Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel: The MMO

I'm enjoying my free development economics course at Mr. University that started this week. One of the videos in the course covers Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel," a book I placed on my list of top intellectual influences.

Classmate Bo Bayles posed an interesting question about a massive multiplayer online game to act as a computer model to demonstrate Diamond's biological determinism theory of why some nations develop and others stagnate:

Suppose I created and successfully marketed a large online video game that randomly assigned players to geographic areas that had features associated with Eurasia and then watched as the game evolved. Would these observations carry much weight in academia? Should universities be doing this sort of thing?

What would such a game look like if it wanted to accurately represent Diamond's model?

It would require players to start in different areas with different environments. However, it would not be as simple as providing one group more items to harvest, monsters to fight or quests to complete. That would simply show that ownership of natural resources leads to growth, which Diamond has made clear was never his point.

Instead, diamond spoke about sometimes the plants and animals around a civilization required fewer people to work to achieve subsistence levels. It took five people to feed five people in ancient Papua New Guinea while only four ancient people were needed feed five in the Fertile Crescent. That freed up one fifth of the workforce to accomplish other tasks, which lead to progress and civilization.

For the Guns, Germs and Steel online game players would need to have some kind of ticking time bomb that needs to be kept in check daily, such as hordes of enemies that try to overrun the village but provide no experience points when killed or an ancient well that requires constant sacrifices of materials mined from nearby resource nodes.

One starting village would have an easier time meeting that daily upkeep because of their surrounding environments, such as nodes that produce raw materials at a faster rate or materials for weapons that make warriors more powerful and allow a smaller group of players to hold off the ravaging hordes. This would allow some players from the gifted village to go on quests or craft better items for his faction.

The only problem would be that this game wouldn't be fun for most players, as farming or grinding all day merely to keep from dying is not a rewarding experience. Perhaps that's why Sim Subsistence Farmer or Civilization: Bushman never took off.


  1. And yet, Minecraft has a Survival mode.

  2. "It wasn't his point to show that having more resources leads to more growth."
    Okay, but his point WAS that having an easier time harvesting an equal amount of resources leads to more growth? Seems like splitting hairs to me.
    Did I miss something?

    1. It's not hair splitting at all. Having more resources could spur growth, but you have to have someone willing to exchange something else you want for your surplus of... whatever.

      On the other hand, when it becomes less costly to produce a unit of something, people are freed up to go do something else. Now there are more things that can be traded, and poof, you have more wealth. Comparative advantage rules the day.

      Watch some Survivorman. He has to produce everything he wants and needs, leaving no time for him to do anything else. You see similar results in areas where people still live as primitive tribes.

      Like Matt Ridley said, "It was self-sufficiency. we call that poverty these days."

  3. Religion and other such institutions, and how they interact with each other also have also played huge roles.

    If the catholic church had been subordinate to governments, or the other way around, instead of constantly battling to be on top, Europe would be very different. There does seem to be some advantage conferred on civilizations from certain kinds of strife.

    In Europe we ended up with a highly individualistic society. In other words, competitive, not just between people but between, nobles, kings, and clerics, all in competition with, supporting or exploiting each other to various degrees at various times. You might view it as the first real meaningful separation of church and state.

  4. Abner, let's look at Papua New Guinea and the Fertile Crescent.

    Papua New Guinea had plenty of resources, but they were labor-intensive. People had to spend a lot of time turning trees into food, even though there is a lot of it.

    In the Fertile Crescent, the wheat required much less labor to turn into food. In both cases, abundance was irrelevant.

  5. Okay. Fair enough. I guess the point is just so self-evident that it seems barely worth noting.
    I mean, is it really new information to anyone that gathering resources more efficiently promotes economic growth?
    It's almost liek telling someone that tractors help grow farms faster than hoes.

  6. "liek"..."like".
    Whatever, it's the internet.

  7. Great insight is often obvious in retrospect.

    The way he framed the issue, of freeing up workers to pursue other tasks, is key.

    Diamond made his theory incredibly interesting, such as how large, easily-domesticated animals that reproduce quickly give people a huge advantage.