Technically Exists

Can boycotts be solved?


In my last post, I talked about why individuals’ incentives will prevent video game boycotts from succeeding. Now I’d like to discuss potential solutions (or at least vague outlines for potential solutions) to this problem.

The first idea that comes to mind is looking at historical successes. Two successful boycotts that I’m aware of are the Continental Association and the Montgomery bus boycott. For those who don’t know, the Continental Association was a boycott of British goods by the American colonies prior to the American Revolutionary War, and the Montgomery bus boycott was a protest against the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama during the American Civil Rights Movement. In looking at these examples, I hope to identify both parts of a coordination mechanism: an agreement and an enforcement mechanism.

The Continental Association’s agreement is easy to find. The Association’s articles stated that colonists would refuse to import British goods and American merchants would avoid price gouging to ease the resulting burden. Likewise, the articles provide several enforcement mechanisms. Those violating the agreement were to be publicly ostracized and condemned. Committees of inspection were set up to monitor businesses. Colonies had to cease all dealings with any colony that did not comply. Additionally, violence was employed to force compliance on some occasions. These mechanisms were successful enough for all but one colony to comply up until the war began.

The Montgomery bus boycott also has a simple agreement. The buses would not be ridden until the city agreed to switch to a compromise between the current rules and desegregation. The enforcement mechanism is less obvious, but given the strength of the black community and its churches, it’s reasonable to assume it was social pressure. Community members often helped each other out, and losing that support could be devastating, so if the community said you should join the boycott, you probably joined the boycott. Similarly to before, this was enough for the boycott to last until the United States Supreme Court ruled segregation on public transportation illegal.

Coming back to video game boycotts, the agreement seems easy to create. Refuse to purchase the game until the game’s publisher stops whatever prompted the boycott. The difficult part is the enforcement mechanism. The Continental Association’s methods don’t seem particularly helpful. Committees of inspection could be ignored, no obvious analog to colonies exists, and violence is a poor solution for most problems. That leaves social mechanisms, the strategy that was also employed for the Montgomery bus boycott. This is probably the most plausible option, but it’s still pretty bad. The online disinhibition effect weakens social restrictions, reducing the chances that an online community will be able to pressure its members into coordination. Therefore, I think it would be wiser to look at other options.

The most powerful coordination mechanism ever created by civilization is probably government. In a government with legislative and executive branches, the legislative branch sets the agreements while the executive branch enforces them. Thus, one way to solve our problem is to get a law passed that bans the targeted activity. Then everyone is forced to “boycott” offending games by means of their nonexistence.

Of course, this idea is not without its problems. First of all, you need to grab the attention of your legislators while thousands of other causes also vie for their attention. Next, you need to convince them that supporting your law is in their best interests, even though there will almost certainly be objections and proposals for changes that no one will agree on. Additionally, you need to actually have a law for them to support. If you can’t specify the activity that needs banned well enough, your law will either be ineffective or ban actions that should be allowed. This brings up another problem, which is that your law restricts the freedom of others. If some people don’t mind a game with the opposed features and your law prevents it from being made, your actions may become rather questionable.

Perhaps we need to think outside the box more. In Inadequate Equilibria, Eliezer Yudkowsky mentions the idea of a timed-collective-action-threshold-conditional-commitment, essentially a generalized version of Kickstarter, as a means to coordinate action. In our case, the idea would be to have potential boycotters agree to the boycott if and only if a certain number of other people also agree to it. The problem is that there remains a need for an enforcement mechanism. In Kickstarter’s case, backers pay when they make the agreement and their money is returned if the project fails to meet its funding threshold. Thus, backers don’t have the option to not pay, but must instead trust the company to not keep the money for a failed project. A similar solution might work for boycotting video games, though there are multiple challenges to overcome.

First off, participants need to have not already bought the game. If those who have purchased the game are allowed to appear to participate, then we will once again end up in a situation where no one is incentivized to actually participate. For the same reason, participants must be incentivized to avoid purchasing the game in the middle of the boycott. We also want to ensure that all participants are actually interested in buying the game being boycotted so the publisher is incentivized to meet the boycott’s demands.

Taking this into account, here is my rough proposal for a Kickstarter-like boycott company. A boycott agreement would have participants deposit enough money to buy the game being boycotted. After a set time, if a set number of people has not been reached, the deposit is returned and no obligations remain. However, if the set number of people is reached prior to the set time, the boycott begins. At this point, any participant who buys the game will lose their deposit. Those who don’t buy the game will have one of two things happen to their deposit. If the boycott is judged successful, their deposit is used to purchase the game for them. However, if a set duration passes without the boycott being judged successful, the deposits are returned. Alternatively, they could be put towards purchasing a similar game by a rival publisher.

Why use something like this structure? The deposit is important because it serves as the enforcement mechanism. If you fail to remain in the boycott, you lose money. A successful boycott leads to the deposit buying the game for two reasons. First of all, it provides an incentive not to buy the game prior to the end of the boycott even if you could do so without being detected (such as by using an alternate account), since you’ll end up getting two copies of the game if it succeeds. It also helps discourage people who don’t care about the game from participating, which is important if they are otherwise incentivized to.

The reason such people might be incentivized to participate is that the deposits of anyone who buys the game during the boycott might be redistributed to those who didn’t buy it. This would create an opportunity for profit that might be exploited. Other ways to prevent this include forcing deposits to be put toward another game upon a failed boycott or letting the company running the boycott keep the forfeited deposits as extra profit. The first option has the advantage of reducing the chance that participants buy the game after the boycott is over, which makes the boycott more credible to the publisher. However, it may discourage people from participating since their control over the money they deposit is vastly reduced. Letting the boycott company keep the deposits has the drawback of incentivizing the company to have some people buy the game during the boycott.

There are still plenty of problems with this design, and I’m sure that, if it is not entirely useless, it would at the very least need to undergo several rounds of improvement to actually be viable. But it would be very interesting if a company loosely resembling this proposal arose one day. In the meantime, there is one last idea I’d like to take a look at.

Instead of using a boycott, we could instead treat the desired action as a public good that players would like the publisher to create. Normally public goods are provided by the government, but we’ve already considered a way the government could help, so let’s look at a more unique option.

Prediction markets are a special type of stock market involving assets that pay out only if a certain event happens. They are usually discussed in the context of their ability to aggregate information about currently unresolved facts. However, Paul Sztorc has proposed that a decentralized prediction market could be used to fund public goods. In our case, the “public good” is an end to whatever we wanted to boycott. To fund it, a special prediction market would be created, and players who wish to help fund the good would buy the state predicting that the good will not be created. If enough funds are raised, the company will choose to purchase a state predicting the creation of the good and discontinue the activity in order to claim the funds.

This strategy also has its share of problems. For one thing, a decentralized prediction market has to exist in order to implement this idea. Even if this condition is met, there’s still the issue of incentives to become a free rider instead of contributing to the funding of the public good. There’s also the question of whether it’s right for players to have to pay extra in order for publishers to listen to them.

There are a multitude of ways in which the weaknesses of boycotts could be overcome. While the ideas presented here are unrefined, I think there may be potential within them. That said, I have no plans to refine them myself, so it’s probable that nothing will ever come of them. However, I will not be surprised if someone eventually comes up with something.

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