Sim State

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. This idea really started when I watched Day[9] play the new Sim City, and then picked up Sim City 4 again. I wanted to create a game which brought the ideas of micromanaging infrastructure and government into a larger scale. The player would be able to control education, government type, military, trade, etc. Eventually it grew into a sort of “third-world country simulator”, since that seemed like the most interesting route to people I pitched the general concept to.

The basic premise is that you are the leader of a small country, recently put in power by a violent revolution. This country is located in a faux South or Central America, but there is also the possibility for having multiple templates: African, Southeast Asian, etc. The player can only really see the small land area he controls, plus some of the bordering sovereignties. There is no global map (and this isn’t a game about conquest), but there are references to current global institutions (or fictitious characterizations thereof) like the UN and US, or WHO, etc.

Winning the game means pulling your country out of poverty and onto the world stage. This requires many parts, including building infrastructure, establishing governmental rule, and appeasing the international community. However, the win condition is gaining control over every province in your nation. Control just means being the dominant power faction. Routes to control include stamping out resistance (militarily) and appeasing interest groups. Thus a large part of the game is balancing political control; keep the military leaders on your side, stop workers from striking, and stay elected. The last one may mean establishing a dictatorship, rigging elections, or spending a lot of resources maintaining public image.

At the start of the game, your country is poor and unequipped. There are two forms of currency: money, and international repute. International repute can be spent on relief or treaties; perhaps getting a foreign oil company to leave your country. On the other hand, if you drive out the oil company by force, some factions in your own country may approve, while the international community may impose sanctions. Similarly, if their are pirate along the coast, you could demand tribute or try to exterminate them at a potentially great cost. If the world catches wind that you are allowing pirates to operate, however, you will lose repute.

The other form of currency is money. A little macro-economics comes into play here, since you have to manage your currency (printing money), and real “world dollars”. Rapid inflation can be bad for your industries, but it attracts tourists (but only to good parts – nobody is going to visit the region controlled by drug cartels). Real dollars come from exports, mainly. One way to get a boost in the beginning of the game is to exploit your natural resources: cut down rain forests, strip mine mountains, etc. However, you have to establish a more mature manufacturing industry at some point, otherwise you will exhaust your resources and fall back down into poverty.

In terms of infrastructure the player has to build, the main forms are education and industry. Industry includes transportation networks and resource collection, as well as processing. Industry also means municipal improvements, since nice cities attract high-tech corporations and commercial companies. Another route to improving the quality of your workforce, reducing crime, and eliminating overpopulation is education. Building schools takes a lot of resources for little immediate payoff, but it will start to improve your country greatly. It is also a great way for dictators to indoctrinate the population.

Late-game opportunities may include hosting Olympic Games or researching nuclear technology.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for expansions; this is more of a framework for a game, rather than a fleshed out game idea. I know there are games like this, such as Tropico. I think this would be more political and deep than Tropico, but obviously I would aim to offer a different experience overall were I to build this.

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Pyramid Scheme

No, but seriously. I hear all this talk about economic growth being the key factor in recovering from the economic recession. But how can the economy constantly grow? Population isn’t increasing that much except in third-world countries, and we have pretty much tapped into all the natural resources available to us. How is a model of economics based off of growth remotely sustainable? Obviously I am no economist, but here is what I see: we have been building up a market economy and globalizing for the past two centuries. All of this growth and expansion has been based on the principle of exploiting other locations. We used other countries that had different supplies and demands as leverage to boost our own economy. With the exhaustion of new sources of raw materials (metals and lumber and oil are getting scarcer and scarcer) and the homogenization of the global market, how can we possibly hope to maintain this economic disparity which lets us grow. Now, I will admit that there are still developing nations and a growing global population. But what happens when the global population tops out at 10 billion (see below) and all regions reach a certain standard of living expectation?



If anybody is economist, could you please explain whether or not this model is unsustainable, and if so why we subscribe to it.

Failure of Fantasy

Here’s the question: what is fantasy?

1. imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
2. the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.
-Dictionary.com

That definition sounds pretty good.

“Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.”
-Wikipedia

That one doesn’t. Fantasy is not about “magic” or “the supernatural” in and of themselves, although they certainly must be central to the story. Fantasy is about taking participants in the story to a universe that contradicts the participants inherent expectations about the way things work. The story told hinges on this new and unpredictable world. Participants get to explore an unfamiliar world as they follow the characters on their journey.

Using this definition, a lot of self-proclaimed “fantasy” isn’t really fantasy at all. Whenever a “fantasy” story casts its story in a world of dwarves, elves, harpies, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, wizards, etc. it is doing so because most fantasy readers will be familiar with such a setting and it allows the storyteller to cut straight to the storytelling. Yet, inherently, this is not fantasy.

These stories are still speculative fiction, but they are no longer true fantasy. I would call them speculative fiction with fantasy elements, but I certainly wouldn’t label them as real fantasy. Of course, the term fantasy can be used to refer to these works of speculative fiction, but it is an insult to the real works of fantasy that take the time to explore a completely new and unpredictable world (e.g. Discworld).

Some of these faux-fantasy universes include roleplaying games, both on the table and in games like Minecraft, and amateur “fantasy” stories. Obviously, world creation is hard and it is time consuming to think up convincing worlds that have interesting aspects.

Ultimately, this was the downfall of my Minecraft roleplaying server. The setting was not engaging, and players had difficulty getting immersed in the lore. But why is a “fantasy” setting necessary in the first place? People seem to associate roleplay with fantasy, probably because of the prevalence of roleplaying fantasy games. In addition, both RP and fantasy aim to satisfy the same itch: they are methods for an escape from reality.

But at the end of the day, you can have a fantasy Minecraft server without roleplaying, and you sure as hell don’t need a fantasy setting to have a roleplaying server. When I founded my Minecraft server, I wanted to see how much of a functional economy would emerge if I only set in place the loosest guidelines and money functionalities. Predictably, people found little need for money, since resources are, necessarily, abundant within (almost) any Minecraft world.

I am still interested in seeing how a Minecraftian universe can be reduced to a level where economic transactions become more feasible than collecting the resources yourself. On some level, this requires restraint from the players. However, people will not restrain themselves if it restricts their fun. So the parameters for my new server are slowly taking shape.

For one, people need an incentive to play, beyond just entertainment. There are a lot of competing venues of entertainment overall, and Minecraft is a particularly niche form of entertainment. But even within the realm of Minecraft, the pool of available servers is huge. And without a critical mass of players, a server cannot succeed. So, logically, the server needs to market itself in a way that pulls enough people in while still maintaining all the other parameters.

The server will be limited edition; it will only run for 50 days (7 weeks). This means that the story has a beginning and an end, and players are driven to accomplish a tangible goal within a time frame provided by an external force.

The setting of the server will be colonial. A group of colonists must set up a lucrative colony on a newly discovered land. The trading company that is sponsoring the colony will only fund it for ten years, during which it must start making money and pay back the initial investment. This means that players must collaborate both to survive and to generate revenue.

When the server first begins, players start on the ship that brought them to the uncharted land. It has a supply of food and tools. However, players will become hungry at a much faster rate than in the regular game. Any action, from crafting to using a tool to placing a block, will significantly reduce a player’s food bar. This will result in either a high death rate (because players will not be able to sustain their health and die from trivial falls, etc.) or a high food consumption rate.

Since the colony needs a much greater amount of food, a significant amount of energy needs to go into gathering supplies, which means that until farming and breeding infrastructure is established, not much effort will be put towards gathering valuables. Food scarcity will be boosted on the server, by making crops grow slower and increasing the cooldown time for animal breeding. Food is important because characters get only one life, raising the stakes considerably. Also, once a player dies he must wait until the next ship arrives from the motherland. These arrive once every six months ingame, which translates to roughly every 2.5 days real time. However, shipment arrivals are important for other reasons as well.

The colony can purchase things from its sponsor company. Of course, the prices are higher than reasonable. Some of the things the colony can trade away include gold, redstone, diamonds, magical items, sugar, and melon. In exchange for such raw materials, the colony is allotted some number of “trading points” with which it can buy guns (maybe), food, and other normal things like pistons, dispensers, lumber, stone, iron, saddles, etc. The exact trade ratios will be determined at a later time. They may also be adjusted as the game progresses.

Right now I think the difficulty will be set to peaceful, both because monsters would detract from the experience IMO, and because it means that the use of gunpowder, bonemeal, string, and slimeballs can be restricted.

To add back in some of the conflict lost from monsters, I hope to have two factions in the world. An existing faction, the natives, will already have infrastructure when the settlers arrive. The natives have farms, granaries, domesticated pets, mines, and supplies of string and bones. However, the natives don’t have guns (if they are put in) and can’t use any sort of redstone. To balance this, natives will be able to use magic freely, while settlers cannot. This means both sides have items from the regular game that the other side cannot access. Having such a dichotomy opens the door to different kinds of diplomatic relationships, depending on what the players decide to do ingame. I have no idea whether raids or trades will be more popular.

Unfortunately, I am also wary about creating two factions in the first place. Disparate groups on a server cause two problems. They isolate players from one another, essentially requiring double the players for two-faction play to feel the same as single-faction play. Groups also cause more frequent arguments, since communication is severely throttled.

I hope that with the right amount of advertising, I can attract around 6 people to start. They will all be colonists; only after the number rises to 12 can a native town be “discovered”. I am hesitant to go ahead with guns, because that would require a modded client to play, which significantly reduces the pool of available players. The server should be as accessible as possible. That being said, there is a lot of riffraff that, frankly, I didn’t keep out on the last server. Players NEED to be able to write full, coherent sentences both quickly and consistently. Even one person who cannot communicate well can ruin the experience for everyone.

If I ever get around to fixing connectivity issues and finishing the website, I am definitely going to go ahead with this server.

The Parabola of Technology

Today I completed the February USA Computing Olympiad. If you have any coding interest, you should check it out. It has three divisions: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. If you do well enough in Bronze, then you are promoted to Silver for the following competitions, and then similarly to Gold. You have 3 hours to complete 3 problems; the Gold problems require pretty advanced knowledge of algorithms and a quick coding skills. Contests are held monthly.


The Growth

I’ve always thought of human progress as a parabola or exponential curve. That is certainly true for population:
graph of world population
The human race has made so much technological progress recently, especially taking off after the Industrial Revolution. Starting in the 17th century, the intense competition between Western countries (and then all industrialized countries) has advanced knowledge and created an infrastructure in which that knowledge can be used. Every piece of knowledge allows us to learn more, every invention allows us to learn faster. Then, in the 19th century, politics was overturned and industrialization began. Near the turn of the 21st century, technology has taken off. We are looking at an unprecedented age ahead of us. Today, some of the things we can do seem like science fiction. Yet we are still using 19th and 20th century frameworks. This restricts our ability to use the new technologies.

Education and Infrastructure

For instance, our education system is archaic. Now, that statement may seem radical and uninformed to you, but bear with me. The education systems of industrialized countries are designed for industrializing agricultural societies. The majority of people (farmers and factory workers) would only go to school through elementary grade levels; they don’t need much education to work, but they do need to be literate. Accountants and other people who are going to work white-collar jobs would continue on to high school. Judges, lawyers, doctors, and professors would go on to a university.

Now, there has been educational inflation. College degrees have gone from rare to necessary. If you want a job which pays even moderately, you need a degree. And they are becoming less valuable even now. With the Computational Revolution, we no longer need a large amount of factory workers or farmers. Most of all, we need people to produce content; we need people with creativity and ideas. Yet the school system still focuses on a core of math and science. It progressively excises creativity and focuses on particular learning conduits. For years, schools have been preparing people for a past that is obsolete in this future. This fundamental failure of the educational system is partially responsible for the huge system failure we have seen over the past few years and will see in the coming years. Even though people have realized that the school system is inadequate, our current social infrastructure lacks the capability to facilitate such a major change.
(Inspired by this TED talk)

Restructuring

Why are we still burning fossil fuels? Why are we still digging up metals from the Earth when we could be sustainably mining them from asteroids? The answer lies in our industrial infrastructure. As much as I hate to say it, the capitalist structure we use right now may not be sufficient in the coming age. Certain technological switches, such as those regarding energy and raw material acquisition, may take time and money to complete which makes them seem immediately unattractive. However, their eventual gain over current methods in regards to sustainability makes them desirable in the long run. It seems that the only way to make the switch is to wait for cheaper technology or to rely on buying power independent of market forces, like a government. Unfortunately, our government is doing the wrong job. It isn’t really doing a bad job, just the wrong one. 19th century political changes have established government obligations those of welfare and public works. Bank regulation is necessary as well. Ensuring a certain level of public education must be necessary. But is the government’s bureaucratic grip slowly suffocating the education system? Probably. The government just isn’t built to deal with things like the Internet, which has decreased communication times so much that ideas are being synthesized faster than ever. The government can’t respond quickly enough to the future. Without even looking at other areas of our infrastructure, we already see problems in the educational set up.

If the government can’t do a good job giving education, should we leave it to private enterprise? Private schools are too expensive for everyone, although they often give quality education. That leaves us with two options: a mass-migration of education onto the Internet, or a fundamental restructuring of the educational system. Let me give you my takes on both of these options.

Online Education

Education on the Internet has seen a small trial with things like the Stanford AI Class, which is exclusively online and open to everyone. The interesting about that and their upcoming follow-up classes is that it took place in a set time, with homeworks and tests. In terms of static lectures, which teach non-interactively, you can look at MIT OCW (open course ware) and Khan Academy. Then of course there are classes which you can pay for (usually a couple hundred), in which you are with a class of other people online, and you periodically read notes, have debates, and turn in homework. Overall, I’m not sure how much online education is going to play into education in the future. Will online courses supplement public education? That is certainly an interesting idea. It would allow schools to focus purely on the most fundamental parts of the education, and people who are further interested in a specific subject could learn more about it online, perhaps within a mini-course, and then get a credit for it. That would allow people to make the most of their education and focus only on things that interest them. Similarly, people could build a “mini-degree” that consists of small courses based on an underlying concept, such as studying human-machine interaction or social networking and its effects on the market.

The Guild System

One idea I’ve been kicking around for a while is that of guilds. Instead of educating people around a core of math and science, we could limit and individual’s education to one field, such as biology, physics, computer science, business management, economics, material engineering, electrical engineering, etc. Which guild you belong to would be determined either by birth or at a young age after essential low-level education. Guilds would control all of the experts in the field, and could lend them out to other guilds or to joint-research projects. They would also have access a large of amount of knowledgeable teachers. They could even make teaching mandatory after retirement. Companies could lease teams of experts.

More over, retirement would be pushed back. Currently, an average person spends half of their life producing. That means the other half is spent passively consuming. Roughly speaking, from 0-20 a person is soaking up resources. From 20-60, they are working. From 60-80, they are retired and again consuming. So unless you can produce enough during your working years to sustain your consumption years, you need to either work longer or die sooner. On the same thread, retirees should not receive welfare from the government. If either a company, foundation, or descendant isn’t willing to pay for an old person, they are a needless burden. While harsh, it is the most logical course of action. Even if this was put in place though, people would adjust. New insurance companies would take the place of government welfare agencies.

Anyways, more to come. Food for thought.

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