Game Theory and Loot Ninjas

In World of Warcraft, and any multiplayer online game, you have the “loot ninja” phenomenon. What is this? This is a person who greedily snaps up all of the loot, the person who takes an item because they “need” it even if they already have it, or the person who wins three of the same item in a raid group and refuses to share. We see this commonly in the new Raid Finder tool in World of Warcraft (I wrote about that here).

One of the features of the loot ninja is that they are always PUGs — people added to a “pick-up group”, or a random player that nobody else knows. Sometimes, as in Raid Finder, the entire group is full of PUGs and nobody knows each other. It’s been remarked in my guild over and over that they hate having PUGs in their raid groups, or even doing Raid Finder, because of the loot ninja phenomenon.

The loot ninja behaves this way because there are no repercussions. They can greedily take the items without sharing because it’s not prohibited by the game, and because they will never play with these people again. Loot ninjas don’t happen (or rarely happen) in guild groups, because you will be playing with these people over and over and over again. If you’re a loot ninja once, you’ll probably be ostracized, not brought back on raids, or kicked out of the guild. But there are plenty of people in my guild — heck, I might be one of them after so much exposure to loot ninjas in Raid Finder — who go into a Raid Finder and roll greedily on everything, get a lot of loot, and don’t share. Why? Because they won’t play with these people ever again, and chances are good that everyone in their Raid Finder group is going to be a loot ninja anyway. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Today, I was reading Robert J. Aumann’s Nobel Prize lecture from 2005, in which he discusses Game Theory (economic game theory, not video game theory) and its applications to war and peace in society. He argues that repetitively engaging in “games” — war games, too — enables cooperation (an peace). Why?

Imagine the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal—if one testifies against his partner (betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

The sole worry of the prisoners is to benefit themselves. Even when seemingly the best outcome is for both to cooperate, Prisoner A can betray Prisoner B and receive no jail time (that is, get the maximum benefit).

Aumann’s argument is that in a single, individual instance of this game, the prisoners will think about their personal maximum benefit, because there are no repercussions. That is, if Prisoner A betrays and Prisoner B cooperates, Prisoner B gets a full 1-year sentence and can’t do anything about that rat bastard Prisoner A.

However, Aumann says, if this game is repeated, there is the possibility for punishment. That is, if these two know each other and work together on the crime syndicate, this situation may happen again. And if Prisoner A screwed over Prisoner B, B is going to remember that and betray him the next time, and they’ll both wind up in jail.

It’s the same thing in war, Aumann says. That’s why the Cold War never escalated — because there was always the possibility of retaliation.

And this explains the loot ninja. In one instance of the Raid Finder game, everyone will be attempting to maximize their benefit. However, when in a guild group or a regular raid team, there are plenty of opportunities for punishment and retaliation, so cooperation is more beneficial to all. And this further explains the increasing loot ninja mentality of most people going into Raid Finder (even myself) — we have all been punished enough in the ongoing Raid Finder game that we are in retaliation mode.

I don’t think this was the intent of Blizzard when they created Raid Finder and the loot distribution system. I think they thought people would be “nice” and not try to take things that they already have. The reality is much, much different.


2 thoughts on “Game Theory and Loot Ninjas

  1. Whenever this idea comes up, i tend to think about whether social media is the ultimate auction site style feedback of the future. Now, because of game theory, corporations can’t encourage this behavior and hope to make a profit, but will we organically have an invisible feedback system?

  2. […] and research styles of a wide array of disciplines. I have already discussed one of the ways that learning about economics has informed my own research, which was inspired by readings done for this class. This week we read about political science, and […]

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