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👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Prosocial Value

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

Kurt Vonnegut, 1974

How does this fit into Kernel?

The incentives which support power are primarily based on narratives and we can influence these structures by establishing common knowledge and playing the players. We know we can program incentive structures at the kinds of scale required to influence the behaviour of large groups of humans; we know how to design these such that they reveal valuable truths with very little contrivance. Now the question is: how can we best research, understand and model the kinds of behaviour which will lead to sustainable societies? What happens when the common knowledge we establish is fundamentally prosocial?

"What would game design look like if our goals included reducing loneliness, decreasing toxicity and boosting a player’s positive connections with others?"


Loneliness causes stress, depression, reduced lifespan and can lead to short-term thinking associated with long-term net negative outcomes. Too often, our technologies and the games we design with them exacerbate, rather than solve this problem. This is not just applicable to children, but to our whole society. However, problems are always also opportunities:

"Combining the known severity of the consequences of loneliness with the connections shown between games, technology, and loneliness, it becomes clear that this is a pressing issue [...] As the median age of the world population rises, there’s an opportunity as increasing numbers of older people play games."

There’s a growing recognition that toxicity in online communities results from weak social design combined with weak enforcement of positive social norms. When we're lonely and stressed, our desire to belong gets expressed in negative ways like trolling for attention or destroying the connections between others we are failing to make or enjoy ourselves. Critically, toxic behaviour isn't necessarily adversarial: badly designed systems actually generate toxicity.

The broad solution to both these problems is to design systems that build relationships between players.

The Grand Project

Designing to increase social capital requires expertise in at least three distinct domains. Project Horseshoe wrote about psychology in 2016, logistics and scale in 2018, and this paper focuses on economics. It is by understanding these three fields together that we can begin to design truly interesting, prosocial mechanisms to help us map and navigate the intersubjective space Dandelion talked about last week.

Many of the key elements required by the psychological and logistical aspects of friendship formation are systematically undervalued within common economic practices. Game designers, however, are concerned with the flow and transformation of resources, value, and incentives for player behavior - that is, the internal economy, rather than strict "micro" or "macro" formalisms.

Though these are toy economies, and have well-defined boundaries with the real world, we can still build meaningful relationships between virtual objects. These elements originate mostly in systems theory and include: tokens, sources, pools, sinks and transforms, agents like the player, and "black boxes". Together, these elements and agents can be used to model the entire internal economy, and balance our games with the correct incentive structures.

Mapping game economies to the real world is challenging: the latter has limited resources and unlimited needs; whereas games are abundant digital universes in which consumption and ownership can mean different things. Moreover, economics does not account well for computation and psychology: the common behavioral models of rational, atomic individuals who are the best judges of their needs and who exist within weak social networks seem deeply flawed. Economists must rely on measurement via proxy and weak sampling, whereas game developers have a panopticon that records every possible player interaction.

Moreover, most economists assume a price for everything, but this basic assumption distorts greatly our transactional relationships, it undervalues our long term relationships, and it over-emphasizes short term measurable improvements.

Human groups create public goods in the form of unmeasured relationships, social norms and cultural practices. These public goods are incredibly valuable in terms of individual health and happiness. Yet they are not readily measured by economic transactions. Economics in general struggles with public goods, and social public goods are even more invisible.

💡 "The practice of economics erases many of the social phenomena we are interested in examining."

Economics, as a discipline, suffers from a "replication crisis" - many large scale theories are only testable in the world and the experiments meant to measure them inevitably lack power and scope. In this sense, it is less of a science and more a historical kind of map-making that has increasingly been pulled into politics, rhetoric and ideology. Here's the conundrum: we need to design and build balanced economic systems, but our tools suck.

Prosocial value patterns

We can begin by being intentional about both our explicit and implicit values, and developing an aesthetic which creates a player experience that best supports our values. Critically, this needs to be measurable - game design is an engineering craft. To achieve this, we'll use economics as a design practice rather than a science.

There are truths in economic systems: trade creates value (or destroys it if we miss a key externality); supply and demand generally work, etc. We can use these to adopt an explicitly prosocial set of values in our games and economies:

  • Friendship: The formation and maintenance of healthy, meaningful friendship networks.
  • Thriving individuals: The facilitation of eudaimonic happiness. Players feel competence, volition, and relatedness, both for themselves and for their friends.
  • Altruism: The promotion of activities that involve intrinsically motivated cooperation.
  • Positive group norms: The spread and enforcement of shared altruistic social norms within and across groups.
  • Shared goals: Players work towards those goals via mutual interdependence, and achieve feelings of purpose and meaningfulness.

By being explicit about these values, we can engineer our games and economies away from individual and group toxicity, and the resulting loneliness they engender.

Responsible social systems design requires an ethical core. Much like medical doctors, we are operating on human beings. Huge populations of humans, in fact. As ethical practitioners, we need our own equivalent of the Hippocratic oath. We should do no harm and, if possible, improve the social health of our players.


Instead of the rational optimizer model, we can use contextual reciprocity to map friendship as a key value for prosocial game design. All friendships, though different, have common factors: proximity, repeat encounters, reciprocity, disclosure. Successful reciprocity loops increase value and effort over time and, as this process goes on, the more players trust each other.

Highly trusted friends form key long-term support networks in times of need. We can accelerate friendship formation with three keys: similarity, intensity, and autonomy support. That is, the more similar people feel, the more intense the emotional situations in which they interact, and the more they encourage each other's choices; the more likely they are to become lasting friends.


As trust in a community increases, support networks flourish. However, it's really difficult to measure trust, so we need to rely on some proxies: player's pairwise bonds, active time spent together, success together in high trust situations, and time spent talking positively. These can then be tuned by the observant developer team to increase total trust over time for each pair, the rate of trust accumulation, and to create trust metrics for higher order groups. The paper analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Steambirds data collection methods:

A mistake we made early on was looking primarily at metrics like retention and monetization. These don’t tell us much about what motivates players to play. If I were to build the game again, I would have implemented the togetherness metric for the very first private alpha. Player relationships are top-level intrinsic motivators and by only measuring them late in the process, we completely misunderstood the state of the game we were building.

Of course, the challenge here is that you can't share your trust metrics in the game because if you show people what you're observing about them, it irrevocably changes their behavior. Sharing group health though - if vague, delayed and multi-dimensional so that it can't be gamed - can encourage prosocial behaviour. Trust also differs across contexts, which makes it even more difficult to measure: at best we need to track multiple trust metrics in multiple contexts.

Positive sum resources

There are only a few examples of these in the world: time and information being the two most obvious ones. However, these are a key economic tool for cooperative game play. This area of exploration is connected to the software theory of agalmics: non-scarce resources. Whether or not players compete over a resources becomes a design choice, not a fundamental constraint.

We need to look for competition or toxicity and design away any non-zero resources at the heart of such interactions. You may ask whether this will destroy our incentives to compete, but cumulative scores are an inherent positive sum resource (everyone gets some independent of other players), and coordination games are every bit as popular as other kinds.

If there are infinite resources, won't we just have imbalanced economies?

It is important to internalize that as a game economy designer, you control the sources, the sinks and the narrative justification for why the world works as it does. Scarcity as well as abundance are aesthetic choices.

There are arbitrary per player caps, or per group caps, or transaction costs, or sinks that can achieve balanced incentive structures. Again, the mapping from games to real world is not exact: our total relationship budget is itself zero sum. We are limited by Dunbar's number, but this is perhaps where we can consider those higher level trust metrics like inter-group cooperation.

Knowledge resources

Paul Romer has argued that learned transformations on scarce zero-sum resources result in more efficient use: wood burning in a stove vs in an open pit can generate and store far more heat.

A prosocial attribute of knowledge is that supply is determined by the number of clever people you have creating it. Since knowledge is research by clever people, the more clever people we have playing, the more knowledge we’ll likely gain [...] Appropriately designed knowledge good econonies mean more smart players are an advantage, not a threat.

Some examples of knowledge in game worlds include technological process, explorable spaces, and player skills. Like most knowledge goods, these skills are teachable and create an economy of attention and narrative based on passing skills efficiently onto other learners. Streamers showcase their knowledge goods - one of the reasons for their popularity.

Of course, virtual skills and knowledge can be passed on in all sorts of ways - as tokens, "unlocks" etc. - and so the critical part becomes the transfer mechanism you design. The paper mentions fun variations where an advanced player can only advance further if they manage to teach a newer player one of these virtual skills. These creates a tit-for-tat reciprocation loop where both players are getting something they need.

In general, when setting up transfer mechanisms, try to create a natural interdependency between players. Economic mechanisms that encourage players to seek out and interact with other players helps facilitate the friendship equation.

Voting Resources

Votes are positive sum economic resources! If we reframe them in economic terms, we gain a large number of tools for manipulating and building novel prosocial voting economies. The paper cites Beartopia, where "crafting ingredients" take the form of berries which can be gathered once a minimum of work had been done.

For large projects that consume public space, it requires lots of crafting ingredients - i.e. high levels of coordination - to execute. This is directly equivalent to storage on Ethereum. Smaller scale, more ephemeral projects require less participation.

We wanted to empower individuals to make local changes, but ensure the system needed the political power of increasingly larger groups to make more permanent communal changes.

This is crucial: in a virtual universe, you need not use the same language of voting and politics to achieve the same end results! We get so caught up in the inertia of our current linguistic paradigms that we can't think creatively about how to achieve the desired results without recourse to the same old formalisms. Use games to free yourself.

Interdependent roles

Division of labor increases efficiency and so is pervasive through social systems design. It incentivizes both specialization and coordination and is fueled by trust. However, such high trust requirements - and the reputational and actual costs of failing in high coordination tasks - tend to intimidate people. Successful games have a ladder of activities, starting with low trust activities between generalists, before moving into higher trust coordination games between specialists.

Trust Diagram

Shared Vulnerability

Shared struggle acts as social glue and facilitates tight bonds of trust and higher social cohesion. The paper cites Eve Online and the guild rituals people created for recruiting new members. One high functioning guild would recruit players by giving them understandable tasks and then leading them into a battle where they would all die, together. It was intended as a bonding exercise, after which all materials were replaced. This creates high retention in groups through shared memory and an establishment of interdependence, loyalty, and generosity.

The challenge is to calibrate the kind of shared vulnerability and manage a thoughtful transition to more peaceful forms of gameplay that amount to recovery therapy.

Moreover, this example is about tribes with in-group/out-group dynamics, and it isn’t clear how it would translate to a non-zero-sum shared massive environment.

Player to player trade

Trade allows both parties to benefit and increases the overall value in the game. Trade can improve human relationships through creating more overall abundance, and by getting individual people to engage in reciprocal negotiation and relationship-building. However, boiling everything down to one, auctionable price is not necessarily prosocial. Given that scarcity in digital environments is a design choice, there are numerous options available to solving this which the paper discusses, that are cut here for the sake of at least some brevity.

Tying social metrics to business success

This is the hardest pattern to implement, because it takes us back to the problem that "the practice of economics erases many of the social phenomena we are interested in examining". Nevertheless, the paper suggests some ways to do this and then warns that implementing them will very likely lead into the next section.

Dark patterns

"Ignorance does not create ideologically neutral games."

Prosocial economics explicitly brings the tools of economics into social system design. And it promises to be an effective and scalable means of promoting societal values. This combination is a honeypot for bad actors. There is a future where the basic social technologies we’ve described in this paper will be used to create systems of immense evil, debasing the very aspects of friendship that we seek to elevate.

The paper cites as examples of dark patterns both Facebook's advertising model and China's social credit system. Ideologically motivated groups can easily adopt these practices to inject toxic behaviour into social systems, but the antidote to this is not locking the knowledge up: it's spreading it as far as possible so more of us can more readily identify such dark patterns.

  1. Optimizing for proxies, rather than the actual social phenomena: this can take the form of viral installs, GDP, or even the "togetherness" metric in Steambirds cited above. It is potentially mitigated by more holistic metrics, cross-functional teams and player interviews.
  2. Over reliance on extrinsic motivators: we can "crowd out" complicated, intrinsic motivators with extrinsic motivators that are much easier to standardize, code and implement. We can mitigate this by explicitly designing for individual players and their personal journeys, rather than for aggregates of average players. Importantly, we must also scope metrics correctly: internal, private, group and public and think carefully about what we share with whom and the effect it will have on various behavioral incentive loops.
  3. Replacing prosocial with selfish values: economists tend towards evil for a variety of reasons. Tracking and focusing on currency seems to lead to rationalizations that justify selfish behavior. When we embed extrinsic, currency-based values in our identity as individuals and tribes, these just get amplified at larger social layers and more deeply entrenched, which results in clashes of dogma and doctrine which are no-win.

As alternatives, we can re-emphasize the patterns described above:

  • Be explicit about key prosocial values
  • Tie economic value to the maintenance of prosocial value
  • Don’t put business in control of prosocial systems
  • Hire prosocial executives that know the value of these systems
  • Establish ethics standards for social systems designers

Weaving the threads together

We can summarize this into three key prosocial mechanics and economic patterns to promote:

  1. Measuring the unmeasured: trust and positive sum resources, knowledge in particular.
  2. Facilitating connection: building for friendship formation, encouraging trade and fostering shared vulnerability.
  3. Facilitating expression: through voting resources as economic tools and integrating social metrics with business success.

There are so many areas which you can use this initial exploration to dive into: group leveling; friendship resources; incentivizing generosity; nurture play; and expressive orthogonality through fashion. Ideally, we should aim to use the above prosocial design patterns to explore the space of positive sum resource design and public good design (see Liberal Radicalism as one example of such an exploration); to build better cognitive behaviour therapy systems and help manage social skill development across societies.

Of course, a core area of concern is transferring these insights from the game world to the real one, and this is where cryptocurrencies seem uniquely valuable. Cryptoeconomic mechanism design is all about the interface between value in a digital and "actual" sense - it's about how we can use programmable money to influence the way societies organize and function. We invite you to apply the principles above to build prosocial mechanisms that advance the state of our social arts.