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Mastering the Tragedy of the Commons

Commons is a crowd-sourced city improvement game that asks players to investigate, report, and rank problems facing particular areas of a city.

The basic idea behind the dilemmas represented by “the tragedy of the commons” is that a group of rational, self-interested individuals will eventually deplete a shared resource. This will occur because they attempt to maximize their personal gain -- even when the depletion is detrimental to every one's long-term interest. No matter how “rational” we are, the theory suggests, public commons will ultimately vanish because our own rationality drives us towards maximizing the extraction of non-renewable resources. But what if our own self-interest directly contributes to the preservation and improvement of public resources? By creating a game specifically about making a city better, Commons by Suzanne Kirkpatrick, Nien Lam, and Jamie Lin, is a game that aims to exploit self-interested gamers to foster public good.

Specifically, Commons is a crowd-sourced city improvement game that asks players to investigate, report, and rank problems facing particular areas of a city. Graffiti, cracked sidewalks, poor disabled access, etc., are all reportable offenses. The idea of having the public monitor their own neighborhood for persistent problems or improvement opportunities is not particularly new. New York and several other cities across the US offer mobile apps and services that allow residents to photograph and report public nuisances and hazards. Commons, commissioned by Games for Change and part of the Come Out and Play festival and River to River Festival in New York City, evokes the same “public participation” mentality through play.

Built for the iPhone, most players should find Commons easily accessible. Competitively played, teams of about 2-4 players scour a predefined region of a city, taking photos of locations that could be improved in specific ways. Each time that a photo is uploaded, players score a number of points based on the difficulty of the task. After submitting a photo, players must then vote twice on which of two previously submitted photos most urgently need fixing. Players are also rewarded points for the votes their suggestions receive. Wilting flowers, for example, might earn a few votes, but photographing a huge and dangerous hole in the sidewalk might bring in many points. When the game ends, the highest scoring player wins and the game hosts submit the top-rated suggestions to city council. Hopefully, if politicians pay attention to the problems discovered by their own citizens, the game will have a direct impact on the quality of life in a neighborhood or city.

At a pre-Games for Change festival event this past Sunday, I had an opportunity to play Commons for myself. Thus far, the game designers have tailored each play session to a particular geographical location. During my play session, the area below Chambers street in lower Manhattan was designated as the play space. This admittedly large swath of territory was then further broken up into nine quadrants. Each quadrant featured a set of questions or tasks worth anywhere from five to twenty points. How might Wall Street be improved for lunch goers? What might tourists need at the Ferry Building? How might the city improve an area for the elderly? These questions and many like them marked the parameters for players. Each assignment offered a relatively focused goal for which to aim, yet the collective set had me glancing around constantly for something to fix.

Commons actually felt quite similar to an alternate reality game. Rather than super-imposing a fictional world atop the existing one, I had to imagine alternate realities myself, populating the city streets with my own imaginary improvement projects. Above all else, Commons arouses a sense of ownership and awareness of one’s surroundings. I am only a visitor to New York, yet I felt a sense of pride navigating a well designed and pristine park largely free of glaring potholes and other obstacles. Alternatively, I felt a sense of shame and even anger at finding dangerously maintained crosswalks, poor signage, and a lack of disabled access to important locations. Sure, the city is massive and most citizens have far larger concerns, but why let such beautiful areas fester?

As a newcomer to New York, Commons also provided a great excuse to explore the city with a different perspective than most. My team specifically sought out areas likely overlooked by city officials. We passed by tourist traps in search of fenced-off areas and poorly maintained side streets. We wanted the city as it is, not as it is projected to be. The southern portion of Manhattan is quite nice, certainly compared to some of the most impoverished portions of the city. Regardless, the game encourages players to seek out the worst offenses. By catching the city’s shame on camera, players earn more points towards their self-interested victory.

Like most games, self-interested players will find a way to exploit the system. Shortly into the two-hour match, my teammate realized we could submit as many photos into the twenty-point categories as we wanted. As a result, an astute player could flood the voting system with their own high scoring photos without retribution. If your submissions outnumber the others, when players are forced to vote they will likely encounter your suggestion, giving you more opportunities to gain points. Our team only submitted photos to the highest scoring categories, fitting nearly every random public nuisance into the system. At over three thousand points, our team surpassed the second placed team by well over one thousand points.

Theoretically, if these exploits are not mended, then the results could be drastically unrepresentative of the player base and not actually address the most important real-life issues affecting a neighborhood’s enjoyment of common space. Towards the end of the game, several players were submitting joke photos. Offering better salsa selections at Chipotle should never be a high priority for city officials.

Commons is still a work in progress. Future iterations will likely feature persistent play in any urban environment, giving everyone a chance to play the game whether or not they have a formal host. The developers are also hoping to partner with city and state governments across the nation to incorporate the game data into their own reporting systems.

Technically, Commons could be considered a direct impact game. By game’s end, the hosts will have a solid list of improvement projects to submit to policy makers, hopefully creating actual change within a reasonable time frame. Equally important, public games alter how we understand the spaces that we navigate every day. One of the conceits of the tragedy of the commons is that individuals see public goods as purely exploitable resources. Games encourage us to adjust our perceptions of reality. At their best, public games like Commons are not about winning or exploiting the mechanics. They are about seeing your environment differently and asking yourself: why can’t we make the world as we imagine?

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