Gaming the System: Lessons from Video Games for a Better Society

Are video games merely a source of entertainment or could they be complex models of our society, offering untapped insights?

Gaming the System: Lessons from Video Games for a Better Society
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Video games have a disgusting reputation outside the gaming world. Many view them as vices, like drugs, gambling or alcohol. President Macron even went ahead to blame video games for the riots in Paris.

Perhaps it’s time we took a closer look at video games and explained to President Macron why ignorance, such as that he just displayed, earned him the ridicule it did. Video games aren’t just entertainment; they are also complex social ecosystems, economic laboratories, and learning platforms, mirroring many aspects of our real-world lives.

Personal Background

For the greater part of my life I have played video games of all types and at various levels, from casual to competitive. I have formed and been part of gaming communities called 'guilds'. Indeed some of the things that make me great at my job, I have learned in video games.

There’s the simple things that most will tell you about. I have faster fingers than the average person. I multi-task better, due to my long history of playing Starcraft & Warcraft. I am better at picking targets, having often been the tactical coordinator in massive battles in MMOs. But none of that matters either. They are but droplets that compound well over time, and indeed I may have developed these in different scenarios as well.

Role of Video Games in Society and Workplace

In today’s world, there’s considerable discussion about competition, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Fairness of all things is hailed as some form of holy grail for something. I am not sure what that’s supposed to be, but I am told fairness is crucial. I can accept that many people place great importance on these factors, but I argue that none of these matter.

The Theoretical Aspect of Video Games

What many overlook, is the game theoretical aspect of video games and in particular MMORPGs & MOBAs. MMORPGs (Multiplayer online role-playing games) are games where a large number of players interact within a virtual game world. MOBAs (Multiplayer online battle arenas) are strategy games where two teams of players compete against each other, aiming to destroy the opposing team’s main structure.

As reference, I will use games that I have played myself, and where I have extensive anecdotal knowledge. And many of you, your friends or kids may be familiar with them, too. I’m talking about World of Warcraft and DotA. World of Warcraft being the most successful MMORPG of the past decades and DotA being original game out of which sprung up the modern MOBA genre.

But before getting into these games, let me tell you why I find that this environment translates so well into Game Theory. In the political sphere there's people advertising free-market, freedom of speech, freedom of identity and freedom to pursue happiness. I would argue that in MMORPGs, you start out with all these. So you can observe how they evolve over time.

Now, let’s explore some additional things that, may sound utopian. You have beautiful sceneries, amazing experiences and amazing infrastructure. You have a benevolent hands-off government, the developers. From level one and beyond, developers strive to maintain fairness and equality. It's as if we lived in the green utopia of our dreams...

Gaming Community and Toxicity

And what do you observe in these worlds? Some people form friendships that last a lifetime, others call the communities out for being toxic and refuse to ever engage with them again. How can that be? How can you have a fair, equitable society, where everyone is free to do what they want, and yet people are unhappy?

In the game world there isn’t such a thing as rent. You don’t have to declare your taxes. The government isn’t corrupt, and will have as sole interest, that the players have as great a time playing the game as possible.

And yet, people find a way to be unhappy. You have all the best things that capitalism promises, and DEI promises and socialism promises. And yet, something is wrong…

But let’s take a closer look at how the communities function and what activities they engage in.

A common activity in these games is raiding. Raiding is when a group of people gather up to defeat powerful monsters in hopes of improving their equipment. This equipment allows them conquer stronger monsters, thereby perpetuating the cycle… After some time, they no longer seek to defeat the monsters, but compete over who harmed the monster most, or which group defeated them the fastest. And it becomes a form of athletic competition. This is called Player vs Environment (PvE).

As you may expect, there comes a point when repeating this activity gets boring. Thus the some of the same players then seek more direct competition. Duels. Some duel one versus one, but soon they find that the contest isn’t fair, due to inherent advantages of one role over another. A healer may not be best suited to defeat an armored warrior. Thus the duel expands to two players, three players, and all the way to 40 players. Some MMOs choosing to have no limit at all. This is called Player vs Player (PvP).

The Impact of Competition

Do you think with 40 players, fairness is achieved? Indeed, the tiny differences start compounding into an avalanche. And soon the entire game becomes a sophisticated form of rock-paper-scissor.

If you have been paying attention, you’ll notice that there’s already strong parallels to the socio-economic landscape of the world. Competing in the economy, competing on the battlefield, competing in culture.

Indeed, if you seek performance, competition seems to be the way forward. This is often referred to as healthy competition. That's when someone defines rules to make the competition fair. And yet again, you soon realize that fairness does not last long, be it in the real world or the virtual world.

Things such as creativity, skill, time, friends will impact the outcome of the competition far beyond the ability of rules to provide fairness.

So what's the lesson? The lesson is that while fairness is a noble goal to strive towards, it is unrealistic. This being proven not by philosophy, but by data collected from millions of players over almost 20 years.

And how does this translate to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and policies such as Affirmative Action? They won't work. They can't work. They are forced behaviour, and the outcome is creative action to dodge the forced behaviour. Like the kid that sneaks out of the house.

But let’s try this with a game that has perfect equity, diversity, inclusion and freedom of speech. This same game offers you an equal playing field every 20-45 minutes. DotA. The way to win here is to have superior coordination and superior personal skill. A meritocracy, if you will.

The Power of Video Games as Models for Society

Do MOBAs, then, represent a haven of happy players, given their inherent fairness and equity? After all, everything is fair and equitable. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone agreeing with that, quite the opposite. One of the biggest problems MOBAs face are toxic behaviour in the community.

So how come these communities are so terrible? What makes them toxic?

This is a recurring pattern, in various MOBAs and popular shooter games.

As the average skill level increases, the new challenge becomes 'skill inflation'. To compete at the same level, more is now demanded of each player. Thus the barrier of entry is even higher for new players, which now face increased toxicity, until they meet the expected standards.

Understanding why these game communities can become so hostile, even under conditions of fairness and equity, is a question that needs to be explored further. Researchers, particularly those in social and behavioral sciences, could draw invaluable insights about human behavior and social dynamics from studying these online environments.

If fairness can’t created in a fully controlled environment, then how can it work in an environment as volatile as the real-world?

Perhaps it’s time to realize that fairness is an outcome, not a goal. It’s the result of having an environment of friendship and positive energy, where people wish to help eachother grow. Fairness cannot be mandated, any more than the sunrise can be mandated.

Alternative Communities and Fostering Positive Energy

I was fortunate enough in my time playing to find a rather odd micro-community, or guild. It didn’t seek to be well organized, it didn’t seek to compete and it didn’t mandate DEI. Indeed, it mandated very little at all. This guild was run by a psychotherapist, who noticed the potential to try out theories in a large setting.

The approach to this communtiy was simple: focus on players that have great positive energy and foster them. So who organized things? Whoever had great energy and cared about the specific subject. If there was nobody that cared, it was left to chance. But more often, than not, players rose to the challenge. In the 10 years I had spent in this community, the person picked by chance was replaced only once. Not the right energy.

This sounds like a group focused on happiness, no? But you may think that this doesn’t work in the real world. There’s duties demanding attention, and nobody is inclined to do them, unless they are coerced to do it. It turns out that when a problem grew big enough, someone always stepped up, ready to clean it up and design a system to prevent it from happening again. Random chance, had yet again solved a problem of organization.

So what about personal growth? What about excellence? This same community had an ebb and flow of members coming in and leaving. Often the ambitious individuals would leave and form their own communities. Some such off-shoot communities became the best in the world.

The Value of Video Games for Societal Progress

This brings us to a key question:: What should society focus on? Happiness, efficiency or relative success?

It turns out that creating great energy around you, drives success. People can be content with very little and be happy. Some people require others to generate energy for them to mobilize. At all times the results are better, when the focus is set on positive energy, not performance. This observation is possible because of the quick iteration cycle in video games. Something that would have taken several generations to learn in the real-world.

Video games are sometimes a problem for us, but they can show us what works and what doesn’t. They can do so in a way that doesn’t require us to sacrifice entire generations of our young to find out. Paper-perfect ideologies often pose problems in practice. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed for someone to tell you that communism, as described on paper would be bad. The argument against communism is real-life evidence. And the same holds true for capitalism and all the other 'isms'.

What system really works, who knows… time will tell.

But the negative stigma video games are sufffering from today, is preventing us from finding the opportunities they hold. On the bright side, I am not alone with this view. There’s numerous behavioural psychology studies that analyze how video games impact human behaviour. Perhaps with AI will be able to draw better learnings and create a society built not on short-term growth, or utopian fantasies.

Maybe it's possible to draw out all the best virtues of humans, and find a place for the darkest desires to become catalysts for a better future. It's unrealistic to ask of someone to stop being human. The seven deadly sins are what they are, because all humans share them. Suppressing them is bound to come back with a vengeance eventually.


Video games have a lot to teach us. They are virtual laboratories for human behavior, offering us a risk-free environment to test and observe social dynamics in real-time. As AI continues to evolve and becomes more integrated into our lives, it's important to understand these dynamics more than ever. Imagine what waste it would be to have all this information thrown away, based on prejudice alone.

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