Dynamist Blog

Learning from Habitat

In chapter 5 of The Future and Its Enemies (excerpted here), I talk about the insights into governance gained from the early online game Habitat:

Back in 1985, when personal computers were strange and wondrous inventions just filtering into American homes, Chip Morningstar and his colleagues created an online world in which Commodore 64 owners could meet, play, and communicate with each other. The computers were simple, the modems slow, but the world--called Habitat--quickly became complex. Habitat provided its users with an animated landscape, props, activities, and cartoon personas called avatars. Users could send each other e-mail or converse through text in word balloons. Working from this underlying structure, Habitat's virtual citizens developed a wide variety of social activities and institutions. They invented games and dance routines, went on treasure hunts and quests, published a newspaper, threw parties, got "married" and divorced, founded religions and businesses, wrote and sold poems and stories, and debated weighty issues.

Watching Habitat develop made Morningstar think seriously about how rules shape societies, and what the limits of rule making are. "It was a small but more or less complete world, with hundreds and later thousands of inhabitants," he recalls. "And I, along with my coworkers, was God." In theory, the programmers made the rules, knew them thoroughly, and could change them at a stroke. But their godlike powers weren't as limitless as they seemed. Says Morningstar: "Again and again we found that activities that we had planned based on often unconscious assumptions about user behavior had completely unexpected outcomes....We could provide opportunities for things to happen, but we could not predict or dictate the outcome."

If there were chinks in the rules, the players found them. A few enterprising souls spent hours shuffling between a "Vendroid" machine selling dolls for 75 tokens and a pawn machine in another region buying them for 100 tokens. When the arbitrageurs had enough profit to buy crystal balls for 18,000 tokens, they repeated the same procedure with a pawn machine paying 30,000 tokens, until the Habitat money supply had quintupled overnight. When questioned about the source of their newfound wealth, they replied, "We got it fair and square!"

"Unintended consequences really have to do with naive people believing that there are no holes [in the rules]. It's very easy to seduce yourself into thinking that you've got everything under control," says Morningstar. "And the reality is, it's almost never true." Clever people will always come up with ideas no central rule maker has conceived.

Over and over again, Habitat's designers ran into the limits of their own knowledge. The range of tastes and knowledge its many users brought to Habitat quickly overwhelmed the ability of designers to foresee how users would react. A treasure hunt that took weeks to build lasted less than a day, after a single Habitat resident quickly discovered a critical clue; the winner had a great time, but most of the other players barely got started. The system's operators soon realized the value of letting users create their own games. "It's not that they could necessarily do things that were as good as some of the things that we had the facilities to do," says Morningstar. "But the things which they did were much more directly in tune with what people immediately wanted--because they were much more directly in contact with themselves."

I was pleased to discover that Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer now have a blog extending their insights to the present day. It's full of good stuff.

And, in the "I am so old" department, my "7-year-old niece" mentioned in the chapter's lead is now a 16-year-old rising senior at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts & Humanities, specializing in visual arts. She'll doing some college shopping while visiting us later this summer.

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