Reciprocal Altruism & the Need to Belong

Recently, I posted about the ethics of online games. The post itself was sparked by a flurry of posts among game industry news sources about the "ethical" responsibilities of game developers and the unscrupulous nature of social network games like Farmville. The claim in these blogs was that Farmville is hooking into our adapted mechanisms - under the assumption that the human brain evolved to provide positive feedback in situations that were advantageous for survival. Specifically, individuals have made claims that Farmville taps into reciprocal altruism to compel players to start and keep playing. In this post I want to explore some of the theory behind reciprocal altruism. Along the way I hope to demonstrate that how reciprocal altruism works, and that while it is a powerful force, it is just one of many motivations that help us establish and maintain social relationships. I'll also try and point out that with reciprocal altruism Farmville and other games have tapped into something that has existed in modern MMOs since they were created. In fact, while modern MMOs may not use simple tricks like scheduled gifting to induce reciprocity the modern MMO is designed in a fashion that creates a much larger social commitment, and therefore induces a higher cost for actually leaving the game. What I am saying is I think the modern MMO (World of Warcraft et al.) actually does a better job of tapping into our evolved need to conform and be part of groups. Perhaps concerned individuals should consider them as the culprits of "evolutionary baiting" rather than social network games.

Reciprocal Altruism & the Need to Belong

Humans are social animals. Our motivations – products of our evolutionary history – push us to seek out relationships with other human beings. A large body of scientific literature has provided evidence that people easily develop group identifications, attachments to caregivers, and relationships with strangers - a nice summary of this literature is in Leary and Cox, 2008. In fact, the cross-cultural nature of this type of behavior and the fact that humans almost always have relationships provides strong evidence that human socialization is both innate and universal across cultures. In addition to these indicators, there is other evidence that suggests humans possess a strong motivation to belong. The early work of Asch demonstrates that individuals seem to have a drive to conform, and a wide array of literature in social and evolutionary psychology has continued to explore conformity and found evidence that supports the initial findings of Asch.

Evolutionary game theory is useful because it can provide us with a means to understand how the desire for conformity and group membership might have come about. There are many benefits to group membership, such as protection, enhanced chance of finding a mate, and an improved ability to gather resources through coordination. However, in order for tightly knit groups and cooperation to evolve it is important to weed out cheaters and avoid the short-term temptation of cheating. A little classical game theory can demonstrate that the optimal outcome (Nash Equilibrium) of a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma is mutual defection. In the short-term without repeated interactions cheating is the best strategy and cooperation is the worst. From a different perspective, a little evolutionary game theory can provide us with a game where cooperation is the optimal outcome. A cooperative outcome is best when the following conditions are met – The game is played over multiple rounds, there is a community of players who repeatedly meet each other, and the players can identify each other. When these conditions are met the optimal outcome for the game is cooperation. Players that cooperate will do better over the long run than players who defect. Game theory paints for us an abstracted alternate universe where cooperation is the best strategy under a given set of conditions. The question that we must ask then is, “Is the game theoretic universe similar enough to our own that we should expect cooperative behavior to be successful?” The evidence appears to suggest that it is.

In our universe reciprocal altruism works because conditions exist that allow cooperation to yield better results than going it alone. In the evolutionary environment we can imagine situations where it is better to cooperate with others, for example bringing down large prey. Another interesting example where the conditions of the world are particularly important to cooperation is reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is essentially delayed sharing. When I have something I may choose to share with you in the hope that you will eventually return the favor. A lot of motivational research touches on reciprocal altruism and we have already established that for this type of cooperation to happen individuals must have a memory of their partners. However, one issue that many researchers don’t seem to fully appreciate about reciprocal altruism is that in order for it to be a better strategy than going alone there must be “gains from trade”.

For those who are not familiar with the concept of gains from trade, let me paint the following example using marginally declining utility. Imagine that I have a ¼ lbs. piece of meat. We’ll call this one unit of meat. The meat is very perishable I can’t store it so I have to eat it now. Assuming that you and I are both very hungry if I eat the meat I gain one unit of meat in satisfaction. Now imagine I have 5 units of meat (you still have zero). This time when I eat the meat I start to get full. I get full in a way that each additional unit of meat gives me the following satisfaction values:

Unit Satisfaction Value
1 1
2 .75
3 .5
4 .25
5 .125

In this situation the fifth unit of meat is worth very little to me. However, if I trade it to you it is worth much more, in fact in this imaginary world the piece of meat is worth (1 - .125) =.875 satisfaction value more to you than it is to me. By trading the meat we have gained .875 satisfaction points. The meat is actually more valuable overall if traded than if I keep it to myself. Under these conditions it is better for me to trade the meat to you and hope that when the day comes that you will return the favor.

As you can see with this example if meat did not have marginally declining utility there would be not gains from trade and there would be no incentive for me to trade with you. The good news is that conditions of marginally declining utility are not the only conditions that gains from trade can occur. There are other instances in our world where gains from trade can occur (for example specialization), but for the sake of brevity I won’t get into them. The important thing to understand here is that you can see how it is actually beneficial to engage in gift giving when the gift being returned has a higher value than the satisfaction value of what was traded and the probability of reciprocity is beyond a given threshold.

Since reciprocal altruism is a valued outcome it makes sense that there should be evolutionary mechanisms to identify and punish cheaters. In addition there should also be strong mechanisms to avoid increasing the probability that one is wrongly accused of being a cheater. While reciprocal altruism doesn’t paint the entire picture of why we have a motivation to belong and conform to groups it does provide a reason for why conformity would be advantageous and helps us understand the conditions under which it pays to be a member for a group. It also helps us understand that an individual who is seen as a reciprocal altruist should be more likely to be accepted in a group than one who cheats or free-rides.

Still the point must be made that reciprocal altruism is only part of the puzzle of conformity. Reciprocal Altruism and gains from trade create the conditions necessary for cooperative groups to be successful. The motivation of group conformity, social norms, and social pressures are complex. Reciprocal Altruism is not to the only social pressure working on an individual and it certainly is only one way to demonstrate ones viability for a cooperative group. My argument for the next section is that reciprocal altruism is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to actually motivating an individual to conform to group expectations or social norms and belong to a group.

Reciprocal Altruism & Belonging in Games

The motivations of social bonds and the desire to belong present some interesting opportunities for developers. In the modern MMO social groups play a very significant role in keeping players involved in the game. The games themselves are similar to sports in that they require large groups of players and teamwork, and the absence or failure of one player can be very costly. By facilitating play in large groups developers are creating environments that motivate players to play (desire for social relationships) and also discourage players from quitting (the desire to not let the team down & conform).

Just like in theory reciprocal altruism is only part of the picture. Remember earlier that I pointed out that reciprocal altruism required some form of gains from trade. In my example I used a resource with marginally declining utility, but this is not a necessary condition. For example Farmville create gains from trade using the following mechanism: A player is given a item. However, the item is of little value to them (in fact the value a player gives up is actually the opportunity cost of giving it to a different friend). Since the player can't use the item it is advantageous for them to give it to someone. In fact to try and attract their friends and get more neighbors it is often best for them to give it to someone not playing (devious Farmville attracting more players).

So yes, it would appear that Farmville is taking advantage of reciprocal gift giving in order to create social bonds. What does this really mean though? Critics of these games claim that reciprocal gift giving is used to suck players in and keep them playing Farmville. A veritable web of unpaid reciprocal gifts exists in Farmville and other social network games at any given moment!

However, it appears that if we look at social theory as a whole the modern MMO actually does a better job of retaining players through social pressure. Think about this. Quitting Farmville lets down the group in the following way: you are no longer a neighbor, and you can’t pay your reciprocal gift debts. Quitting a raiding guild in World of Warcraft actually lets down an entire team of people who rely on you to play the game. Wow guilds spend countless hours outfitting their raid members with gear, and training them to work efficiently within the group. A player who wants to leave is under tremendous pressure to rethink their decision. The WoW player really actually might get ostracized by the group if they quit. The Farmville player might make one or two people mad. So... Prehaps we should think twice about the “ethics” of game design. Developers with concerns that Farmville is abusing reciprocity to attract players, should really take a long look at the modern MMO and consider how it uses reciprocity and even stronger group commitments to keep players playing and paying.

Reciprocal Altruism & the Need to Belong by Travis Ross, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One Response to “Reciprocal Altruism & the Need to Belong”

  1. blest says:

    Remarkable issues here. I'm very glad to see your post.
    Thank you so much and I'm having a look ahead to touch you.

    Will you kindly drop me a mail?

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