Evolutionary Game Theory and It’s Applicability to MMOs

In EVE Online we have a saying. EVE is real. Those three words cover a lot of territory. Exactly how much territory becomes apparent only to those who invest a great deal of their lives into playing the game. One thing I’ve always wondered though is exactly how real is EVE Online, or any other MMO for that matter. I know EVE Online best because I’ve played it for nearly seven years, and will use it as the example here, but I also know much of what’s been going through my brain this past weekend applies to all Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) in one way or another.

Though MMOs are a virtual society, they are still an environment with limited resources creating rewards and consequences based on the actions we take to obtain these resources. And though our virtual selves do not reproduce in the classic sense, it is possible to bring your young into the game, nurture them, protect them and ensure they survive and prosper. That is the unspoken truth behind new bro sponsorship within EVE Online’s largest corporations. The spoken reason may be to prevent awoxing, but that is not the only reason for such policies. They are at their most fundamental a form of reproduction, a way of ensuring the corporation is replenished and continues to exist. There are certainly some analogs here. But before I get into the specifics of what I’ve been thinking about, let’s all get on the same sheet of music when it comes to evolution. Here is the classic definition of the concept.

Ev·o·lu·tionˌ (evəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n) – noun

  1. the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.
    “His interest in evolution.”
    synonyms: Darwinism, natural selection
  2. the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.
    “The forms of written languages undergo constant evolution.”
    synonyms: development, advancement, growth, rise, progress, expansion, unfolding

When it comes to MMOs, I am certain the second definition fits far better than the first. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to make a case for speciation within a virtual world. However I believe we are all familiar with how MMOs can change over time based on player base, population pressures to which EVE online as a single shard system is more susceptible than most MMOs, and changes within the game code, akin to environmental changes in Earth’s ecosystems.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking. You’ve probably guessed from the title a bit of what’s been tickling my brain. Do the concepts of evolution apply to MMOs? Are the behaviors of players and the strategies they employ to succeed in EVE Online analogous to those used by real species to succeed and thrive on planet Earth?

I’ve been listening to the book Undeniable by Bill Nye, and one of the things he covers in the book is how Game Theory is being used now to help explain the evolutionary development of altruism and other complex behaviors listed below. The example he gives is vampire bats. If a bat returns to the cave unsuccessful after a night of hunting for blood, other bats will actually regurgitate some of the blood they acquired to feed the unsuccessful bat. Doesn’t that behavior fly in the face of survival of the fittest? Wouldn’t the better hunters keep the blood and thus ensure the survival of their genes? The short answer is no. The long answer is somewhat more complicated, and evolutionary biologists have been using game theory to explain why it may be a more advantageous to evolve altruistic instincts. You can get a summary of this concept at Wikipedia, or pick up Bill Nye’s book and give it a read. Is is an excellent summary of why evolution is undeniable.

So the particular chapter on game theory applied to evolution finished, and that’s when I thought, “Can it work in reverse?” Can evolutionary game theory explain behaviors I’ve seen in EVE Online and other MMOs? I looked back on all those things I saw and did while playing hour after hour of EVE Online. I began trying to categorize the behaviors I’d seen according to the game models used by evolutionary biologists to explain instinctual behavior. But I’m not going to give you some thesis paper on this. I’m not an evolutionary biologist. In other words no expert. But I do have questions, and it’d be far more interesting if other gamers share their experiences which may or may not support the premise I’ve laid out.

To do that end, let’s use the following game models from the Wikipedia article to discuss behaviors we’ve seen in EVE Online or other MMOs that seem to follow the model. Here are the game models I’ve considered and the conditions by which resources are won.

Hawk Dove

  • If a Hawk meets a Dove he gets the full resource Value to himself
  • If a Hawk meets a Hawk – half the time he wins, half the time he loses…so his average outcome is then Value/2 minus Cost/2
  • If a Dove meets a Hawk he will back off and get nothing – 0
  • If a Dove meets a Dove both share the resource and get Value/2

In EVE Online, I see this manifesting itself most often in high-sec. Doves are called carebears by Hawks, and Hawks are called gankers by carebears. But that’s a fairly superficial comparison. Specifically what I find intriguing about this admittedly not totally applicable model is the 80/20 ratio that naturally develops in the Dove/Hawk population. This is supported by the Hadza studies I’ve blogged about before. Does the same 80/20 population split exist in EVE Online? I think it does, but perhaps not at that specific equilibrium point. Still, I feel there is an equilibrium point between the two populations in EVE Online, and it is naturally maintained within the environment that is New Eden. Do you agree? What about other MMOs?

The War of Attrition

This model is used when a resource is not sharable as in the Hawk Dove model above. Here is the relevant summary from the Wikipedia article linked,

“If an unshareable resource is combined with a high cost of losing a contest (injury or possible death) both Hawk and Dove payoffs are then further diminished. A safer strategy of lower cost display, bluffing and waiting to win, then becomes viable – a Bluffer strategy. The game then becomes one of accumulating costs, either the costs of displaying or costs of prolonged unresolved engagement. It’s effectively an auction; the winner is the contestant who will swallow the greater cost while the loser gets, for all his pains, the same cost as the winner but NO resource.”

Oh, I think I’ve seen this game played a couple of times in EVE Online. It’s a prevalent tactic in wormholes when you don’t have a large fleet backing you up and are unsure who else might be cloaked in system. I think another way to put this is waiting for the other guy to make his play first. And it doesn’t just apply to individuals. It can apply to small fleets easily enough. There are many Pyrrhic victories that occur in Anoikis thanks to this game. I can’t say I’ve seen it in other MMOs though. Is there anything similar to cloaked ships in other MMOs?

These two game model examples of course are only absolutely valid in individual versus individual situations. In that regard we can’t say the premise is fulfilled as there is rational thought involved. Gamers decide on these tactics, they is not driven instinctually. You can’t say it works the other way around in other words. But neither game takes social influences into consideration. As the linked article explains, social influences create four possible behaviors. These are given as cooperation, altruism, spite and selfishness. It is in this area of evolutionary game theory that I really start to wonder if it is possible for a game to slip from standard game theory into evolutionary game theory.

Specifically, read the section on Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) carefully. The article states plainly it is the most misunderstood portion of evolutionary game theory because it is very similar to Nash Equilibrium in standard Game Theory. Here are the applicable paragraphs from the evolutionary game theory page,

“Nash Equilibrium is a game equilibrium where it is not rational for any player to deviate from the present strategy they are executing. As discussed, in Evolutionary game Theory contestants are NOT behaving with rational choice, nor do they have the ability to totally alter their strategy, aside from executing a very limited “mixed strategy”. An ESS is instead a state of game dynamics where, in a very large (or infinite) population of competitors, another mutant strategy cannot successfully enter the population to disturb the existing dynamic (which in itself is population mix dependent). This leads to a situation where to be a successful strategy having an ESS, the strategy must be both effective against competitors when it is rare – to enter the previous competing population, and also successful when later in high proportion in the population – to “defend itself”.[31] This in turn necessarily means that the strategy needs to be successful when it contends with others exactly like itself.


  • An OPTIMAL strategy – an optimal strategy would maximize Fitness, and many ESS states are far below the maximum fitness achievable in a fitness landscape. (see Hawk Dove graph above as an example of this)
  • A singular solution – often several ESS conditions can exist in a competitive situation. A particular contest might stabilize into any one of these possibilities, but later a major perturbation in conditions can move the solution into one of the alternative ESS states.
  • Always present – It is also possible for there to be no ESS. An example evolutionary game with no ESS is the Rock-Scissors-Paper game found in a number of species (an example the side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana))
  • An unbeatable strategy – The ESS strategy is not necessarily an unbeatable strategy, it is only an uninvadable one.”

The article in the sidebar discusses one possible ESS, the Assessor Strategy. Taking the Hawk Dove game above and adding an Assessor, the Assessor can act like either a Hawk or a Dove as the situation presents itself. Be exercising such a strategy, it creates a condition where it receives value in almost all situations. When facing a weaker opponent it’s a Hawk, and when facing a Hawk it’s a Dove. And when it’s facing one of its own kind, they all benefit to large or small degrees. In the face of such a strategy, no other creature can force a change in resource allocation. In EVE Online, isn’t this what we call the big blue donut?

What I mean is we have a situation that doesn’t seem able to change. All sides wish it were different, but no side can effect a change in the status quo because doing so spells certain doom for them – at least that’s their perception, rational or not. That alone shouts ESS to me – that seemingly unalterable deadlock where all challengers have been bested by a non-optimal yet highly successful strategy. There are no viable mutant strategies. Still, that may be nothing more than Nash Equilibrium played out on a huge multiplayer scale, but there is one more thing that seems to make it more inherent and less a rational strategy decision. The entire ecosystem of EVE Online has become so stagnant that god herself (see what I did there CCP Seagull? 😉 ) has decreed it must change. She is remaking the entire universe in the hopes that it will bring a new era of prosperity for all capsuleers. It’s aimed squarely at ending this ESS like stalemate. It’s just been assumed it is the current game mechanics that have led to this impasse, but what if the game mechanics are not the problem? What if there is something of a more evolutionary nature going on in EVE Online?

I know, that’s a really difficult argument to make. After all, to be a true ESS there can be no rational choices made. Choices have to be made instinctually; according to a pre-programmed set of codes that force the behaviors in question. But isn’t that something that happens in very large, especially militaristic, organizations – a propensity for acting according to preset rules? I also find myself wondering, if allowed enough freedom, can a large social structure work like a sort of DNA chain. Individuals perform certain roles, which are triggered by certain environmental conditions, which in return can trigger whole departments to act, and so on and so forth. The overall effect results in an outcome derived from many, many individual actions. How many of us have been involved in large projects that just seem to take on a life of their own? It’s like DNA’s individual genes expressing themselves after specific trigger events, creating proteins, thus leading to other biological mechanisms activating which may promulgate further reactions until the entire organism does something very complicated, like dive on another hawk. Yet at the very base of that system is a single stimuli induced reaction. A specific gene triggered by a specific stimuli – like it looked out on its world, saw a situation and made a decision. But it wasn’t a rational decision. It was the only decision it could possibly make.

In our corporate DNA, decisions may be made rationally and independently, but they are often dictated to us as a role. If A happens, execute procedure B. Many things simply aren’t our purview, so we ignore stimuli from that quarter. And for those that are our purview, we don’t get a say in how we react, not really. We have a very limited set of actions. Repeat that a few dozen times through a couple of departments and the overall effect is very like the bio-chemistry driving the instincts of Hawks, Doves and Assessors. If that sort of corporate organization occurs in a game, say in an MMO, can Nash Equilibrium cross a threshold becoming something more organic; more accurately described as ESS – driven by the unfettered social dynamics of cooperation, altruism, spite and selfishness acted out according to institutionalized roles and indoctrinated codes of behavior? In the end, the final result is no single person’s rational decision. It just happens: like B-R5RB. In our analogy, one gene reacted to one stimuli and we all know what the result was. Once the reaction began, it was as unstoppable as a Hawk’s dive. Isn’t that the very nature of instinct? That sort of dynamic is more biological than technological. It’s fascinating to contemplate isn’t it? What are your thoughts?