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Published July 26, 2013

W-space and Game Theory

It seems like every month there’s a new thread in the Wormholes section of the EVE-O forums bemoaning the state of w-space PvP. Complaints about a lack of decent fights are common, and blobs, NAP-fests, over-reliance on T3 doctrines, laziness, a lack of conflict drivers, and other issues are regularly named as the cause. Inevitably, these threads descend into finger-pointing, accusations of hypocrisy, and flat-out insults. That is to say, they become typical threads on the EVE-O forums and never really solve anything. Below is an attempt to add some additional perspective to the debate about wormhole PvP, using some ideas that I picked up in my real life studies. In my view, blobs, blues, and all the rest are merely symptoms, and the ultimate cause of the situation we see today remains largely unrecognized.

I’ll say up front that I haven’t been in wormholes from the beginning, so I cannot compare what it once was to what it is now. Having only lived in w-space for a little over two years, I lack a frame of reference for the oft-romanticized “good ol' days” when w-space was new and mysterious. What I do have, however, is a solid base of experience from which to draw, and a real life education that included some classes on game theory. For the uninitiated, game theory is the study of strategic decision making, wherever it is found. I’m far from an expert on the subject, but analyzing the state of w-space PvP is considerably less complex than trying to figure out where to set your product’s price based on the current market and the historical actions of your competitors, which is something I’ve also done.

Game theory can be applied to almost any scenario where decisions are made, and the theory assumes that those making the decisions are both self-interested and rational. The first assumption fits EVE players like a glove, but the second one might be a bit of a stretch. This second assumption is actually a weakness of the theory itself, as nobody acts rationally in every situation, and human motivation is often inscrutable. With that caveat aside, applying some of the concepts of game theory to the question of why so many are dissatisfied with the state of w-space PvP is quite illuminating.

Choices, Payoffs, and Equilibrium Outcomes

Before we get into applying the theory to EVE, I’ll explain the core concept of game theory. Essentially, the idea is that rational actors will always make the decision that furthers their self-interest the most, based on the information they have. All things being equal, if a person is presented with a choice between receiving $5 or $10, they will choose the $10 every time. This concept is inanely simple with only one actor, but when other actors are introduced, it gets significantly more complex.

The classic example of game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma. In this scenario, we assume that there are two people who have been arrested in connection with the same crime, and they are being interrogated separately. The police do not have enough evidence to convict them, so the interrogator gives each prisoner a choice: he can confess and go free while his partner receives three years in prison, or he can remain silent and hope that his partner does, too. If both of them confess, however, they each get two years in prison. The following payoff matrix can be used to illustrate the model:

 

payoff matrix

 

Now, let’s think about the situation briefly. Regardless of what his partner does, if one of the prisoners confesses his payoff will be either going free (1) or two years in prison (-2). If he remains silent, his payoff will be either going free (1) or three years in prison (-3). Unless the prisoner has unshakable faith in the silence of his partner, or there are other, selfless motivations at play, the obvious choice is to confess. Confessing has the same best-case scenario (freedom) but a lesser worst-case scenario (2 years instead of 3 years in prison). The decision practically makes itself.

In this case, confessing is the “equilibrium outcome.” This term means that there is a choice that can be made which is better than any other, and that no unilateral change in strategy will produce a superior range of payoffs. The prisoners could both get the best-case payoff by choosing silence together, but they cannot be completely sure that their partner will remain silent and therefore cannot act collaboratively.

This scenario might seem a bit unrealistic at first, but these sorts of calculations actually happen in real life, whether or not the actors are aware. For example, criminal gangs have long recognized the danger of tricky interrogation tactics, and they react by setting the expectation for silence in advance and threatening violent consequences for confessing. This threat, if credible, makes silence the equilibrium outcome, since freedom or a lesser prison sentence means nothing when you’re dead. In response, the police sometimes offer enrollment in a witness protection program to negate the threat of violence and maintain confession as the equilibrium outcome.

So, that's a lot of words, and by now you're probably asking yourself how in hell this relates to w-space PvP. Simply put, the choices and payoffs inherent in w-space (and really EVE in general) create an equilibrium outcome that many players find unsatisfactory. Using game theory we can model the decision-making process and demonstrate how individual choices lead to the current state of PvP in wormholes. With that in mind, let’s look at blobs and blues through the lens of game theory.

Abis Cann
Straight outta J115405, I'm a wormhole resident and director in Hard Knocks Inc. When not writing about wormhole PvP and events in the greater w-space community, I enjoy jokes about Kazakhstan and the occasional glass of delicious tears.

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