A Strange Tale in the Cracked-dirt Desert, Part II

This is part two of an ongoing look at A Tale in the Desert and its community. Part one can be found here.

In the heyday of savannah life, a few good people – actually good, caring and empathic – were the big movers of society. They were the ones who lurched us into modernity. They were the ones who set the stage for all major advancements in human history including agriculture and industry. They were also the ones that most ensured the survival of our small campfire societies.

Cooperators – these individuals interested in the well being of others and in the function of group living – allowed us humans to survive in the sweltering and starving savannahs of our early history. Like in the communities of our towns and cities, cooperation is what allows for the continued survival of the society that A Tale in the Desert has built for itself.

In the decades before Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 work “Governing the Commons…” the economist devised a set of principles that determined how groups function. What it boils down to, really, is an explanation of how groups can be made to work well and how individuals can lose focus on themselves and gain a group-interested perspective instead.

Ostrom’s principles have traditionally been applied to working-class farmer groups in poor economic areas. The one basic stipulation is that, from the outside, it seems that individuals can and should take advantage of other individuals. Judging by our culture’s emphasis on selfishness and the great pride we take in what Tom Wolfe penned the fascination with self, it seems perfectly normal to pursue the interests of individuals. Why then, in successful agricultural settings, does this not occur? We respect the lines drawn in the dirt and we form our pastures based on mutual agreements. The same can be said for the community within Tale. Why do players cooperate?

Before I started crapping up the dunes, I did talk with a few people who were, after politely berating me, very willing to prove to me how awesome the Tale community is. Out of his back pocket, one pulled out a game mechanic called the Test of the Bedouin. It went something like this:

Seven people every day were allowed to pass this test. By its very nature, the test was competitive – every player ran around the world, touching special altars for points. In response, a group of players self-organized and kept a list of all locations, which players could only get by joining this group, aptly named the Bedouins. Well, this group organized its members such that only seven people would run around at any one time. Voila! Cooperation. This approach greatly reduced the effort for all. Each player didn’t have to run around for more than a few hours to pass.

Take home from this that players cooperate because it makes sense. Cooperation eases the burden of working at something on one’s own whether it’s to find food in nature or to pass a test in Tale. But cooperation exists across the Tale community, even in instances where there is no clear advantage over selfish behavior.

There are three major points that I’ve borrowed from Ostrom that seem to explain this. All interact with each other and each establishes its own aspect of community. The first, and most important, is the principle of group identity. In Part 1, I mentioned, briefly, that identifying oneself with the Tale community is given high priority. Doing so ensures a certain level of commitment and investment into maintaining the community.

The relationship is pretty linear. If a community is growing, chances are there is more cumulative investment being poured into it. In more practical terms, supporting players in Tale by helping them build and by giving them resources ends up strengthening the community. People are more willing to continue playing if their goals are met and even more if their goals are met faster.

But when the community dwindles like it has been – in Tale’s case because of their shrinking autonomy – investment needs to increase to make up for the loss of working hands. This, I think, is where that third rule – identify yourself with the Tale community – comes from.

Diehards are in the process of rebuilding a once thriving and very active community by making sure that old and new players alike are helped as much as possible in the hopes that these players will, in turn, invest back into the community. In the strictest biological terms, this is called reciprocal altruism and it damn sure helps in maintaining communities all across the animal kingdom.

Ostrom’s second and third points of autonomy and self rule have already been mentioned. Their failures in Tale have been highlighted as the causes for desertification. I won’t go much into it, save for the fact that empowering people within groups helps to increase group identity. It’s not so hard to believe.

In my short time in Tale, I’ve built up and outwards from my first plot of greenish, muck-ish ground. I don’t really know if I’m part of the community yet. I mean, I’ve helped players and players have helped me with various chores, but I feel off about it. In the right light, part of me feels lucky to be able to witness the community spurting away, but not because I hate the game or loathe the people who play it. It just makes so much sense. I think I’ve become too self aware about the whole thing.

It’s still fascinating to me how A Tale in the Desert has adapted a very unique strategy to stake out its own in the MMO marketplace. Most other MMOs (read: most other games) just focus on the individual. Next time, we’ll take a step back and look at the holistic view of fostering communities from the perspective of MMOs instead of from the perspective of players.

This was the second part of an ongoing series on A Tale in the Desert and its community. Join me next week in concluding my look at Tale and its current state of affairs.