Bryan Caplan  

Doing Good While Doing Well: Breaking Norms at GenCon

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Libertarianism and Terrorism... What, Me Worry? Part II...

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.


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The author at Amused In Review in a related article titled We accept you one of us! writes:
    The co-author of one of my favorite Econ blogs was just at GenCon. And he found an opportunity to apply economic thinking while he was there...... [Tracked on August 14, 2006 10:49 AM]
The author at Makadea - The Land of Adventure in a related article titled The DM... writes:
    figures into this blogged story from GenCon. [Tracked on August 15, 2006 10:52 AM]
The author at d-n-dblog in a related article titled Slthm... writes:
    figures into this blogged story from GenCon. [Tracked on August 15, 2006 10:53 AM]
COMMENTS (5 to date)
liberty writes:

I'm not familiar with that "norm"; scalping is the usual and is often for convenience, not just because the buyer missed his chance to buy tickets while some were available. I think the economics of it are important, but I have known many a non-educated soul to do the same. Only the rather inhibited would require a thorough knowledge of the economic rational before making the choice and raising his voice.

Matthew Cromer writes:

Cool story Bryan!

Eric Mortensen writes:

Good for you for getting the tickets. On the other hand, I'm unimpressed with the other guy. Three bucks for 45 minutes? That's less than minimum wage! He should have charged you ten times as much.

Anonymous writes:

There is a norm against shouting for a scalper while standing in a line? First time I've heard of it.

Noumenon writes:

I learned to play Settlers of Catan at GenCon this year. You should try it; lots of trading and principles.

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