Saturday, July 16, 2011

A lesson in incentives

Because I have far more important things to do, I've been spending a lot of time lately on iRacing, an online auto racing simulation with some 25,000 subscribers who can run practice sessions or race other members in any of two dozen cars on four dozen different tracks (each of which has been laser-scanned for accuracy to the nearest millimeter). It is, too understate the matter, addictive.

As I usually do when I start in with a new activity or a new system, I've been busy exploring the rules and culture by reading every manual they have and exploring the forums for information on how this all works. And the most interesting thing I have found so far is iRacing's approach to encouraging safe driving.

The problem is simple: you've attracted a bunch of people who aren't professional race drivers, but would like to drive as aggressively as professional race drivers, and you want to encourage them to keep a lid on it and stay within their limits. Somehow, you have to create a system of incentives that will discourage poor driving, reward safe driving, and be self-enforcing -- with 25,000 drivers, there's no way to have an impartial judge watching every race.

To that end, the system automatically monitors "incidents" and awards "incident points" based on the severity. Going off the track is 1 point. Spinning around or making contact with another car is 2 points. Especially hard contact is awarded 4 points. Based on a weighted moving average of "incidents per corner," a safety rating (SR) is awarded and continually updated. You need to maintain an adequate SR in order to advance your license, which you need if you want to race in advanced series with faster and more powerful cars. Don't take care of your SR and you'll be stuck racing the rookie series with the clueless noobs forever.

The controversial part is this: the SR is based on a no-fault system. If you and I make contact, we both accrue incident points. It makes no difference whether I hit you, you hit me, or we were both being too aggressive ... none of that matters. We both get points and, if we accumulate too many, our SR's suffer. That pisses people off. The forums at iRacing are filled with bitter complaints from drivers who've accumulated points and can't raise their SR's high enough to get our of the Rookie class, because all those other dolts keep crashing them out of races. Why does the service tolerate all those bad drivers who are holding me back?

And more experienced, wiser drivers will reply that the system is working exactly as it's supposed to work. When the complainer posts replays of the incident, as often as not they'll point out that the driver himself was often at fault, not holding his line as well as he thought, or getting impatient and trying a high-risk passing maneuver. Most of the time, you can examine the guy's record and discover that doesn't have nearly as much control of his car as he thinks he has. Usually he has some sort of expectation that he should be able to drive the same line in traffic that he does in practice and everyone else should just get out of his way.*

More importantly, though, they'll try to impress a driver with the necessity of thinking safety first. In real life, if your race car gets crashed, you suffer the injuries and you pay for the repairs, no matter how it happened. You don't rush into a dicey situation thinking, "If there's a crash, at least it won't be my fault." You suffer the same as if it had been your fault. And that makes you more cautious. In a no-fault system -- and God himself runs a no-fault universe -- it's always your responsibility to avoid trouble. You do that by being patient, by watching to see if your opponent is driving steadily or erratically, and by taking the approach that it's more important to finish the race than it is to get to the front.

This seems to be a hard lesson for some to learn. If you're constantly getting involved incidents that don't seem to be your fault, the first step is to examine replays and see if you aren't really more at fault than you thought (often you are). But the next step is to ask yourself, "Am I putting myself in dangerous situations too often? Am I taking risks that, even if I keep it together myself, have a high chance of ending badly?" 'Cause if you are, then you're not a safe driver, regardless of whose fault the final incident turns out to be.

That's the beauty of the no-fault system: you can never avoid the consequences and so you can never shirk responsibility. If you want to advance very far in iRacing, you have to temper your aggression and learn at least a modicum** of good judgment. It's all about the incentives.*** The drivers who complain about the system would generally like to do what they do and make everyone else responsible for the outcome. The no-fault system does exactly the opposite by making it always your responsibility, no matter how bad the drivers are around you. Just like it is out on the street.

* I came across this attitude back in my undergrad days playing pickup basketball. Quite a few guys were of the opinion that once they had begun a drive to the basket, it was some sort of violation if the other team still tried to defend it. In fact, I find a lot of the same attitudes at iRacing that I did on the basketball court -- the inflated egos and sense of entitlement, the win-at-all-cost attitudes conflicting with the let's-just-have-fun approach, and the mildly inverse relationship between whining and talent.

** You don't necessarily need much more than a modicum. The SR system is pretty generous and drivers who are conscientious, but unskilled, can still do pretty well. And even the upper level series contain a pretty fair amount of trouble. But then, have you watched a NASCAR race lately?

*** When the developers put the system together, they actually considered charging small amounts of money for excessive incidents. They decided against it, probably wisely.

1 comment:

Perplexity Peccable said...

Very thoughtful & insightful. I'm passing this along.