March 97 - The Veteran Neophyte
THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
- The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (E. P. Dutton, 1982).
- Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do by Peter McWilliams (Prelude Press,
- Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson (Andrews and McMeel, 1987).
JOE WILLIAMS is founder and president of Delta Tao Software,
"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
firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe has +47
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.*