Evolution, Entertainment, and the Socialist Calculation Debate

Eric Crampton is justly worried that the God-Game genre, typified by SimCity and Civilization, fills people with technocratic hubris, giving rise to the fatal conceit that a benevolent planner can actively improve the lives of citizens through direct intervention. He quotes a review of the new game Dawn of Discovery which complains that the complexity of running an entire society doesn’t make for interesting gameplay:

Naturally, as your population grows, so too does the amount of each good that the population consumes, but there’s no clear way to determine just how many tons of a particular good your residents require. This makes it needlessly difficult to anticipate upcoming shortages, and it’s easy to get frustrated when you find yourself in the midst of a dairy crisis or similar shortage that could have been avoided with clearer information regarding supply and demand.

As Eric points out, any planner in the real world would face even more serious problems. The sheer complexity of social and economic life makes large-scale planning impossible:

If you as central planner don’t build things like airports, ports, libraries, universities, temples or a colosseum, they just don’t get built. If your workers don’t build farms and mines, no entrepreneur steps in to do it. In SimCity, or at least the version I played more than a decade ago now, you have to specify rigid zoning and can’t just let the city evolve. Unfortunately, any realistic game that requires the central planner to make all of these decisions will require that we encounter the calculation problem; it’s neat to see the game reviewer complaining about it. Of course, the gaming would be a bit more boring for the player if he could just set some basic laws, a low tax rate, and try to stay on good terms with the other civilizations out there: the game is designed to maximize fun for the player, not to maximize utility for the simulated persons within the game. The more that games disguise the inefficiencies caused by the “economic planning” approach, the less will today’s players appreciate Hayek.

I think that’s dead right, and also applies to any form of entertainment with a macro-social setting. We enjoy playing games with relatively simple cause-and-effect dynamics because our minds evolved to deal with simple cause-and-effect situations. Most of the challenges we faced in our ancestral environment, and continue to face in our everyday lives today, involve overcoming a particular problem without much need to be concerned about unintended consequences.

A society at large, though, doesn’t work this way, but is instead a complex system in which results emerge from the interaction of many individuals pursuing their disparate goals. Any attempt to improve outcomes through top-down intervention is just as likely to make matters worse. There is conflict between our folk economics and reality and, when we want to be entertained, folk economics always wins: nobody wants to play a game in which the only winning move is not to play, or read a book with no protagonist.

The availability heuristic means that consuming stories of active characters changing the macrostructure of the world singlehandedly through sheer grit and determination is likely to bias our perceptions of reality. The ease of imagining some situation, for example, seems to affect its perceived likelihood. Since entertainment does our imagining for us, it will likely bias our models of the world.

While many fictional biases are likely to affect our everyday lives (by making us afraid of terrorists, for example), technocratic hubris and the “Great Man” theory of history probably don’t matter most of the time. Where they could plausibly have an effect is in the political realm, biasing both voter preferences towards statism and giving policymakers too much faith in their own technocratic abilities. Unfortunately, politics provides no incentives for the correction of our biases.

One Response

  1. Exactly the reason I only play FPS games – my only planning is to waste as many Gangs, Mercs, Aliens, Mutants, Communists or NAZI’s as possible.

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