TweetFollow Us on Twitter

March 97 - The Veteran Neophyte

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE
Digital Karma

Joe Williams

So shines a good deed in a weary world.
-- Willy Wonka

We all shine on.
-- John Lennon, Instant Karma

We at Delta Tao Software (creators of Spaceward Ho!, Strategic Conquest, and Eric's Ultimate Solitaire) have been working on Clan Lord, a network game that may someday have thousands of players exploring and colonizing an electronic landscape. We want a harmonious online world that's enjoyable for every player, and we've come up with a system that encourages this, without authoritarian overtones -- or at least we hope it will. This column looks over some of our system's mechanics, repercussions, and possible applications beyond gaming, and gives some food for thought for your own projects.

HOW CLAN LORD USES KARMA

Clan Lord is a big Mac network game. (No, not a Big Mac network game; we'd hate getting sued by McDonald's!) Network games are nothing new to us, but now, with the massive proliferation of the Internet, we want to do a truly epic game. Clan Lord doesn't fall under the traditional definition of a game: there's no end, and there are no winners and losers. It's more like a complete world, and each player is a member of an online society. Online societies naturally develop their own customs, ethics, and morals, just as other groups do. Our goal is to have the world be enjoyable -- a pleasant place to meet and interact.

The key to a good party is inviting the right people. Some people enhance their environment. In an online world, they answer questions, help people, and encourage others to exhibit proper behavior. We'll call these people "good."

Some people do their best to ruin the party for everyone. In an online world, they ridicule, shout, and abuse. They're often found saying things like "Bob Dole is a lemonhead!" and "HOWARD STURN RULEZ!" We'll call these people "bad."

On a service like America Online, the worst people are eventually ejected. But good people generally receive only personal satisfaction from their sometimes considerable efforts. That the Internet information-sharing exchange works so well is a marvel that speaks well of (oft-ridiculed) human nature, but it could work even better. Our goal is to increase the ratio of good people to bad and the likelihood of good behavior.

Without external controls, games like this (usually called MUDs, for Multi-User Dungeons) tend to devolve into hack-and-slash slugfests. New players join in, only to find themselves repeatedly killed by more experienced players. Discouraged and humiliated, they abandon the game. This problem is usually "fixed" by rule changes that make it impossible to attack newer players, or by threats from the game developers to eject (bad) people who hunt other players. These solutions often cause as many problems as they solve. Established games are most successful when there's a core of (good) veterans who encourage and protect the "newbies."

So we want lots of good people, and not too many bad ones -- but how do you tell one from the other? A host could moderate, flagging people one way or the other. But this is subjective, and it reeks of authoritarianism. It's also too much like work. We came up with a painless, automatic solution for our game: digital karma.

For every day you spend in Clan Lord, you can give 100 karma points to other players, as either good karma or bad karma. If someone solves a problem for you, or says something you agree with, or even gives a friendly word to a stranger, you can send them some good karma. If someone insults, curses, lies, or bugs you in any way, you can send them some bad karma. You can't give karma to yourself, and you can't change (or respend) the karma other people give you.

Over time, this karma adds up to a number telling how "good" a person is. People with good karma earned it with good words and deeds, and people with bad karma earned it by being annoying and antisocial. In Clan Lord, some places are accessible only to people with good karma, while people with bad karma may have to fight their way out of "Hell" when they die. Organizations of players (called clans, of course) also have karma ratings, just by summing the karma of their members.

BUT DOES IT WORK?

There's never been a digital karma system, so we spent a lot of time worrying that it might cause as many or more problems than it solves. What if bad people abuse the system to make themselves appear good? What if good people go unrewarded, become disillusioned, and go bad or -- worse -- quit altogether? It might be that, since the total sum of karma is large, individual abuses would get averaged out. Since each person gets 100 karma points to distribute per day, thousands of people means hundreds of thousands of karma points moving around. However, since the average karma received by each person is 100 a day, an individual can concentrate his or her karma to have a substantial influence on specific other individuals.

For example, Ma and Pa Barker spend a day tormenting Elvis. (See Figure 1.) Elvis gives each of them 50 bad karma. But Ma gives Pa 80 good karma for holding Elvis down while she kicks him. And Pa gives Ma 80 good karma for doing such a good job tying Elvis's hands to his ankles. And they each give Elvis 20 bad karma for whining so much. When lovely Rita (Meter Maid) comes by, she might cart Elvis (with 40 bad karma) off to jail for tormenting the obviously virtuous Barkers (with 30 good karma each). "You must have really made them angry," she murmurs as she slips on the handcuffs.

Figure 1. Karma distribution

This sort of thing is certain to happen, but it's likely that in the long run the Barkers' evil ways will catch up with them. Elvis can relate the tale to his friends George, John, Paul, and Ringo, who together can inflict more bad karma on those nasty Barkers than they know what to do with. What's more, the Barkers have gone on to annoy yet another innocent bandsman who can inflict some bad karma of his own. In the long run, the Barkers have to spend as much time pleasing people (even each other) as hurting them to keep their karma in the black.

What about the problem of do-gooders not getting rewarded? Johnny B. wanders in to find helpless Elvis, tied up and bruised from his run-in with the Barkers. He cuts away the bonds, applies first aid, and gives Elvis some spending money. Elvis, instead of bestowing good karma on Johnny B., inflicts bad karma on the Barkers. Johnny B. finds himself with no better karma, despite his afternoon of good deeds. Maybe next time he'll be less inclined to help the helpless.

But probably not. He still gets all the intangible karma he would have gotten before our system was in place. Elvis is still grateful. Johnny B. will, over time, get plenty of good karma for his benevolent activities. In addition to getting the unquantifiable benefits that come with doing a good turn daily, he'll get an occasional reward of good karma. He'll probably be even more likely to do good deeds than he was before.

Now, the worst case. Ozzy, after watching Natural Born Killers, decides it would be fun to see just how much bad karma he can rack up. He traipses through the countryside setting fire to outhouses, pushing grandmothers down stairs, and biting the heads off of innocent rodents. He's bad to the bone. He racks so much bad karma that he grows horns and hooves. But he doesn't care -- he's going for the record. The baddest cat ever, and our little system gives him the numbers to prove it. Aren't we just egging him on?

There are always going to be a select few who delight in infamy. Perhaps a few of those could be persuaded to form vigilante groups, hunting the Most Wanted of the Bad Karma Boys. Just as many folks are going to go for the evil-punishing record as for the bad karma record. We'd turn those of Ozzy's frame of mind against each other. His worst enemy is his own kind.

WHERE DOES IT GO FROM THERE?

Besides modifying behavior, karma studies can identify trends, and possibly give warnings of societal problems. The ratio of good karma to bad karma is an indicator of how happy the society is as a whole. A sudden drop in that ratio could be an early symptom that something is wrong, giving us a chance to nip the problem in the bud. If we do our job, that ratio should see a gradual increase over time, as we weed out things that make people unhappy.

We'll no doubt also see some interesting statistics. I'm curious to see whether people who send lots of bad karma are the same people who receive it, and vice versa. I've certainly always suspected that that's how it works in life. Any complex economic system, like our described karma system, is largely unpredictable. Who's to say what kind of karma wars might erupt? A system like this will have consequences nobody anticipates. It's fun to do thought experiments, as we've done here, but the fact is we won't really know until afterward.

And there are lots of questions for which we hesitate to guess the answers: Is it better to give karma feedback to recipients immediately, so as to help them modify their actions appropriately? Or is it smarter to delay this information and make it anonymous, so that repercussions and threats won't influence its delivery? Who knows? These questions aren't likely to be answered without lots of testing and experimentation, but once that's done, we're likely to have a more pleasant and predictable online society.

We've been talking about digital karma in terms of our game, but that doesn't need to be where it ends. Newsgroups and bulletin boards would certainly benefit by having more good people and fewer bad. You could screen out bad-karma messages or the people that post them. And people who post would get measurable feedback on how helpful their posts are, without having to sift through a lot of noise.

INSTANT KARMA'S GONNA GET YOU

Predicting how computers will be used has never been easy. In the fifties, people thought computers would eventually calculate missile trajectories and save the world from the evil communists. In the seventies, the advent of the personal computer led Marketing people to reveal the true possibilities: we could balance our checkbooks and organize our recipes.

In fact, technology has affected nearly every aspect of our lives -- or my life, anyway. But technology hasn't had much effect on social behavior, which is probably the one area where we need it most. With the possible exceptions of soothing fish tank screen-savers and "simulations" that show the perils of evildoing by exploding the spleens of undead Nazis, computers have made even less impact on social mores than Dungeons and Dragons.

Not every piece of software, and certainly not every game, can (or should) try to have social relevance. But it's sure fun to keep one's eyes open for the possibility. That's how the Mac was created in the first place: computer geeks trying to change the world.

Naturally, karma already exists outside the online world -- it's just intangible and unquantifiable. Do-gooders (darn them!) tend to get what's coming to them; I'm more likely to go out of my way to help someone who has been helpful to others in the past. But it would sure be nice to be able to quantify this karma, so that we could get an idea of someone's "goodness" upon first meeting. Of course, it's possible that trying to quantify karma like this, putting numbers to it, will just create a sort of "behavioral economy," whereas the "real" karma, the intangible kind, will continue to exist independently, however we keep score.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to distribute karma in the real world? If we tracked it properly, karma would be more important than credit -- as it should be. Someday, with technology's help, we might be able to point a remote control and push a couple of buttons to reward that nice librarian or those kids that wrote that great game. Or finally do something about that granny in her fume-spewing Pinto, that dog-kicking punk, or the neighbor who mows his lawn at five-thirty in the morning.

Indeed, digital karma could revolutionize society -- or maybe it's just a thought experiment about a potential feature of a future game that might not even ship.


    RECOMMENDED READING

    • The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (E. P. Dutton, 1982).

    • Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do by Peter McWilliams (Prelude Press, 1993).

    • Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson (Andrews and McMeel, 1987).


JOE WILLIAMS is founder and president of Delta Tao Software, the self-proclaimed "coolest company in the world." He writes a rambling daily e-mail column to which you can subscribe by sending "subscribe joedeltalist" in the body of your message to majordomo@outland.com. Joe has +47 karma.*



Thanks to my sweetheart Mary Blazzard, to my mom Nancy Williams, to all the great folks on the Joedeltalist for helping push this column into readability, to Howard Vives for the cool illustration, and to Bo3b Johnson, Dave Johnson, Mark "The Red" Harlan, and Ned van Alstyne for their review comments.*


 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

How to get started with live.ly
One could be forgiven for thinking that there are already plenty of streaming video apps out there. It's just that the App Store charts would insist that you're mistaken. [Read more] | Read more »
Rodeo Stampede: Guide to all Savannah an...
A "gotta catch 'em all" joke seems appropriate here, even though we're talking animals in Rodeo Stampede and not pocket monsters. By now you've probably had plenty of rides, tamed some animals and built yourself a pretty nice zoo | Read more »
Is there cross-platform play in slither....
So you've sunken plenty of hours into crawling around in slither.io on your iPhone or iPad. You've got your stories of tragedy and triumph, the times you coiled four snakes at one time balanced out by the others when you had a length of more than... | Read more »
Rodeo Stampede guide to running a better...
In Rodeo Stampede, honing your skills so you can jump from animal to animal and outrun the herd as long as possible is only half the fun. Once you've tamed a few animals, you can bring them home with you. [Read more] | Read more »
VoxSyn (Music)
VoxSyn 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $6.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: VoxSyn turns your voice into the most flexible vocal sound generator ever. Instantly following even subtle modulations of pitch and... | Read more »
Catch Battleplans on Google Play from Ju...
Real-time strategy title Battleplans is due for release on Google Play on June 30th, following its release for iOS systems last month. With its simple interface and pretty graphics, the crowd-pleaser brings a formerly overlooked genre out for the... | Read more »
iDoyle: The interactive Adventures of Sh...
iDoyle: The interactive Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - A Scandal in Bohemia 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Books Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Special Release Price $1.99 (Normally $3.99) | Read more »
Five popular free apps to help you slim...
Thanks to retail and advertising, we're used to thinking one season ahead. Here we are just a week into the summer and we're conditioned to start thinking about the fall. [Read more] | Read more »
How to ride longer and tame more animals...
It's hard to accurately describe Rodeo Stampede to people who haven't seen it yet. It's like if someone took Crossy Roadand Disco Zoo and put them in a blender, yet with a unique game mechanic that's still simple and fun for anyone. [Read more] | Read more »
Teeny Titans - A Teen Titans Go! Figure...
Teeny Titans - A Teen Titans Go! Figure Battling Game 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Teeny Titans, GO! Join Robin for a figure battling RPG of epic proportions! TEENY... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Haven App Launches New Age Of Wirless 911 Eme...
Haven from RapidSOS represents a transformation in access to emergency services from a phone call solely dependent on voice to a robust data connection for voice, text, medical/demographic data.... Read more
Cu Parachute 1.1 Retirement Success PLanning...
Tucson, Arizona based Indie developer Bradley McCarthy has announce the release of Cu (Copper) Parachute 1.1 for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices — a tool with which users can continuously... Read more
Research and Markets Releases iPhone 6s Plus...
A new analysis report from Dublin-based Research and Markets observes that with the iPhone 6s Plus, Apple introduced a new rear camera module. The new device has similar structure and technology than... Read more
Apple refurbished Retina MacBook Pros availab...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros available for up to $380 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free... Read more
Apple refurbished 11-inch MacBook Airs availa...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 11″ MacBook Airs (the latest models), available for up to $170 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is... Read more
Apple price trackers, updated continuously
Scan our Apple Price Trackers for the latest information on sales, bundles, and availability on systems from Apple’s authorized internet/catalog resellers. We update the trackers continuously: - 15″... Read more
12-inch 32GB and 128GB WiFi iPad Pros on sale...
B&H Photo has 12″ 32GB & 128GB WiFi iPad Pros on sale for up to $80 off MSRP, each including free shipping. B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 12″ Space Gray 32GB WiFi iPad Pro: $749 $50... Read more
6-core Mac Pro available for $3799, save $200
B&H Photo has the 6-core 3.5GHz Mac Pro on sale for $200 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro (sku MD878LL/A): $3799.99, $200 off MSRP Read more
Apple refurbished Apple TVs available for up...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 32GB and 64GB Apple TVs available for up to $30 off the cost of new models. Apple’s standard one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: -... Read more
13-inch Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to...
B&H Photo has 13″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro: $1179 $120 off MSRP - 13″ 2.7GHz/... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions, Towson...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.