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Update: Good Fences Good Neighbors
April 21, 2019


First, the big news: Potato digging no longer wears out shovels. May you rejoice with baked, fried, or ketchup'd.

Beyond that, this week's update involves a game-changing experiment. What if individual or group ownership was an actual thing in the game?

As a designer, I have some pretty big dreams for this game, in terms of what kind of social dynamics will emerge from it. While I'm very happy with some of the complex interactions that have blossomed inside the game, I feel like some other possibilities have been stunted. Where's trade? Where are the stores? Where's resource contention? Where's crime? Where's trans-generational conflict? Where are the sheriffs? Where are the monarchs? Where are the guillotines?

Now, there are probably dozens of reasons why such things have not emerged in the game, but I'm starting with the most obvious one: how can you trade when everything is just laying there, ready for the taking? When there is no ownership?

And long ago, I did add atoms to the game that would supposedly enable ownership (walls, doors, locks, and keys). But they are so expensive to make, and such a burden to use in practice, that people have never been able to build functional ownership systems with these atoms. If it takes three lifetimes to successfully build a locked bakery before you can actually start trading your bread, your family is going to lose the thread before it ever gets off the ground.

I thought about overhauling the costs of building and locking, but such an overhaul would likely have loads of other side-effects. And furthermore, one of the biggest problems with "easy" building and locking is lack of consensus. In other words, if it's easy to lock people out, it's easy to lock people in. Here come the griefers, building a wall around the whole town and locking the door. Or maybe even skipping the whole "door" part entirely. In other words, property rights cannot be claimed unilaterally. And they aren't, actually, in real life. If a bunch of people have been using a swimming hole for ages, you can't suddenly walk up to it and say, "It's unclaimed, so it's mine now." Everyone would collectively object, including physically throwing you out of your own "property" if you were persistent enough. Thus, we have come full-circle and discovered the philosophical underpinnings of homesteading---homesteading is not quick, unrestricted, or easy for some very good reasons.

So it seems like we need a new atom here. Something a bit more abstract than walls and doors and locks. For example, to stake a mining claim on public land in the USA, you literally pound a wooden stake into the ground, nail the lid of a peanutbutter jar to the stake, write your claim on a piece of paper, and screw the paper into an empty jar, attached to the stake, like this:


And most importantly, if other people are working there, they're not going to let you stake your claim, or they're going to remove your claim after you leave. But the longer your claim goes uncontested by others, the more real it becomes.

This is essentially how the new fences and gates work. They go through a three-minute proposal phase, where people can see which area of land you intend to box in. After that, if no one objects, they can be erected, but they are still "shaky" for twenty more minutes. During that time, shaky fences are easy for anyone to remove. After that, they become permanent, though they fall apart in an hour if not maintained by someone. In other words, to claim property, you have to find a spot that no one objects to you claiming, and you have to take care of it long-term.

Gates are owned by whoever builds them, and new owners can be added verbally ("You own this" or "Sam Smith owns this"). Only the owners can open and close the gate. When the last owner dies, the gate is abandoned and falls apart. Thus, if you want to keep your gate working long-term, you need to assign a new living owner to it before you croak.

And fences are very cheap to propose and build (and remove!), making them orthogonal to the rest of the resource systems in the game. They are meant to abstractly represent consensual trans-generational property ownership.

But aside from blocking movement, there is no other explicit concept of ownership in the game. The land and items inside a fence are not inherently owned, which means that theft and other juicy interactions are still possible. And one owner who no longer has the support of the rest of the town for their ownership stands no chance. There's still strength in numbers. Beheading the queen will unlock the castle.
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