Pokemon Go and Spontaneous Order

Having trouble finding activities for you and your YAL chapter to do as a group? Need a good recruiting tool to get people at school to join your team? Well now you can catch them all! Unless you’re living under a rock or hate technology, you’ve probably seen your friends go crazy over the Niantic Labs app-based game Pokémon Go. It allows you and your friends to capture Pokémon in the real world by walking around in the real world and catching the popular creatures on your phone. You can train them, team up with friends to battle with them at cyber gyms, as well as visit real world landmarks such as churches and memorials to get in game items. If you grew up playing the original Pokémon Red, Pokémon Blue, or Pokémon Yellow games on the Gameboy, it’s a great throwback to that time, in addition to being an excuse to go outside and walk around. 

Originally, Niantic meant to release this game starting in Australia and New Zealand to start and eventually open up the game to North American, European, and Japan once the test releases in Australia went smoothly. This is a very common thing for websites, games, and apps meant for a wide audience. When a developer knows there will be high demand for a product, they’ll release the game slowly in various markets, after extensive beta testing, to give their servers time to adapt and adjust to the sudden surge of new users. This allows the players to have a relatively bug-free launch once the game is available for wide release. In fact, the absence of this phase-in approach was one of the primary reasons for why the Obamacare website crashed so frequently in its early days. 

Unfortunately for Niantic, crafty consumers used a popular workaround called an APK Mirror, which allows someone to download the game in an area where the game isn’t officially available. In this case, it allowed people living in the United States to download and play the game even though it wasn’t officially available through the Google Play store. These “unofficial” downloads forced Niantic to open up their North American servers earlier than expected as the servers they had online for Australia and New Zealand were not equipped to handle the amount of traffic they were getting. As such, many players around the world experienced problems with connectivity and in game lag that are still on-going.

How does all of this relate to spontaneous order? For those that don’t know, spontaneous order is the self-organization of seemingly random events and interactions that lead to a coherent order. Free market economists and libertarians, in general, argue that spontaneous order is a preferable way to organize an economy and society as opposed to an order created by governments using top-down social engineering. Libertarians will argue that governments or other top down hierarchies will be inefficient because they lack the requisite knowledge to make all the decisions for the actors involved. They don’t know how millions of people will act when a certain policy is enacted despite what some of their best experts tell them.

For example, in order to prevent price gouging on gasoline back in the 1970s, the government implemented price controls in order to prevent spikes in the price of gas at the pump. However, due to the oil shortage at the time, all those price controls did was artificially lower the price of gas leading to massive gas shortages and long lines at gas stations. Organizations like the Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies have done extensive work on topics like spontaneous order. If you’re looking for a more in-depth examination, I’d recommend checking them out after you finish reading this. 

YAL is an organization that prides itself on relying on spontaneous order. While we do have a national, over-arching structure, we rely on our activists on the ground to do all the heavy lifting by creating and organizing the events, gathering sign ups, and getting media attention. We host national activism events, but we let the individual chapters themselves decide what they think is the best way to create, advertise, and execute an activism event on their campus. This approach allows for wide-ranging latitude when it comes to the creativity and diversity of events, in which the chapter decides on the approach that works best for their particular campus. The way one accomplishes an activism event on one campus may not be the best way to do it on another campus. Our regional directors don’t have the required knowledge to be able to dictate how all the events across 700 chapters should be done. That’s why we have state chairs, chapter presidents, and regular dues-paying members to help accomplish YAL’s mission of identifying, educating, training, and mobilizing youth activists committed to winning on principle.

As for Pokemon Go, Niantic Labs had a plan, and the consumers almost completely ruined their plans. For whatever reason, they didn’t anticipate how popular their interactive game would be, and they didn’t expect that thousands of consumers would try to find a way to play the game before it was officially released. It’s not really their fault. Despite the best marketing research money can buy, it’s impossible to tell for certain how a consumer base will react to a product. There are so many different factors, user interface, replay value, connectivity issues, internet availability, etc., it’s virtually improbable for any company to accurately factor them all in. They just don’t have the knowledge to do so.  

That’s on top of the typical design versus user interface that you see with a game or electronic device. Developers have an idea of how users will interact with their machine, but often the users will utilize the game in ways they don’t expect. The classic real world example of this is sidewalk designs. You see a sidewalk that comes a 90 degree turn, but you’ll notice a beaten down path that cuts right between them. The sidewalk itself is the developer design and the beaten down path where people actually walk is user interface. Developers will adapt their devices to reflect user interface. Score one for spontaneous order. 

As for spontaneous order within the game itself, one of the more notable aspects are the gyms, which allow for one of three factions (red, blue, or yellow) to control an area located on the map. These gyms allow you to train your Pokémon and battle opposing factions for control of the gym. With three factions to choose from and no real advantage to choosing one over the other, you’d think the teams would be fairly well balanced. That might not be the case depending on where you live. Right now, in Clarendon Arlington, Virginia, all of the local gyms are controlled by the blue team, much to my annoyance as a member of the red faction. There are some pretty powerful Pokémon guarding these gyms, making them very difficult to overthrow in order to convert them to red gyms. 

As of now, Niantic is letting players battle it out themselves; however, there can be a scenario in which Niantic will try to step in and tweak the rules. If they determine that one faction is becoming too powerful, they might make it easier for players to defeat a gym. It’s commonly referred to as “nerfing” in the gaming community — when a developer determines that a player, enemy, or a weapon is too powerful and therefore causing an unfair advantage or disadvantage. They’ll lower the stats on said weapon or whatever, in order to balance things out. More often than not, this creates unforeseen consequences that could give a different item or person an unfair advantage. This creates a cycle in which the developer continue to nerf. Nerfing is extremely frustrating for a lot of gamers, because it constantly forces them to change up their strategies and invest time, energy, and resources into an aspect of the game that itself could be nerfed in the coming months. Sometimes, nerfing can be necessary, but I’m hoping Niantic will let players sort it out among themselves

The game has another feature that has become popular among modern games much to the chagrin to gamers everywhere — its called microtransactions. A microtransaction is when a developer will offer to give you in-game bonuses or items that make playing the game much easier but for a small fee. Many gamers criticize microtransactions as a scam for developers to sell you an incomplete game and charge you piecemeal to get the finished product. There’s also an element of fairness. Gamers can put dozens or hundreds of hours into a game in order to get a reward that the developer will sell to you if you decide you’re too lazy to put the work and effort into a game. Players reject this top-down bribery that artificially boosts a player’s power in favor of the bottom-up earning of one’s levels through hard work and dedication. So far, the microtransactions in Pokémon Go are minimal and don’t have a huge overall impact on the gameplay. We’ll see if that trend continues in the coming months as more and more gamers download the free-to-play app. If Niantic starts pushing more and more microtransactions, we might start to see consumers voting with their feet and deciding to uninstall the app in favor of games with fewer microtransactions. The free market at work.

You can find classical liberal ideas playing out in the real world every which way you look, even in your games. Pokémon Go is just one in the litany of examples of how spontaneous order affects how we play video games. Now that you’re done reading this, go out there, spread liberty, and catch some Pokémon while you’re doing it! Who knows? Maybe catching Pokémon could be a good way for you and your YAL chapter to recruit new members.

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