When META Met Society

Not being a gamer (assuming you don’t consider ‘striods a serious game anymore), Megan McArdle’s explanation was new to me, even though it may not be new to many of you.

In some respects, a good society is like a good game. Both have well-defined, well-designed rules that allow for the pleasures of companionship alongside the thrill of competition. Both require their participants to have virtues, such as honesty and good sportsmanship, that temper the naked lust for victory. And both offer everyone a fair chance of winning and keep the cost of losing bearable.

Okay, nothing new yet, but wait for it.

One particularly useful concept I’ve been thinking about lately is what online gamers call a game’s “meta.”

Like cool tech “meta”? Nope. The other meta.

Many gamers will tell you that “meta” stands for “most effective tactics available,” and while “dominant strategy” isn’t the only meaning of a subtle and capacious concept, that aspect suits what I want to talk about: how game designers respond when a meta becomes so dominant, it threatens to break the game.

To a large extent, the idea that there were aspects of social rules that could be exploited to one’s advantage hasn’t been a big secret. If you were big and strong, you could beat up someone small and weak. You could steal their wallet, watch and jewelry. The only thing that prevented this from happening constantly was the societal belief that this was wrong and bad, and that people who did this to other people were wrong and bad. Notably, it did not stop everyone. And it was not the only opportunity presented by a society that valued law and human life ripe for exploitation.

Last week, law enforcement officials arrested a California teenager who reportedly might be one of the most prolific “swatters” in history, meaning that the teen allegedly called in false 911 reports of the kind that are designed to generate an overwhelming police response — such as bomb threats or active shootings. This practice is insanely dangerous; in 2017, a man in Kansas was killed when police stormed his house after such a call. But it has become alarmingly common, because it is a powerful way to harass someone, even from thousands of miles away.

Beyond the obvious alarm and moral outrage, what’s striking is that swatting was possible long before it became popular. Even though 911 launched in the late 1960s, and police began adopting paramilitary tactics decades ago, swatting seems to have started in earnest in the early 2000s by gamers who were competing against one another online. (Since then, the targets have broadened to include public officials, celebrities and schools.)

It is somewhat remarkable that a very powerful tactic, attractive to wrongdoers, could lie undiscovered within the system so long — a meta-lag, if you will. What’s not remarkable is that it was popularized by gamers. Online communities are hyperefficient engines for finding and mining an unexploited meta-lag, processing it into a new meta, and then exporting it globally. And swatting’s not the only incidence of this.

Megan provides a couple other examples, but I want to add one of my own. The law prohibits  the use of deadly force against another except in self-defense (with certain inapplicable exceptions). Protesters figured out that they could simply stand in front of a car, which would turn into a deadly weapon if intentionally driven into a person, and there wasn’t a damn thing the car could lawfully do about it. A handful of protesters could thus shut down thousands of cars, together with the thousands of people within them, to inflict misery for their cause with this one cool trick. Meta.

And that’s just one now-commonplace example of how sound legal reasoning is exploited. Megan offers another very serious example.

If you want an example closer to a gaming meta, consider the crisis along the southern U.S. border. Wanting to build a better life for yourself and your family isn’t morally wrong like car theft or shoplifting; it’s admirable. But migrants eventually hit on a too-effective strategy: file a dubious asylum claim. And it spread rapidly. The asylum system wasn’t made to handle economic migrants, especially at this volume, and the flows are not only overwhelming its capacity but also threatening its political legitimacy.

There are legitimate asylum claims, and then there are people who claim asylum knowing that it means they get to stay for years if not forever because the system is broken and incapable of addressing the volume. Supporters of open borders will shrug and say, “yeah, so?” But that’s not what asylum is there for, and is just an easy exploit. You can’t blame anyone crossing the border for taking advantage of it, as they’re only doing what most of our ancestors did before them. Just a little less orderly.

In the real world, of course, policymakers are often tweaking the rules to make things less exciting, and more safe and secure. But whether you’re a game designer trying to keep things hopping or a lawmaker looking for peace and quiet, you need to start by assuming there’s a lot of unexploited meta-lag out there waiting to cascade into a problem — and that, wherever it is, someone will eventually find it and share the information with several million of their closest friends. So you must be prepared to quickly change the rules of the game until the most popular tricks no longer work.

For the purpose of crafting games that maintain their interest by not making them too easy to exploit, changing the rules not only makes sense, but is fairly easily done. Whether gamers are cool with it is another matter. But changing laws and regulations in the face of meta exploitation isn’t always so easy. There is usually a reason the rules are as they are. There is a reliance factor that create legal stability. And there is the problem of unintended consequences. The alternative to bad isn’t necessarily good. It can always get worse. Too often, it does.

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