Friday, January 21, 2011

Midway: Larp as group thought experiment

Political science is full of thought experiments, many of them absurd but entertaining. I think they're a potentially interesting source of ideas for dramatic conflict, and that (to the degree that it's possible) it would be fascinating to see such experiments played out, simulated in detail by real people rather than all in a single mind. Just like poker wouldn't be as much fun if you simply thought about it as game theory, I think adding real human ego into group thought experiments should spice things up.

I've been playing in an on-going game called Midway for a few months. At one level it's a combination of airsoft (which is like paintball but better) and Larp (which is like improv drama), but to me it's also a wonderful chance to see how a "state of nature" turns into a society.

The likes of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and their drinking buddies needed a nice clean slate upon which to draw their social theories. This is called a "state of nature" i.e. people without any society. Think of the first season of the TV show Lost, more or less. So the lads then ask, "what would happen?" or perhaps "what should happen?". Of course they each came up with their own views on that, and sadly modern technology doesn't permit us to time-travel them onto a desert island together to see what would happen. (I call this the "Political philosphers on an island" thought experiment. I'm guessing Hobbes would declare himself king.)

Midway is set about a century after an unexplained Apocalypse. Civilisation is amost entirely gone; the players take the roles of characters founding a new settlement. In other words, there's a state of nature. So our thought experiment starts with no monarch, no elected government, no courts, no law... just a group of people; some are related to each other, many are armed, some have useful skills like farming.

Players walking towards Midway in the snow.

We've all seen enough movies to know that doctor characters are important. This one is also armed.

I call this the "Willie O'Dea" pose.

In every country, in every age, when things turn ugly people quickly realise the usefulness of physical barriers. Even a crude barricade is much better than nothing.

Dressed to kill. No society is too poor to have guns, lots and lots of guns.

It's interesting to see that three things seem to drive a group of people from being rugged individualists to agreeing - implicitly or formally - on laws and conventions: economics (including selfish protectionism / trade restrictions), external security (in this setting, bandits) and criminal justice (is shooting a plague-bearer murder?). Right now the community seems to be moving out of anarchy... the most likely outcomes in the short term are a paternalistic monarchy/police-state, or a Athenian-style direct democracy, or even civil war.

I have to admit that I've found myself thinking like a stereotypical Tea Party supporter, and would be deeply suspicious of anyone trying to disarm the people. And frankly I'm delighted by that, because getting a perspective I wouldn't normally have is a good outcome from a thought experiment.


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