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“The Rich Get Richer” in video games–cms-21892


The effects of power laws and “The Long Tail” can be seen throughout many different systems throughout the world. Many systems with a positive feedback loop can create an exponential distribution, which can be described by a power law. That is, if more of something creates more of itself, then its distribution across some population or space is very likely to be described by a power law, as we discussed in lecture and in Chapter 17 of the textbook. One example of a system like this is wealth distribution. Having more money makes it much easier to make more money in the future, which leads to a snowball effect where the richest 1% of the country owns 40% of the wealth.


As it would turn out, many popular video games model this system as well. The web game “Cookie Clicker” allowed the player to click to gain cookies, which could then be used to buy upgrades, which made it easier to collect more cookies automatically. The player goes from having 1-100 cookies at any time to having quadrillions pouring in every second. This is used in a lot of games to create a large sense of progression and player fulfillment.


This works fine in silly single player games, but in a competitive environments, “The Long Tail” can lead to a very boring game. If one player exponentially rises into victory, their lead eventually becomes so massive that their victory is all but guaranteed. This burden of knowledge makes the outcome known, and therefore the game is much less engaging. For example, if you lose most of your pieces in a game of chess, the rest of the game is a long slog until the opponent eventually checkmates you.


There are a lot of interesting cases where games try to counteract this effect when it naturally rises up. For example, “Mariokart” has the infamous “Blue Shell” system, where players in the back can occasionally throw a blue shell at the player in first place, which acts as a homing missile and almost always hits. In addition, players further away from the player in the lead get better items and powerups throughout the race, giving them a chance to catch up. This creates a system where the best players are periodically pushed backwards, and the worst players are propelled forward. While this sometimes feels terrible as the racer in the lead, it creates more interesting race. The racers are closer to each other in this sytsem, which means that they have more interactions with each other, which leads to more drama, more fun, more uncertainty, and more engagement from the players.

Without these balancing mechanics in place, the game would heavily favor players who get an early lead. Once players in the lead have gained distance from their opponents, they have fewer interactions with other players, and the other players have fewer chances to attack them. This allows the player in the lead to be hit less, and travel the race track faster, and gain an even faster lead. In the mean time, the worst players will naturally be clumped together. This creates a situation where the worst players are always hitting each other, making the slowest players even slower. This is obviously not fun for anyone involved.


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November 2018