A Blizzard on Capitol Hill

Congress needs to start playing games.

Source: Wake Up Freeman / Flickr.

Today’s world is incredibly complex, making it difficult to predict the outcome of many federal policies, especially several years down the road. Often times, politicians are wrong about their expectations for the future and misattribute successes or failures to the wrong policies, which are deeply interdependent.

The process by which laws are made today is remarkably unscientific.

Despite the current lack of reliable data, there is hope of simulating real-world policies within massively multiplayer online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, where many young people gather daily in a fictional world to buy and sell goods in a way that mimics the real economy. Blizzard, the maker of the widely popular game, has the potential to run experiments on policies before they’re ever enacted in the real world.

Import tariffs are a hot topic these days. Many people have opinions about free trade and protectionism, yet there’s a dearth of concrete information about tariffs and their impact on national economies. We have history to review, but we can’t run experiments on the past. Implementing tariffs scientifically in a gaming world would enable researchers to see the effect on gamers’ monthly productivity in contrast to an in-game control group. Politicians could subsequently make more informed decisions about repealing or creating country-specific tariffs in the real world.

I spoke with Miles Smith III, an avid player, to get a deeper understanding of the mechanics of World of Warcraft.

  • Gold is like currency. Gold can be exchanged for real money using tokens.
  • The gold is not finite and is constantly introduced through ‘item drops’ and removed when players make purchases from non-player characters (NPCs).
  • There are separate continents.
  • There are auction houses accessible to a global economy within each server.
  • Each server has a unique economy.
  • People can switch servers, but the amount of gold they can take with them is limited.
  • Some items in the game are ‘soulbound,’ which means that they cannot be traded with other players once they are acquired.

The largest distinction between the game and the real world is that NPCs can create an infinite number of goods at a fixed price. They do not need raw materials, labor, or capital to make these goods; the products appear out of nowhere. However, there are many goods, such as metal ore, herbs, fish, and textiles, that are substantially or exclusively produced by players and cannot be purchased from NPC vendors. These types of goods are the most suitable for testing tariff policies.

The beautiful opportunity here is that an administrator of a game like World of Warcraft not only has massive amounts of data available, but also absolute experimental discretion. Pricing information is publicly available for most goods, and Blizzard has total authority to see and control every type of transaction that is allowed to occur in the game.

Games like Civilization VI could also present useful opportunities to test federal policies before putting them into action. The policy simulations don’t have to be charitable — one of these gaming companies could grow far beyond their current revenue streams to supply useful data to the U.S. government and the American people, either directly or through third-party research organizations.

If you work at Blizzard, Firaxis Games, or a similar gaming company, I will introduce you to a Stanford professor that would be interested in speaking with you about this opportunity.

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