Henry Farrell on Pokémon Go and the Tragedy of the Commons

Andrew Young — July 14, 2016

For The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Henry Farrell examines the influence of game theory on the current Pokémon Go phenomenon. The augmented reality smartphone game has quickly reached a level of immense popularity, and many people looking to sign up and join the wave of excitement are being greeted by error messages due to overwhelmed servers. The tendency to continue taxing those servers with repeated attempts to register for the popular game are, in Farrell’s view, consistent with game theory principles.

“The Club Pokémon website is currently telling people that it is limiting the number of new accounts that can be created until it’s able to improve the situation and asking people to try again in an hour…There’s a reason why the Pokémon Go people are asking people to stop trying to register. The same reason explains why their pleas are likely to be ignored. Pokémon Go users face a particular version of a problem that game theorists and people who study collective problems are very familiar with.

The problem is called the Tragedy of the Commons. Imagine a large group of people who own a piece of grazing land in common, all who have lots of animals that they would like to graze. If everyone were willing to restrict grazing to the optimal amount, then the land would be able to support a significant number of animals for a very long time. If, in contrast, people are greedy, the land is likely to be overgrazed to everyone’s disadvantage.”

Farrell concludes:

“If all these people could somehow agree not to try to register or authenticate more than once every hour, then the flood would abate, and the problem would likely be much easier to solve. That’s not possible. Nintendo’s plea that people should wait for an hour if they can’t register is presumably intended to try to achieve this. However, game theory would predict that self-interested and rational people will ignore the plea. If everybody else respects the plea, then you will be selfishly better off by ignoring it, and taking advantage of their behavior by maximizing your chances of registering. If, in contrast, no one respects the plea, then why should you respect it either? Either way, continuing to hit the refresh button will be the most advantageous strategy you can pursue.”

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