Star Wars: The Market Strikes Back


Can’t we all just get along?

Not too long ago, on a server far, far away, I marveled at the cooperation between sworn enemies. Pitted against each other on the frozen planet of Ilum, Jedi and Sith extended each other a civil courtesy, working together toward mutual benefit.

This unlikely truce occurred in the massively multiplayer online game Star Wars: The Old Republic. Set thousands of years before the films, the game welcomes players to create characters loyal to either the Jedi-guided Galactic Republic or the evil Sith Empire. Players spend hours progressing their characters to a level cap beyond which the focus of gameplay shifts to large scale cooperative operations and player-versus-player combat between the two factions.

The developers designed Ilum as a stage for the latter, an open world player-versus-player environment where Republic and Empire funnel into close proximity. The design presumes that members of the opposing factions will attack each other on sight, simply because they can. However, that commonly does not happen. Jedi and Sith often leave each other alone, going about their respective business.

The planet hosted a recent in-game event including a kind of capture-the-flag scenario where players from both factions were tasked with collecting orbs and depositing them in a central goal zone. The act of depositing took three and a half seconds and could be interrupted by enemy players. A successful deposit triggered a minute long lockout of the goal zone. The developers’ intention was to encourage a contest over the goal zone, where players vied for the chance to deposit their orbs.

Instead, an understanding soon developed between enemy players. All soon realized that it was easier to cooperate and take turns depositing the orbs than to fight over the goal zone. So it came to pass that Jedi, Sith, troopers, smugglers, bounty hunters, and Imperial agents could be seen waiting patiently in single-file for the chance to complete their individual missions.

Maker of bad deals.

Maker of bad deals.

It makes sense when you stop to think about it. After all, the alternative to standing in any line is fighting over whatever the line is for. Even absent specific direction, lines naturally develop wherever several people seek access to the same thing at the same time. More than mere courtesy, the spontaneous cooperation of taking turns manifests from reason. The alternative would be violent chaos, a riot at every cash register.

The benefit of such cooperation extends to the strong as much as the weak. Even if victory were assured, the task of constant violence proves more taxing than taking turns. In the context of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the line on Ilum remained in effect regardless of the composition of opposing forces. A superior gang of Republic soldiers would accommodate a weaker group of Imperials and vice versa, because the value of the truce lay in the ongoing assurance that any player could have access to the goal area at any time. Breaking the truce would shatter that benefit for everyone.

From a game design standpoint, the unintended truce of Ilum demonstrates that systems of control do not always produce desired results. In order to foster conflict, the scenario will have to be adjusted to provide greater incentive for battle than currently exists for cooperation.

From outside the game looking in, the phenomenon stands as an affirmation of the market’s power to make allies of enemies. I, for one, despise the sanctimonious political agenda on display inside Chipotle Mexican restaurants, where they flaunt their free-range chicken and organic sour cream in an effort to make me feel better about eating a burrito. (It’s okay, guys. I wasn’t worried about it.) Nevertheless, I do business with them because their product proves worth both the price and the irritation. Similarly, I have a friend who bought something from Target one day after lambasting the company for its contributions to a political action committee benefiting a candidate who supports traditional marriage. Hence most boycotts miserably fail, because trade involves the exchange of particular value and rarely stands contingent upon a broader agreement. In liberty, despite our differences, we all really can just get along.