Categories of Sacredness

Previously: Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic EconomyOut to Get You

On Lesser Wrong, JenniferRM gave a reply that is worth quoting in full:

If I understand correctly, the cognitive process/bias/heuristic/whatever of “sacredness” is relevant here.

Neither nails nor dollars are sacred so you’re free to trade dollars for nails.

A kidney is sacred, so you can’t trade that for dollars, but you can trade it for another kidney (although such trades still feel a bit weird).

Sacred things are often poorly managed in practice, and sacredness is easy to make fun of, but a decent defense of sacredness might be that it is one of the few widely installed psychological mechanisms in real life for managing the downsides of having markets in things. Thus, properly deployed sacredness might let you have “trade” in one area without ending up with “totalalizing trade”?

In the smaller and hopefully lower stakes world of video games, I think the suggestion would be to have card classes with different trading characteristics.

The lowest class of very non-sacred things could be swapped with extremely low transaction costs within the class and also be tradeable directly for money.

Higher sacredness things would have a separate market, perhaps with transaction costs like needing a purchaseable delivery mechanism or imposing delays so that objects go into limbo after the trade is finalized while “being delivered”. The most sacred things would be “inalienable” so they can’t be traded or given away or perhaps not even be destroyed.

Exactly where sacredness should be deployed in order to maximize fun seems like a deep and relatively unstudied problem.

One place in real life where the inalienability of something has large and substantive differences from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is the question of the rights of artistic creators to their artwork. In some jurisdictions, an artist cannot legally sell their right to veto the use of their artwork if deployed in artistically compromising ways (like use in advertising or political campaigns) after mere copyrights have been sold.

In the US artistic moral rights are not treated as very sacred, and the lack of sacredness in art production is probably part of the US’s cultural dominance a la Hollywood, but it has arguably also had large effects in the lives of artists, visibly so with people like Bill Waterson and Prince.

Here, Benquo offers these thoughts:

I don’t think the problem is markets per se – it’s allowing the value of cards to float in the global financial economy, which contains lots of ways to earn currency totally unrelated to playing Eternal. If Eternal’s economy had the right sort of capital controls, price signals could enable local exchange in ways that generate genuine efficiencies, without e.g. making running a totally unrelated pyramid scheme (or running a genuinely good and successful but entirely unrelated business) elsewhere an effective way to win games of Eternal.

Burning Man seems, to some extent, to be able to do this. Actually-mostly-enforced anti-scalping rules mean that many, perhaps most, tickets are allocated on the basis of social capital within the Burner community. While US Dollars are one of many resources that can be converted into Burner currency, you need other inputs as well, not all of which are fungible with Dollars. Transaction costs are high, and there are sharply diminishing returns.

Of course, the Eternal team may legitimately want to make a profit, which means they need to accept money somehow, especially if they don’t want to sell their users as commodities ads. The obvious way to do this is to set up a buy-in structure that bakes in the right diminishing-returns curve (so Mark Zuckerberg can buy an incredible deck if he’s willing to sell Facebook, or a pretty awesome deck for $100,000, or an incredible deck for $10,000 and a year or two of playing the game instead of being a full-time CEO, and broke people with internet access can still compete). They’d also have to force transactions to be public (or at least registered to them) and reserve the right to delete any card that had ever been scalped. Possibly the community would still grow too large for that sort of thing, at least insofar as it relies to some extent on community cooperation, but then you can segment the community in various ways, etc.

I think this might be related to optimal currency zone theory, and am reminded that I still owe the world a review of some of Jane Jacobs’s lesser-known works. One thing she gets very right is that a real city (i.e. a center of economic activity) should usually have its own currency, because currency needs to function as an internal signal of relative priority, for a community to learn how to make more things.

Both point to categories of sacredness. Widgets can sometimes be traded for other widgets, but not sold for dollars. The master’s lessons are free, or you pay in kind. If they cost dollars, you could not afford them.

That’s what sacredness is. Things are sacred if and only if they matter and cannot be bought.

It ties into alienation from one’s labor. If I measure my reward in dollars, I am alienated. Even if I enjoy the task. Preventing that requires sacredness. If my rewards are sacred category, I can stay connected.

Where is it right to deploy this sacredness, for fun or otherwise? How does one make it stick?

Games as Sacred Spaces

All games worthy of the name have sacredness.

You play to win the game. You can’t bring resources in from outside, or take them out.

You can buy the best free agents, or better Magic cards. Once the game starts, your money is no good. If money played, the game would be about money. 

Poker is a game about money – winning money. The winning part is crucial. Otherwise it’s only a (increasingly boring) job. Tournament poker transforms money into sacred chips. Having them means something. Much better!

Metagames are interesting if and only if they are games. 

A sporting event is a game. Managing players over many games to help your team win?  Also a game.

What about drafting talent, signing free agents and trading? We want it to be a game. Salary caps can make team resources sacred, ensuring gameness, and help with balance. Interesting choices are created, much fun is had.

Baseball and real soccer lack salary caps. Rather than the game of winning, teams play the game of business. Dollars are points, winning is profitability. Fans score you points, so entertaining or engaging play is a valid strategy. Fans analyze moves based on profit maximization. Chomsky notes how sophisticated sports fans are. They’re even sophisticated about sports business. Capitalism ho!

The more fungible the players, the less sacred the team-building game. Also the less sacred the teams. We want to root for players, yet end up rooting for laundry.

On each meta level, we protect our game’s sacredness. We create rules and restrictions. We impose quotas and capital controls. As many times as it takes.

Magic: The Gathering is famous for its meta levels. We talk of each format’s metagame, its design and evolution. This includes trading, getting cards you want and building value. I increasingly found that subgame boring, time consuming and distasteful. It detracted.

When I paid for the cards I needed, it didn’t commercialize Magic. It did the opposite. It removed the commercialization from Magic. Relief!

Ideally, game super-systems are modal. You play some sub-games, ignore others. Some players outfit the ship then let the AI steer. Others let the AI outfit the ship, then steer it. Others let the AI do both and fill the hull with trade goods.

So some fans take their team as given and focus on games. Others focus on seasons, player development and team politics. Others focus on team construction and trading. Others focus on gambling odds, or fantasy sports. Some travel and tailgate. Keep only what you want, cancel anytime. To keep engagement non-commercial, choose what things to spend on, buy it then put money aside.

One can only do and care about so many things. Making more of them sacred need not create conflict. Treating eating well as sacred doesn’t make the big game, or family, or church, or politics, or anything else less sacred. They’re rivals for attention and resources, but once you’re spending those, make it count!

Sacredness does make rival sacredness seem less like ‘the only thing that matters,’ which can reduce intensity and payoff. Good! Sacredness that tells you that other things are not sacred is Out to Get You.

Religion (or politics, or any other Serious Business) works largely by turning the world and/or morality and/or all of life into a game. Follow the rules. Accumulate non-fungible resources. Win the game. Ignore other games. They don’t matter. This is your life, and your life is a test.

Trading Away Trade

Trade is central to prosperity. Sacredness inhibits trade. Often wipes it out.

Is that worth it?

It is good when trade or potential trade destroys the value being traded, and bad when trade or potential trade increases the value being traded.

Sacredness adds value for you. Trade distributes value efficiently. Which effect dominates? Where the value lies. High mundane utility items should trade freely.

Items with mostly personal value often should not.

Potential trade can be as valuable or destructive as trade.

Knowing I could buy or sell something efficiently reduces it to dollars and alienates. Likely eventual sale prevents investment and attachment, even when it shouldn’t. To anticipate the end often simulates the end. For best results, play most iterated games as if they never end. Until they do. Beware free trade (The Actual Best Thing Ever) not because they took our jobs. Beware because choices are bad.

Knowing one could sell something makes it valuable. Knowing one could buy something prevents worry and contingency planning.


Consider Tupperware.

Delivery creates a stream of Tupperware. In the days before delivery, one would buy a Tupperware set and consider it shameful to buy more.

This makes Tupperware (low-level) sacred. You manage a limited supply. Choices are made.

Of course, this is silly. Ordering delivery to get Tupperware is crazy, but you can buy more Tupperware. Cheap. But now it’s something to waste. One becomes and feels wasteful. Much value is lost.

But one would get to stop obsessing over the Tupperware.

Fighting the Market

The market is Out to Get You.  It comes for your sacredness.

As always, four options. Get Gone, Get Got, Get Compact, Get Ready.

Get Gone means to give up your sacred activity entirely. Sometimes markets and market values corrupt the sacredness and fun, leaving nothing worth saving.

You could Get Got. Let the sacred become non-sacred, perhaps mass produced. Burn the candle bright. Enjoy gains from trade. Spread the joy. Sacredness creates mundane value. Perhaps it’s time to sell out.

Get Compact draws a clear divide between sacred and non-sacred. Choose a defensible core of sacredness, and put up a sign saying ‘not for sale at any price.’ A fan might accept the market ruling player signings, but treat games as serious business. Politicians define core values they hope they’ll never compromise, and trade or sell off everything else for parts.

Within the sacred zone, you have a code of honor. Dollar prices are zero. Ideally prices are zero in everything, at least by default. There is freedom in that. Choices Are Really Bad. Answer all questions. Accept all challenges. Play for the love of the game. Help anyone non-evil who asks for it. Anyone can attend meetup. Free pizza. Take no payment. Often well worth it. Give away the product forever, be repaid in goodwill.

This requires a zero price to clear the market. It usually does. People don’t ask for things.

Loosening your code is usually a one-way trip. What you give up you cannot easily reclaim. Be very careful giving things up.

Get Ready means fighting for what you want. Get the efficiencies of markets and profit from the sacred, but keep it sacred. That sounds hard. Can it be done?

Not entirely. Fully open markets make kidneys commodities and sins consumer goods. You’ve been got. Smart restrictions needed. What are your options?

You could use capital controls or quotas. You have a market within your sacred area. It’s numerical. You can’t move those units out, and beyond the quota you can’t bring them in. In many cases, you earn the right to move money in.

With enough sacred things worth buying, some way to soak up dollars, and effective enforcement, that’s workable. Enforcement is hard. What prevents trading?

On a large scale, monopolies on force enable capital controls on large amounts if it is clear what is inside, and all outside things are kept outside.

On a small scale, very small groups enforce controls via mutual cooperation or surveillance. The babysitters club could presumably let dollars go in, but didn’t dare, resulting in market failure and a liquidity trap. But I think groups much larger than that lack the required levels of trust.

Asking for Magic Online sell event tickets for a dollar, but not resold for ninety-eight cents, seems quixotic. Asking for New York City to use the yorker rather than dollar seems even more doomed.  I see the plan, where there’s a ‘sink’ in the form of drafts or tax payments, but trade seems unpreventable.

You could force all trades to be authorized by making currency only payable to a chosen few. This is how food stamps work. Supermarkets accept them, and you can’t transfer or sell them otherwise; supermarkets cash them in. One could echo that, again given enforcement. Enforcement seems hard, unless it’s a strict enforcement where everything you acquire is bound to you. That’s how World of Warcraft does it, and it works well; the items bound in this way are sacred, and everything else isn’t. Food stamps now use debit cards.

Thus a fully non-fungible asset. Internal credits can’t buy anything non-sacred, nothing non-sacred can buy credits. At most, you pay to participate at all. Trade a kidney donation only for another kidney donation.

Or pay people, but much less than market price, replacement value or expenses. Terrible trades can’t extract free energy. Without free energy, nothing will attempt to prey on the system. Things remain sacred.

Intentional Draws

I’ll end on the subject of intentional draws. In Magic tournaments, often it is in the interest of both players to agree to a draw rather than play, as a draw gets them most or all of the value of a win. At first, this was considered dishonorable by many. The point of competition is to compete. The defiant slogan rang out: “I came to play.” Which they did! The game was sacred. Tournament-level considerations were profane.

This was not enforceable. Draw rates increased. Match level non-drawing (and non-conceding) sacredness was lost. Rules changes to minimize draws have helped some, but mostly annoyed players. Once not drawing was no longer sacred, barriers only made us all go around them.

When we made the Cyberpunk CCG, we embraced the ethos of that game’s world, and not only allowed but encouraged all forms of collusion during tournaments. That can be sacred too.

You can draw the line almost anywhere, so long as you draw it somewhere.


















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4 Responses to Categories of Sacredness

  1. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

  2. benquo says:

    Sacredness makes sense for the basic infrastructure required for tradeoffs. If FDA inspectors or rabbis observe violations of the respective dietary codes they are responsible for certifying, they shouldn’t bother with consequentialist reasoning before sounding the alarm, because their role is to screen off a category of uncertainty so that people operating within that system can be consequentialists.

    There’s implied consequentialist selection pressure here. Poisoned food very quickly becomes unacceptable to the consumer, and we don’t benefit very much from tiny cost savings on current margins. Opening up all possible food tradeoffs would massively increase the optimal individual expenditure on defense. By contrast, as a society, we’re not very worried about making sure we have correct textile patterns or cars that handle enjoyably or exercise regimens that avoid overtraining, because those are all recoverable errors and cases where it seems that there’s a lot more benefit than harm from exploration.

  3. Pingback: Kidneys, trade, sacredness, and space travel | Compass Rose

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