Categories of Sacredness

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Pre­vi­ously: Eter­nal, and Hearth­stone Econ­omy ver­sus Magic Econ­omy, Out to Get You

On Lesser Wrong, Jen­niferRM gave a re­ply that is worth quot­ing in full:

If I un­der­stand cor­rectly, the cog­ni­tive pro­cess/​bias/​heuris­tic/​what­ever of “sa­cred­ness” is rele­vant here.
Nei­ther nails nor dol­lars are sa­cred so you’re free to trade dol­lars for nails.
A kid­ney is sa­cred, so you can’t trade that for dol­lars, but you can trade it for an­other kid­ney (al­though such trades still feel a bit weird).
Sa­cred things are of­ten poorly man­aged in prac­tice, and sa­cred­ness is easy to make fun of, but a de­cent defense of sa­cred­ness might be that it is one of the few widely in­stalled psy­cholog­i­cal mechanisms in real life for man­ag­ing the down­sides of hav­ing mar­kets in things. Thus, prop­erly de­ployed sa­cred­ness might let you have “trade” in one area with­out end­ing up with “to­ta­lal­iz­ing trade”?
In the smaller and hope­fully lower stakes world of video games, I think the sug­ges­tion would be to have card classes with differ­ent trad­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics.
The low­est class of very non-sa­cred things could be swapped with ex­tremely low trans­ac­tion costs within the class and also be trade­able di­rectly for money.
Higher sa­cred­ness things would have a sep­a­rate mar­ket, per­haps with trans­ac­tion costs like need­ing a pur­chaseable de­liv­ery mechanism or im­pos­ing de­lays so that ob­jects go into limbo af­ter the trade is fi­nal­ized while “be­ing de­liv­ered”. The most sa­cred things would be “in­alien­able” so they can’t be traded or given away or per­haps not even be de­stroyed.
Ex­actly where sa­cred­ness should be de­ployed in or­der to max­i­mize fun seems like a deep and rel­a­tively un­stud­ied prob­lem.
One place in real life where the in­alien­abil­ity of some­thing has large and sub­stan­tive differ­ences from ju­ris­dic­tion to ju­ris­dic­tion is the ques­tion of the rights of artis­tic cre­ators to their art­work. In some ju­ris­dic­tions, an artist can­not legally sell their right to veto the use of their art­work if de­ployed in artis­ti­cally com­pro­mis­ing ways (like use in ad­ver­tis­ing or poli­ti­cal cam­paigns) af­ter mere copy­rights have been sold.
In the US artis­tic moral rights are not treated as very sa­cred, and the lack of sa­cred­ness in art pro­duc­tion is prob­a­bly part of the US’s cul­tural dom­i­nance a la Hol­ly­wood, but it has ar­guably also had large effects in the lives of artists, visi­bly so with peo­ple like Bill Water­son and Prince.

Here, Ben­quo offers these thoughts:

I don’t think the prob­lem is mar­kets per se – it’s al­low­ing the value of cards to float in the global fi­nan­cial econ­omy, which con­tains lots of ways to earn cur­rency to­tally un­re­lated to play­ing Eter­nal. If Eter­nal’s econ­omy had the right sort of cap­i­tal con­trols, price sig­nals could en­able lo­cal ex­change in ways that gen­er­ate gen­uine effi­cien­cies, with­out e.g. mak­ing run­ning a to­tally un­re­lated pyra­mid scheme (or run­ning a gen­uinely good and suc­cess­ful but en­tirely un­re­lated busi­ness) el­se­where an effec­tive way to win games of Eter­nal.
Burn­ing Man seems, to some ex­tent, to be able to do this. Ac­tu­ally-mostly-en­forced anti-scalping rules mean that many, per­haps most, tick­ets are al­lo­cated on the ba­sis of so­cial cap­i­tal within the Burner com­mu­nity. While US Dol­lars are one of many re­sources that can be con­verted into Burner cur­rency, you need other in­puts as well, not all of which are fun­gible with Dol­lars. Trans­ac­tion costs are high, and there are sharply diminish­ing re­turns.
Of course, the Eter­nal team may le­gi­t­i­mately want to make a profit, which means they need to ac­cept money some­how, es­pe­cially if they don’t want to sell their users as com­modi­ties ads. The ob­vi­ous way to do this is to set up a buy-in struc­ture that bakes in the right diminish­ing-re­turns curve (so Mark Zucker­berg can buy an in­cred­ible deck if he’s will­ing to sell Face­book, or a pretty awe­some deck for $100,000, or an in­cred­ible deck for $10,000 and a year or two of play­ing the game in­stead of be­ing a full-time CEO, and broke peo­ple with in­ter­net ac­cess can still com­pete). They’d also have to force trans­ac­tions to be pub­lic (or at least reg­istered to them) and re­serve the right to delete any card that had ever been scalped. Pos­si­bly the com­mu­nity would still grow too large for that sort of thing, at least in­so­far as it re­lies to some ex­tent on com­mu­nity co­op­er­a­tion, but then you can seg­ment the com­mu­nity in var­i­ous ways, etc.
I think this might be re­lated to op­ti­mal cur­rency zone the­ory, and am re­minded that I still owe the world a re­view of some of Jane Ja­cobs’s lesser-known works. One thing she gets very right is that a real city (i.e. a cen­ter of eco­nomic ac­tivity) should usu­ally have its own cur­rency, be­cause cur­rency needs to func­tion as an in­ter­nal sig­nal of rel­a­tive pri­or­ity, for a com­mu­nity to learn how to make more things.

Both point to cat­e­gories of sa­cred­ness. Wid­gets can some­times be traded for other wid­gets, but not sold for dol­lars. The mas­ter’s les­sons are free, or you pay in kind. If they cost dol­lars, you could not af­ford them.

That’s what sa­cred­ness is. Things are sa­cred if and only if they mat­ter and can­not be bought.

It ties into aliena­tion from one’s la­bor. If I mea­sure my re­ward in dol­lars, I am alienated. Even if I en­joy the task. Prevent­ing that re­quires sa­cred­ness. If my re­wards are sa­cred cat­e­gory, I can stay con­nected.

Where is it right to de­ploy this sa­cred­ness, for fun or oth­er­wise? How does one make it stick?

Games as Sa­cred Spaces

All games wor­thy of the name have sa­cred­ness.

You play to win the game. You can’t bring re­sources in from out­side, or take them out.

You can buy the best free agents, or bet­ter Magic cards. Once the game starts, your money is no good. If money played, the game would be about money.

Poker is a game about money – win­ning money. The win­ning part is cru­cial. Other­wise it’s only a (in­creas­ingly bor­ing) job. Tour­na­ment poker trans­forms money into sa­cred chips. Hav­ing them means some­thing. Much bet­ter!

Me­tagames are in­ter­est­ing if and only if they are games.

A sport­ing event is a game. Manag­ing play­ers over many games to help your team win? Also a game.

What about draft­ing tal­ent, sign­ing free agents and trad­ing? We want it to be a game. Salary caps can make team re­sources sa­cred, en­sur­ing game­ness, and help with bal­ance. In­ter­est­ing choices are cre­ated, much fun is had.

Base­ball and real soc­cer lack salary caps. Rather than the game of win­ning, teams play the game of busi­ness. Dol­lars are points, win­ning is prof­ita­bil­ity. Fans score you points, so en­ter­tain­ing or en­gag­ing play is a valid strat­egy. Fans an­a­lyze moves based on profit max­i­miza­tion. Chom­sky notes how so­phis­ti­cated sports fans are. They’re even so­phis­ti­cated about sports busi­ness. Cap­i­tal­ism ho!

The more fun­gible the play­ers, the less sa­cred the team-build­ing game. Also the less sa­cred the teams. We want to root for play­ers, yet end up root­ing for laun­dry.

On each meta level, we pro­tect our game’s sa­cred­ness. We cre­ate rules and re­stric­tions. We im­pose quo­tas and cap­i­tal con­trols. As many times as it takes.

Magic: The Gather­ing is fa­mous for its meta lev­els. We talk of each for­mat’s metagame, its de­sign and evolu­tion. This in­cludes trad­ing, get­ting cards you want and build­ing value. I in­creas­ingly found that sub­game bor­ing, time con­sum­ing and dis­taste­ful. It de­tracted.

When I paid for the cards I needed, it didn’t com­mer­cial­ize Magic. It did the op­po­site. It re­moved the com­mer­cial­iza­tion from Magic. Relief!

Ideally, game su­per-sys­tems are modal. You play some sub-games, ig­nore oth­ers. Some play­ers out­fit the ship then let the AI steer. Others let the AI out­fit the ship, then steer it. Others let the AI do both and fill the hull with trade goods.

So some fans take their team as given and fo­cus on games. Others fo­cus on sea­sons, player de­vel­op­ment and team poli­tics. Others fo­cus on team con­struc­tion and trad­ing. Others fo­cus on gam­bling odds, or fan­tasy sports. Some travel and tail­gate. Keep only what you want, can­cel any­time. To keep en­gage­ment non-com­mer­cial, choose what things to spend on, buy it then put money aside.

One can only do and care about so many things. Mak­ing more of them sa­cred need not cre­ate con­flict. Treat­ing eat­ing well as sa­cred doesn’t make the big game, or fam­ily, or church, or poli­tics, or any­thing else less sa­cred. They’re ri­vals for at­ten­tion and re­sources, but once you’re spend­ing those, make it count!

Sa­cred­ness does make ri­val sa­cred­ness seem less like ‘the only thing that mat­ters,’ which can re­duce in­ten­sity and pay­off. Good! Sa­cred­ness that tells you that other things are not sa­cred is Out to Get You.

Reli­gion (or poli­tics, or any other Se­ri­ous Busi­ness) works largely by turn­ing the world and/​or moral­ity and/​or all of life into a game. Fol­low the rules. Ac­cu­mu­late non-fun­gible re­sources. Win the game. Ig­nore other games. They don’t mat­ter. This is your life, and your life is a test.

Trad­ing Away Trade

Trade is cen­tral to pros­per­ity. Sa­cred­ness in­hibits trade. Often wipes it out.

Is that worth it?

It is good when trade or po­ten­tial trade de­stroys the value be­ing traded, and bad when trade or po­ten­tial trade in­creases the value be­ing traded.

Sa­cred­ness adds value for you. Trade dis­tributes value effi­ciently. Which effect dom­i­nates? Where the value lies. High mun­dane util­ity items should trade freely.

Items with mostly per­sonal value of­ten should not.

Po­ten­tial trade can be as valuable or de­struc­tive as trade.

Know­ing I could buy or sell some­thing effi­ciently re­duces it to dol­lars and alienates. Likely even­tual sale pre­vents in­vest­ment and at­tach­ment, even when it shouldn’t. To an­ti­ci­pate the end of­ten simu­lates the end. For best re­sults, play most iter­ated games as if they never end. Un­til they do. Be­ware free trade (The Ac­tual Best Thing Ever) not be­cause they took our jobs. Be­ware be­cause choices are bad.

Know­ing one could sell some­thing makes it valuable. Know­ing one could buy some­thing pre­vents worry and con­tin­gency plan­ning.


Con­sider Tup­per­ware.

De­liv­ery cre­ates a stream of Tup­per­ware. In the days be­fore de­liv­ery, one would buy a Tup­per­ware set and con­sider it shame­ful to buy more.

This makes Tup­per­ware (low-level) sa­cred. You man­age a limited sup­ply. Choices are made.

Of course, this is silly. Order­ing de­liv­ery to get Tup­per­ware is crazy, but you can buy more Tup­per­ware. Cheap. But now it’s some­thing to waste. One be­comes and feels waste­ful. Much value is lost.

But one would get to stop ob­sess­ing over the Tup­per­ware.

Fight­ing the Market

The mar­ket is Out to Get You. It comes for your sa­cred­ness.

As always, four op­tions. Get Gone, Get Got, Get Com­pact, Get Ready.

Get Gone means to give up your sa­cred ac­tivity en­tirely. Some­times mar­kets and mar­ket val­ues cor­rupt the sa­cred­ness and fun, leav­ing noth­ing worth sav­ing.

You could Get Got. Let the sa­cred be­come non-sa­cred, per­haps mass pro­duced. Burn the can­dle bright. En­joy gains from trade. Spread the joy. Sa­cred­ness cre­ates mun­dane value. Per­haps it’s time to sell out.

Get Com­pact draws a clear di­vide be­tween sa­cred and non-sa­cred. Choose a defen­si­ble core of sa­cred­ness, and put up a sign say­ing ‘not for sale at any price.’ A fan might ac­cept the mar­ket rul­ing player sign­ings, but treat games as se­ri­ous busi­ness. Poli­ti­ci­ans define core val­ues they hope they’ll never com­pro­mise, and trade or sell off ev­ery­thing else for parts.

Within the sa­cred zone, you have a code of honor. Dol­lar prices are zero. Ideally prices are zero in ev­ery­thing, at least by de­fault. There is free­dom in that. Choices Are Really Bad. An­swer all ques­tions. Ac­cept all challenges. Play for the love of the game. Help any­one non-evil who asks for it. Any­one can at­tend meetup. Free pizza. Take no pay­ment. Often well worth it. Give away the product for­ever, be re­paid in good­will.

This re­quires a zero price to clear the mar­ket. It usu­ally does. Peo­ple don’t ask for things.

Loos­en­ing your code is usu­ally a one-way trip. What you give up you can­not eas­ily re­claim. Be very care­ful giv­ing things up.

Get Ready means fight­ing for what you want. Get the effi­cien­cies of mar­kets and profit from the sa­cred, but keep it sa­cred. That sounds hard. Can it be done?

Not en­tirely. Fully open mar­kets make kid­neys com­modi­ties and sins con­sumer goods. You’ve been got. Smart re­stric­tions needed. What are your op­tions?

You could use cap­i­tal con­trols or quo­tas. You have a mar­ket within your sa­cred area. It’s nu­mer­i­cal. You can’t move those units out, and be­yond the quota you can’t bring them in. In many cases, you earn the right to move money in.

With enough sa­cred things worth buy­ing, some way to soak up dol­lars, and effec­tive en­force­ment, that’s work­able. En­force­ment is hard. What pre­vents trad­ing?

On a large scale, mo­nop­o­lies on force en­able cap­i­tal con­trols on large amounts if it is clear what is in­side, and all out­side things are kept out­side.

On a small scale, very small groups en­force con­trols via mu­tual co­op­er­a­tion or surveillance. The babysit­ters club could pre­sum­ably let dol­lars go in, but didn’t dare, re­sult­ing in mar­ket failure and a liquidity trap. But I think groups much larger than that lack the re­quired lev­els of trust.

Ask­ing for Magic On­line sell event tick­ets for a dol­lar, but not re­sold for ninety-eight cents, seems quix­otic. Ask­ing for New York City to use the yorker rather than dol­lar seems even more doomed. I see the plan, where there’s a ‘sink’ in the form of drafts or tax pay­ments, but trade seems un­pre­ventable.

You could force all trades to be au­tho­rized by mak­ing cur­rency only payable to a cho­sen few. This is how food stamps work. Su­per­mar­kets ac­cept them, and you can’t trans­fer or sell them oth­er­wise; su­per­mar­kets cash them in. One could echo that, again given en­force­ment. En­force­ment seems hard, un­less it’s a strict en­force­ment where ev­ery­thing you ac­quire is bound to you. That’s how World of War­craft does it, and it works well; the items bound in this way are sa­cred, and ev­ery­thing else isn’t. Food stamps now use debit cards.

Thus a fully non-fun­gible as­set. In­ter­nal cred­its can’t buy any­thing non-sa­cred, noth­ing non-sa­cred can buy cred­its. At most, you pay to par­ti­ci­pate at all. Trade a kid­ney dona­tion only for an­other kid­ney dona­tion.

Or pay peo­ple, but much less than mar­ket price, re­place­ment value or ex­penses. Ter­rible trades can’t ex­tract free en­ergy. Without free en­ergy, noth­ing will at­tempt to prey on the sys­tem. Things re­main sa­cred.

In­ten­tional Draws

I’ll end on the sub­ject of in­ten­tional draws. In Magic tour­na­ments, of­ten it is in the in­ter­est of both play­ers to agree to a draw rather than play, as a draw gets them most or all of the value of a win. At first, this was con­sid­ered dishon­or­able by many. The point of com­pe­ti­tion is to com­pete. The defi­ant slo­gan rang out: “I came to play.” Which they did! The game was sa­cred. Tour­na­ment-level con­sid­er­a­tions were pro­fane.

This was not en­force­able. Draw rates in­creased. Match level non-draw­ing (and non-con­ced­ing) sa­cred­ness was lost. Rules changes to min­i­mize draws have helped some, but mostly an­noyed play­ers. Once not draw­ing was no longer sa­cred, bar­ri­ers only made us all go around them.

When we made the Cy­ber­punk CCG, we em­braced the ethos of that game’s world, and not only al­lowed but en­couraged all forms of col­lu­sion dur­ing tour­na­ments. That can be sa­cred too.

You can draw the line al­most any­where, so long as you draw it some­where.

No nominations.