Friday, September 18, 2009


The following is a reprint of an email I recently sent to some of the other metacurrency folks. I would love to hear thoughts.

Lately, I have been reading some pretty amazing books on
games and game design. These books have really helped get my thoughts in order about currency, games, and so on. So I would like to take a minute to go deep here. These are some pretty foundational questions I think we must address (or at least consider).

First, after reading these books I have come to a soft conclusion (meaning I could be argued out of it :) ) that currencies and games are NOT the same thing. Some (but not all) games USE currencies, and some currencies exist outside the context of a game. So let's revisit our definition of currency: a formal system that allows a community to interact with a flow. I still think this definition is accurate, but let me restate it from a different perspective:

A shorthand way of recording information about something that HAPPENED in such a way that other people who understand (or use) that currency can adjust their future actions to appropriately fit the story being told.
So, there is WHAT HAPPENS and THE STORY WE TELL ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS. There are two categories of rules in games. Rules that tell us what may happen. Rules that tell us how to record what happens.

Many of the first kind of rules have nothing to do with currency. For instance, in baseball, for a pitch to be counted as a strike, it must be in the strike zone (between the knees and the shoulders). That is a rule that is outside any currency. For the purposes of the currency, we just need to know that the umpire issues strikes. The umpire is the person who may officially tell the story of the pitch. That story is then recorded in a currency: the strike. There are also rules about how the story that can be told. The umpire cannot, for instance, tell the story that "the pitch was pretty good but kind of a cheap shot since the pitcher looked like he was throwing a fastball but didn't." The umpire may only say strike, ball, etc. The game of baseball FLOWS from the stories we are allowed to tell about it.

What is complicated about this situation is that the rules about what MAY happen are often contingent upon the STORY we told about WHAT DID HAPPEN. This is the marvelous interplay and feedback loop between currency and action.

So, games MAY employ currencies. To me, the currencies in the game of baseball are things like runs, hits, errors, strikes, balls, outs. They are the things that tell the story (in shorthand) of WHAT HAPPENED. In other words, what are the important things to record in the game of baseball so that other players know what to do next?

So, by this definition, I am doubtful whether chess employs any currencies at all. What do we count in the game of chess? What story do we tell about the game that allows the players to adjust their next actions? There is a board and pieces. That is sufficient in and of itself for the player to make their move. They don't need to know the history of the flow. There is no story other than what is on the board now. We don't keep track of how many pawns are lost, what their relative value is, what the SCORE is. There is NO SCORE. Therefore there is no currency.

I have been struggling for a while to figure out why the entire legal code isn't a currency. I think this explains it. The legal code is about what may happen. Currencies are about how we record what did happen and communicate it to others. There may be rules about how we record what happened. There may be rules about what we may do that are contingent about the story we tell, but they are external to the currency.

Let's take a simple example. I try to make a purchase with a credit card, and my card is declined. There is no rule about what may happen as a result that is internal to the currency. The vendor may decide without breaking the rules of the currency to give me the product anyway since she knows me and trusts that I will get her back tomorrow. Or the store may have a strict rule about not giving people stuff when they can't pay. But again, the rules about what happens as a result of the story are EXTERNAL to the rules that govern how the story is told. The whole of the game includes the rules that are both internal and external to the currency. So a currency CAN be part of a game. And a currency may not have a game associated with it at all (i.e. the card is declined and the store doesn't really care since the owner just won the lottery and is feeling generous).

There is lots more to say about all this, but that may be sufficient to ponder now. :)

1 comment:

matslats said...

I read something recently that suggested economics was profoundly misunderstood as a system because it is in fact a game. This chimed with my unease about comparing currencies themselves to games, and also explains why economics is so difficult..