimatum game, only luck determines who gets to be the proposer and who gets to be the responder. So the split, people feel, should be fairly equal. But people's behaviour in the game changes quite dramatically when the rules are changed. In the most interesting version of the ultimatum game, for instance, in stead of assigning the proposer role randomly, the researchers made it seem as if the proposers had earned their positions by doing better on a test. In those experiments, proposers offered significantly less money, yet not a single offer was rejected. People apparently thought that a proposer who merited his position deserved to keep more of the wealth.
Put simply, people (and capuchins) want there to be a reasonable relationship between accomplishment and reward.
Anyone who has worked in game design is probably already familiar with this phenomenon as applies to players in competitive computer games such as MMOs. A frequent lament on MMO discussion forums is how the designers, or the game mechanics in general, are favoring one group over another. Group A complains when Group B gets too much attention, loot, or whatever. As a game designer and also as a player, I have frequently read such discussions with more than a bit of impatience and wondered why Group A is getting so upset about Group B getting something, when it really doesn't affect them personally at all. To pick just one example, if Fred got his Uber Sword of Wumpus-Slaying on day 1, and then we change the quest so that it's easier for George to get the same sword when he does the quest on day 365, why is Fred so upset? Fred still had the sword for a whole year before George got his, and had all the utility, fun, and boasting rights that came with that, and the fact that George now has his own Uber Sword of Wumpus-Slaying doesn't change Fred's game-play experience in the slightest. Yet this is one of the most common complaints on any MMO forum and comes up again and again.
I can't say that reading this study has provided me with any answers to the problem. But it does help me to see that this kind of behaviour is part of a bigger picture of human behaviour, not an exclusive characteristic of MMO players. And it definitely highlights that when developing an MMO, we need to keep in mind that player perception of fairness is perhaps even more important than it is to truly distribute those rewards fairly. "Fair" distribution of rewards according to some cryptic scheme that only the designers can see will not be perceived as fair, and will not be well received. Clear ways of measuring player accomplishments, and equitable rewards balanced in line with those, will go a very long way toward reducing general unhappiness and complaints of unfairness.
This may seem like an obvious statement, but in a complex game like an MMO where there may be many different types of accomplishment, it's far from simple even to equitably measure the different accomplishments, let alone to determine the "conversion rate" between one type and another. Is a "killing the dragon" accomplishment worth more than an "interior decoration" accomplishment if they both took the same player the same amount of time? Is a "raiding" accomplishment deserving of better rewards than a "solo questing" accomplishment? Simple measurement of play time invested is not sufficient to compare the two; and when games are looking more and more to entice casual players who want to be able to have fun and make progress in limited play time chunks, time is not a good measure of accomplishment. It seems almost like a standard that designers of new MMOs should sit down and define before they produce any gameplay content: which type of accomplishment is worth most, what defines worth, what defines the value of the reward that is earned.
Most MMOs I have played seem to have a very rough set of standards along these lines, though rarely comprehensive and often inconsistent. Where they are even more lacking is in making these standards accessible in some form to the players. Result: endless player debates over the comparative merit of one accomplishment over another, and thus, an equally endless debate over whether the MMO's rewards are "fair". Perhaps it's an overly simplistic wish on my part, but I'd love to find a game that defines these accomplishment measurement standards clearly and consistently, and without being so narrow in definition that large elements of the player gameplay experience are missed out entirely. One day! =)