Doing Good While Doing Well: Breaking Norms at GenCon
By Bryan Caplan
GenCon was fantastic. The highlight: Fab Rojas ran a sublime session of Pandemonium!, the tabloid journalism role-playing game. We laughed so hard we cried, and our characters got the front-page story: “Dave Chapelle Rescued from Time-Travelling Witches.”
You didn’t have to be there, but you do have to hear me tell the whole story over lunch.
My most economically-charged moment came when our professorial posse wanted to check out a board game from the game library, but none of us had any generic tickets to pay for the rental. The ticket line was enormous. It seemed stupid to stand around for 45 minutes to buy $3 worth of tickets. But what could we do?
Obvious answer: Buy some tickets from someone else.
They won’t want to sell, you say?
Obvious answer: Offer a premium.
But how do you do place your bid to a crowd of busy strangers in a convention center?
Obvious answer: Open your mouth and shout “Will pay double for generic tickets!!!”
And there’s the rub. Most people wouldn’t feel comfortable shouting “Will pay double for generic tickets!!!” in a crowded room. More importantly, I didn’t feel comfortable doing it either. You’re not supposed to do that. There’s a norm against it.
So there I stood, weighing my options: Suffer in line for 45 minutes, or break a norm. Well, why not break the norm? The popular aversion to paying more than face value is patently foolish; it’s on par with aversion to paying for parking. And while there is a plausible rationale for the social norm against shouting, the gaming floor was already really noisy. My bid for tickets wasn’t going to make any difference.
That’s what my rational mind said, anyway. But on a gut level, I still didn’t feel comfortable shouting “Will pay double for generic tickets!!!” I hesitated. But after about thirty seconds, I mastered my squemishness. Waste 45 minutes of valuable gaming time rather than feel a little uncomfortable? Rubbish!
So I drew a deep breath of air and boomed: “Will pay double for generic tickets!!!” Within seconds, a guy two feet away from me responded: “Why will you pay double?”
“Because I don’t want to wait in line.”
He gave me a funny look and tore off two tickets. I handed him $6, and felt the giddy thrill of the free lunch. I was better off, my friends were better off, the guy who sold the tickets was better off, and no one in the game room was worse off. That’s why I call doing good while doing well.
And I owe it all to the study of economics.