Strength in Numbers

by SpaceBass

An editorial on the importance of encouraging a large player audience.

How do ants find food? I don't mean individual ants, I mean a collective colony. There is no rhyme nor reason to how an individual ant conducts his search for sustenance; he wanders around aimlessly until he either happens upon some food source or crosses the scent trail laid by one of his fellows who happened upon some food source before he did.

Now, obviously the efficacy of this method depends wholly on how many ants are actually wandering around. If ants were hermits…well, they probably wouldn't last very long as a species unless they quickly evolved some individual system for food-searching. Taken on an individual basis, wandering aimlessly can hardly be called a system. Yet, when it is done by the massive numbers of ants in a colony, it does work as a system, albeit one that depends on the statistics of chance.

Engineers know that when engineering for unknown circumstances or requirements, at a certain point design becomes irrelevant. The US space program, though populated by some of the brightest minds in the industry, did by some measure amount to tossing a bunch of rocks to see if one would hit something, and then studying why it did in order to improve on the next throw. There were dozens and hundreds of initial failures in the 'science' of rocketry. There are so many variables in such a complex undertaking, a large part of which are nigh impossible to anticipate, that the only efficient way to discover them is to make a lot of mistakes from which to learn.

Ants do this instinctively in their search for food. How many ants come back empty-handed (empty-legged?) or don't come back at all? Far more come back with nothing than return to the nest in victorious, tasty triumph. And the ants continue with this pattern, and continue to thrive, because they don't 'learn' the wrong lessons from those successes.

If ants were a bit smarter they might think one day, "Hey, this ant dude came back with food! Maybe he's better at finding it than the rest of us who brought back nothing?" Then the colony might only allow that ant to go out looking, which would of course lead to folly, since that particular ant didn't really have any advantage over the others except that he got lucky one day. So the colonies continue to throw piles of rocks at the target, and even though the majority miss, every once in a while one hits and everybody wins.

The music industry could benefit by recognizing this pattern, as could the software industry. We hear a lot about how these companies need to protect their intellectual property from unauthorized meddling in order to preserve innovation. What point would there be to research and development, the argument goes, if there were no reward for the success of the project?

But this argument ignores the fact that when you create artificial barriers to participation in an endeavor, the overall effect is detrimental to the endeavor unless those allowed to be involved have a large enough internal population to be self-sustainable. When an industry consolidates down to four or five companies, the evolution of the industry suffers. There just aren't enough ants to go in search of food and achieve any sort of measurable success rate anymore.

The open-source software movement, though it may not consciously recognize this, at least operates under the principle of the ants: the more people you throw at a problem, the better chance one or a few will find a solution. Open source developers recognize that the traditional software development model of closed, proprietary code maintained by a relatively small group of in-house programmers, leads to missed bugs and security problems – especially if those searching for bugs wrote the code themselves.

The strength of an ARG collective of players hinges on its numbers. True, the individual areas of expertise of each player can be a factor in whether a particularly esoteric puzzle is solved. But the key to the successful collective is to throw as many players as possible at the problems an ARG presents. In this context, it is easy to see how every member of an ARG player group is important, whether they individually solve puzzles or not: every player brings the group that much closer to the critical mass required to pop out the solutions. A group of four people, even if they are all experts in their respective disciplines, is far less likely to achieve success in an ARG than a collective of thousands, none of whom have to be experts in anything, but who all together become an expert in everything when they reach that critical mass.

For players, ARG success depends on the size of the player collective. Player groups should devote as much group time and effort as they can spare from the ARG itself to attracting members and making the playing experience accessible to them. A player group that places artificial barriers in the way of potential members only hurts itself. Collectives should welcome as many contributors as their support network can possibly handle, in order to bring the whole group to that all-important level of criticality. Any action to the contrary may well serve only to doom the group to failure, or at least to a slow lingering death.