Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Gaming the Socialist Calculation Debate

Marginal Revolution today links to a review of a new video game: Dawn of Discovery.

Trying to figure out whether I'd be best advised to find the PC or the Wii version, I did a quick check of other reviews and found this gem.
Sadly, managing the resources you need to produce isn't straightforward, which makes the otherwise delightful business of city building occasionally irksome. With any of your production facilities, you can tell at a glance at what percentage of their peak efficiency they're operating. However, it's not clear how this translates into tons of goods produced. 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. Scrambling to create more facilities to produce whatever you're suddenly lacking works, and over time, through trial and error, you'll develop a better sense of how many production facilities you'll need for each of your goods, but that's hardly an ideal way to handle this important aspect of gameplay.
Indeed. And, it's an even worse problem if you're trying to run a real economy this way rather than a video game one. I've always been troubled by this aspect of games like SimCity and Civilization. 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.


  1. I completely agree.

    But then again, Civilization is great fun :)

  2. Isn't it though. It's especially great when Ira won't let me sleep and brain is too pudding to do any real work.

  3. It is very addictive though, always 1 more turn.

    I think it would provide a good example of time inconsistency :)

  4. I've often wished for a Simcity-ish simulation that operated on actual market principles. I even tried getting a copy of a simulation called "Capitalism" but its just a different flavor of micro-management at the agent level.

    Alright, who wants to start a Hayekian inspired game company with me?

  5. If I recall correctly some versions of Civ had a town council or "mayor" function that would take over a lot of the micromanagement details if you preferred. I used it in CivIII to manage citizen contentment levels, preventing revolts. I vaguely recall it could be used to automate city production as well, and could be set on a city by city basis, or apply to all cities, so if you wanted to switch from a growth model to a war footing a few clicks would change civilisation production. I didn't play with those aspects much, always had my doubts about the I of the AI :)