Pocket Tanks and value theory

[This past spring and summer, I corresponded a bit with Bob Murphy — yes, the Bob Murphy! — and I wrote to ask him if he knew the game Pocket Tanks, and if so, did he see in it the same lessons in Austrian value theory that I saw. He downloaded the game and gave it a try … and had no clue what I was jabbering about. The following is my attempt to explain.]

Thanks for having a look at Pocket Tanks. If playing it a little bit doesn’t have you thinking of Austrian value theory, then maybe I’m projecting my Mises reading onto my recreation.

The part of Pocket Tanks that has me thinking of value theory is the Weapon Shop before a game.

In his very famous and often-cited paper, “The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp”, R.A. Radford states:

It is thus to be seen that a market came into existence without labor or production. The [Red Cross] may be considered as “Nature” of the text-book, and the articles of trade – food, clothing and cigarettes – as free gifts – land or manna. Despite this, and despite a roughly equal distribution of resources, a market came into spontaneous operation, and prices were fixed by the operation of supply and demand. It is difficult to reconcile this fact with the labor theory of value.

In Pocket Tanks, the Weapon Shop would be “Nature” and the weapons the manna. And yet the weapons have value as represented by our choosing some before others. Their value will be determined by a combination of their scarcity (supply) and the player’s plans for the future (demand).

Radford describes the spontaneous development of cigarettes as money in the POW camp. There is no money or equivalent in Pocket Tanks, nor even barter trade, but the list of weapons chosen looks to me very much like what Rothbard calls a “demand schedule” in Man, Economy, and State. The first weapon in my list is whatever I valued most in the array of options — the available weapons. What is its value? Obviously it’s value is most accurately represented as all the weapons I didn’t choose. I value it more than those others. The second weapon chosen obviously has a lower value than the first and higher than my third, but of course the opponent is also taking weapons out of the array of available ones. I may value his first weapon more than my second one, so my weapon list isn’t a perfect demand schedule in the Rothbardian sense, but it’s pretty close.

Marginality? Well, when the same weapon is listed 2 or 3 times in the weapon shop, I’m much slower to grab it. I focus on the weapons that are unique and useful to me. I’ll come back to usefulness.

After the Radford-like point that labor is irrelevant to the evaluation process in the weapon shop, the next thing I notice is how silly it would be to try to apply a want-satisfaction theory of marginal utility (Gossen, Jevons, Walras). I get no direct “utility” in this sense from a Mega Nuke, and while I’ll almost always value the Mega Nuke higher than the Nuke, it seems peculiar to try to apply any cardinal measure to that difference. The idea that the Mega Nuke gives me 8 utils of satisfaction while the regular nuke only gives me 4 — well it’s absurd in the supermarket, but it seems even more obviously absurd here in the Weapon Shop.

One might be tempted to claim both an objective measure of value and a cardinal measure of value by equating the number of points of damage a certain weapon can do with the number of utils it has, but anyone who’s played the game a few times can see that it’s not nearly so straight-forward.

Both the Sniper Rifle and the Cannon Ball can do 100 points of damage, but I tend to choose the Sniper Rifle more often than my wife does because it requires dead-on accuracy: a pixel off and you do no damage at all. The Cannon Ball on the other hand will roll downhill and you can end up doing the 100 points of damage without the accuracy necessary for the Sniper Rifle. Then shouldn’t we both prefer the Mega Nuke to either the Sniper Rifle or the Cannon Ball? After all, the Mega Nuke can do 160 points of damage. But the Mega Nuke also radically changes the terrain, meaning I have to re-calibrate my aim after using it. Once I’m aimed properly at my target, I don’t like having to make more than minor adjustments. It’s easier to know the difference between needing to adjust 1 degree versus 2 degrees than it is to spot the difference between 5 and 10 degrees. (At least while you’re still learning the game.)

So the goal is to add up points of damage, and the damage potential of a weapon is certainly relevant to its value, but there’s no objectivity to it and no cardinality. We’re back to preferring A over B, and that ordinal statement seems to me to be as much as we can say.

Furthermore, the Weapon Shop even demonstrates the concept of complementary goods.

On average, Napalm will do 50 or 60 points of damage and you don’t have to be perfectly accurate with it. But if you can accurately hit someone who’s in a narrow pit, you can do over 150 points of damage. (This is true of Hail Storm, as well.)

Pile Driver only does 30 points of damage, so you’d expect it to be low on my preference list, but it happens to make exactly the kind of deep and narrow pit that increases the destructive potential of Napalm and Hail Storm.


(first Pile Driver … then Napalm)

Not only does this raise its value for me when I’ve already grabbed Napalm or Hail Storm, but it raises its value for me when my opponent has either of those weapons, because I don’t want my opponent to have the combination. It seems to me that even without money or barter, we’ve introduced entrepreneurism into the Weapon Shop, because my preferences are based not only on my plans for the future (and therefore on my imperfect predictions) but also on my imperfect predictions of your plans for the future. It’s entrepreneurship in both the sense of prediction and the sense of bearing risk for bad choices. It is not, of course, entrepreneurship in the sense of seeking profitable opportunities in disequilibrium.

Subjective preference rather than labor- or cost theory, Mengerian marginal value rather than neoclassical marginal utility, ordinal preference lists rather than cardinal measures of want-satisfaction, imperfect knowledge, proto-entrepreneurial prediction, and even complementary goods. Seemed like a bunch of useful illustrations packed into a pretty simple game.

On the other hand, maybe someone who’s been steeped in Mengerian value theory would be able to find illustrations in almost anything.

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2 Responses to Pocket Tanks and value theory

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the tip about the cannon ball…;-)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Dude this rocks thankes for the pile driver and the napalm thing.

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