Assume your rules will be abused

(Since this post is a little bit political, I should make clear that views expressed are my own and not necessarily those of my employer. OK, with that out of the way, carry on…)

I don’t really intend to talk about politics or current affairs here much. But I read this morning that of the 62 apartments sold in One Hyde Park, the world’s most expensive residential block, only nine are paying council tax.  And that got me thinking: you know who would be good at writing laws?

Video game designers.

One of the first things you learn when designing game systems–either the easy way, from a more experienced designer, or the hard way from seeing how people play your game when it’s released–is to design rules with the assumption that they will be abused.

It’s not such a big deal with single-player games (where rules-abusers only affect themselves) or small-scale multiplayer games (where the group can police itself), but it becomes very important with massively multiplayer games. You’ve got to think about griefers (deliberately disruptive players), but you’ve also got to think about groups of players organising themselves to take advantage of the rules. You can design what you intend as a co-operative game, but if one player can get an advantage by screwing over the other players, that’s what they’ll do; and you can design what you think is a competitive game, but if players can maximise their rewards by co-operating, that’s what they’ll do. Players will always look for the way to maximise their rewards, even if it’s less fun to play that way and even if it screws over other players.

Game designers have to think about this as they design the game rules, so they release a game whose rules can’t be abused like this. And in most modern games, if they find after release that people are abusing the rules in a way that spoils the game for others, they can release a rules patch to fix it.

Maybe this is wishful thinking and betrays a lack of political knowledge, but when I see news stories like the one I linked to, I wish that the same design philosophy could be applied to real-world laws. Whatever legal hoops involving companies registered in the British Virgin Islands people can jump through to avoid paying tax, that’s clearly an abuse of the law, and the fact that the abuse is possible means the system is poorly designed.

I suspect that a lot of modern problems could be solved if we were to take a bit of games design wisdom and make it a guiding principle for our lawmakers: Design laws with the assumption that they will be abused, and if it turns out they can be abused, fix them.

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One Response to Assume your rules will be abused

  1. Felix Pearce says:

    From my point of view, the problem with that is that laws in a society affect a hugely diverse range of people, so your game-designer lawyers would have to be capable of understanding exactly how any given rule tweak would affect all of those minorities – crucially, whether it would give any one or more groups a significant advantage or disadvantage overall. On a national scale it’s a mindbogglingly difficult problem, and In the last eighteen months I’ve seen some superb evidence of the knock-on effects of governmental ignorance about minority needs right here in the UK.

    And then of course you think a bit more and end up with the depressing realisation that the game-designer model is actually already how lawmaking works – it’s just that the rules are also being played as a system *by the people making the laws*. Rewarding their own peer group is their primary goal, but they have to play far enough under society’s radar that the electorate don’t spot it and vote them out.

    Paging Sir Humphrey – I think David Cameron needs your support…

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