Poly is a game. Or will be. We’re working on it.

It’s a multi-player game. As are markets. Although Poly does not need to be a game about business (though it could be), the idea is to explore how markets work when customers bring abilities to the market’s table that defaulted business practices prevent.

Examples of abilities are: to express loyalty, to provide market intelligence, to give rich feedback on products and services, how customers actually use those products and services, and what personal boundaries are around their private spaces—on their terms and not just the companies’.

While companies get information about those things today, every company gets that information separately, through its own closed and proprietary loyalty, service, data gathering, and “customer experience” (CX) systems, rather than through personal systems customers can use globally and at scale, exercising their own engagement abilities.  Think, for example, about how customers scale market engagement with many different stores by using their cars, mobile phones, browsers, and cash. (For more on that last example, see The cash model of “customer experience.”) All of those are abilities.

Now think about additional abilities, all personal ones: to be savvy, smart, loyal, informative, equipped with extant personal property and accumulated rights and obligations which only they know best, and well-prepared. Think also about how all these abilities vary from person to person yet for each person apply globally. All those abilities are similar to, for example, the strength, dexterity, constitution (or endurance), intelligence, wisdom, and charisma in Dungeons & Dragons. And, from other games, there are abilities for clairvoyance, bullshit detection (or immunity), mathematics, electronic mastery, forseeing, ability to hide, evasion, negation, mirroring, empathy, experience, tracking (e.g. of prices or warranty changes) and others that can also apply to how a good customer deals with businesses.

How might those abilities apply globally to engaging good businesses? Meaning ones that value treating customers smartly and well, and gain from customers exercising the same abilities with many companies?

Modeling how customers and companies can grow markets together is—among other fun things—how Poly can prove or disprove the founding thesis of both Customer Commons and ProjectVRM: that free customers are more valuable than captive ones—to themselves, to the companies they engage, and to markets. There is no way to test this theory inside any one company’s separate closed system.

Note that both customers and companies can still win at Poly, just as both can win in markets. The key with both Poly and markets is that nobody has to lose, even though many do. That’s because, as any economist will tell you, markets create value and wealth in places there is none without them. Start a nail salon or repair shop, and as soon as customers start paying for your goods and services, you’ve created value where before there was none. Get a bunch of sellers a territory, or competitors in a category, and you have a market. What makes a market grow best, however, is not just that customers are paying money for goods and services. It’s that they are bringing that more to the companies they engage: loyalty, feedback, good information, and enjoyable experiences.

While it might not be obvious, markets are self-governing, meaning they make their own rules. And the same goes for Poly, which will be a game of self-governance in which the participants in markets work out their rules.

Yes, there will be winners. But there don’t have to be losers. Markets don’t work that way. Or at least they don’t have to. They can be cooperative (especially between customers and companies) and not just competitive. The same will go for Poly.

Another way to look at markets is as commons. Commons have ways of working that Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues figured out a while ago. They are these:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Poly will explore and expand on each of these.

At this early stage we are looking at all the variables involved in designing a game: ludology, ludonarrartive consonance/dissonance, game mechanics, core loop, win conditions, game management, uncertainty modeling, Game A vs. Game B, collective vs. personal outcomes, and so on.

We also welcome help. Watch this space for more on that.

The image on top is from Paul Baran’s original 1962 design for the Internet. The dots and lines are his, but without connections between the separate (poly) centers. This is a small hack on what he called a “decentralized” network. The separate groups, with no central direction, are assembled around connected common interests, and form commons of their own as independent actors. I explain independence in Escaping the black holes of centralization.