The history of computer games has coincided with the history of neo-liberal economics – thus, the lack of a safety net has been perceived by many as a state of nature, as opposed to what it is – an explicit set of policy decisions functioning as instruments of ambient violence directed against the poor in order to help the rich grow richer.
–David Kanaga, Road to the IGF: David Kanaga’s Oikospiel, Book I (Gamasutra)
Surely you all remember David Kanaga? Kanaga’s renowned for his collaborative work, constructing a unique musical dimension for titles such as Dyad, Proteus and Panoramical. This year, however, he released a title which is very much his own, Oἶκoςpiel, Book I. I haven’t played it yet, but I do know it is a dog opera and was up for the IGF Nuovo award.
Having read the first instalment of my book which explores the causes of and responses to zero price gravity in indie games, Kanaga pointed me towards Oἶκoςpiel’s unusual website which appears to be a toy for game pricing.
The website asks you to submit your income and number of people living in your household, from which the site determines your personal price for the Oἶκoςpiel software; Kanaga presents it as our personal ticket to the Oἶκoςpiel experience. As your income increases, so does the price of the game but the relationship between the two is not linear. Experimentation revealed that for those on annual incomes below $20,000 the game is free, after which point, you’re charged 0.01% of your salary. The percentage rises to 0.02% around $30,000 and eventually climbs all the way to 1%. Kanaga is interested in your ability to pay, which is why increasing the number of dependents reduces the price.
As explained in the book, the market price of software is zero. In a way, Kanaga’s website admits that Oἶκoςpiel has no price but Kanaga has to make money and you’ve got to pay for your ticket for the experience. The modern response to the zero price issue revolves around fans paying more, either because they feel invested in your success or are invested in what you’ve created: you make all your real money from the sweet merch. Kanaga rejects that. There are no extras if you pay more. Everyone gets the same package, but those with more money are expected to subsidize those on poorer incomes.
At the same time it is a rebuke to those on large incomes, because there’s no ceiling on the price, just a ceiling on the income slider. At the top end, a customer earning $14,000,000 with no dependents should pay $14,000 for the software. A ceiling on the price would establish a “correct” price of the game and, as we know, there is no such thing.
Now, moving the mouse across the webpage causes a wind turbine to turn, which generates energy, earning a discount on the price. The more you work, the cheaper the game becomes. This resembles unethical free-to-play practices where poorer players have to grind to attain the same level of fun. Even though both models contribute to the final price, it feels as if they are being compared: free-to-play, the modern answer to zero pricing, and Kanaga’s pay-what-you-should.
Let me stop the car at the side of the road so we can chat properly. This pricing initiative is fictional, a demonstration. It’s not enforced. And Kanaga isn’t checking your tax records to verify your income submission. The price updates in real-time which means you can experiment with this system until you find a price you find reasonable. Underneath the hood, it’s pay-what-you-want, not pay-what-you-should.
However, how we frame requests can change their outcome. The very first chapter in Yes!: 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion (Noah Goldstein & Robert B. Professor Cialdini & Steve J. Martin, 2007) showed that asking hotel guests to recycle their towels was more successful if the request mentioned that the majority of guests did it at least once during their stay. Framing the want as a should might make some feel compelled to punch in the right numbers, but these systems rarely function how you want them to. Focusing on fairness might sway the heart but it does not necessarily sway the wallet. Does it make any difference that Kanaga’s pricing system is about buyer fairness as opposed to seller fairness? Its message is a little bit inscrutable for the average theatregoer.
And here, as they say, is the thing. It’s an interesting experiment but I don’t expect it to lead to anything exciting or groundbreaking. I don’t expect it change the conversation about what prices should be or need to be. It will probably only work as a device for gathering attention, generating chatter about Kanaga’s wacky pricing methodology and what it means.
And, by writing this essay, perhaps I’ve proven the point.