What Principles of Justice Should Seed Players Choose Before the Game Goes Live?


Although Seed is yet to have an official launch date, the Seed Discord server has attracted a thriving community of members, whose enthusiasm for the game’s progress has left the development team in awe, as would-be players avidly discuss the game features they most want to see, and even join player-created factions with competing plans to colonize the new world, the very moment that they can.

All this active debate about a world that doesn’t yet exist eerily resembles the thought experiment described in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, one of the most influential books on political philosophy of the last few decades. (It apparently shaped the beliefs of rising young Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.) This is because Rawls’ book is not about societies as they exist already, but society as it should be -- if all its members had a chance to agree on its principles beforehand.

Imagine, Rawls asks us -- long before the first hut is built or the first crops are planted -- a society’s founding members got together, and decided in advance on some basic principles of fairness they all agreed to abide by. Rawls then added an important catch: No one could know what their future status in this society would be -- whether they’d be wealthy or poor, how much talents they’d be blessed with or what flaws they’d have to shoulder. Because if no one knew any of this, Rawls argues, each person would have a vested interest to make sure this new society would be as fair to everyone as it could possibly be.

Copyright: BBC Radio 4.

In political philosophy, this is called the veil of ignorance -- or for Rawls, the Original Position -- and it helps us understand when laws are truly fair, or designed to benefit some at the expense of others.

But the veil of ignorance has always been characterized as a thought experiment -- since after all, in real life, societies are usually founded by settlers whose place in the hierarchy has pretty much been decided at the start. (If Elon Musk ever makes good on his promise to colonize Mars, it’s safe to assume the settlement that’s ultimately built will be one where Elon is Martian royalty.)

The Seed community is the closest thing we have to people in Rawls’ hypothetical Original Position. Players have a very rough idea what the world will be; some probably have vague plans for what they want to do there, once the game is open. But none yet know what strategic and leadership talents they’ll need to succeed, let alone dominate or successfully survive.

What principles of fairness should community members choose now, before they even know how they’ll fare in this new world? If they took a page from Rawls, they might look like this:

  • Every member of society should have an equal right to fundamental liberties.

  • Social and economic inequalities should only exist if they somehow benefit the least advantaged.

Roughly summarized, those were Rawls’ two principles of a just society.

It’s easy to see how the first principle might apply in Seed: Clearly we want every player to have the same level of in-game abilities, and equal access to player features such as inventory, and customer support management.  

The second principle might be more controversial. In the real world, when the wealthy control far more resources than everyone else, many economists (following Rawls) support a heavy tax on massive income.

Rawls’ theory assumes that people’s potential to succeed in life is severely shaped by the “lottery of birth”, where some of us are born into wealthy and/or talented families, but much of us are born into families with little or nothing to give them an intrinsic advantage. However, most MMOs typically give each player equal attributes in the lottery of character creation. And since Seed takes place in a newly settled, previously untouched planet, it’s also possible to further equalize players’ starting position, to make sure they all have access to more or less the same level of resources. (Though maybe most players might prefer to take their chances, counting on their gameplay skills to make up for any shortcoming they’re “born” with.)

When Larry Lessig told me about the systems of democratic governance he was designing for Seed, he left open the possibility that some of them might not be architected into the code of the game itself, but, instead, voluntarily enforced by the user base. And as Seed’s pre-launch community grows and evolves over many more months, we may see an equally interesting phenomenon: A collective call to embrace fairness principles for the world before it’s even switched on.

- Wagner James Au

All opinions are the writer’s own.