Can’t register for Pokémon Go? Game theory helps explain why.

Jul 12 '16
The augmented reality mobile game "Pokemon Go."  REUTERS/Sam Mircovich/Illustration
The augmented-reality mobile game Pokemon Go. (Sam Mircovich/Illustration via Reuters)

The new Niantic game Pokémon Go has perhaps been too successful for its own good. The Internet is filled with articles, posts and comments from people complaining that they can’t register to play the new game, or log in even if they do succeed in registering. It would appear that the craze has caught the game’s creators by surprise — their infrastructure is overwhelmed by people trying to sign on. The Club Pokémon website is currently telling people that it is limiting the number of new accounts that can be created until it’s able to improve the situation and asking people to try again in an hour.

There’s a reason why the Pokémon Go people are asking people to stop trying to register. The same reason explains why their pleas are likely to be ignored. Pokémon Go users face a particular version of a problem that game theorists and people who study collective problems are very familiar with.

The problem is called the Tragedy of the Commons. Imagine a large group of people who own a piece of grazing land in common, all who have lots of animals that they would like to graze. If everyone were willing to restrict grazing to the optimal amount, then the land would be able to support a significant number of animals for a very long time. If, in contrast, people are greedy, the land is likely to be overgrazed to everyone’s disadvantage.

Simple game theory predicts that in the absence of appropriate rules or norms, people are going to be greedy. Every individual user of the land has a strong incentive to put as many animals on the land as they can. Their reasoning plausibly goes as follows: If everyone else is greedy too, then there is no reason why I should restrain myself — I should try to take as much advantage as I can. However, if everyone else is responsible, then I can take advantage of their responsibility by grazing all my animals. Because each individual receives all the benefits of overgrazing, but only shoulders a small amount of the collective costs, everyone has an incentive to overgraze. Thus, everyone ends up worse off (with overgrazed land) than they would be if they could somehow all agree to restrain themselves. In game theoretic terms, overgrazing is a “strictly dominant strategy,” which is a technical way of saying that it is a course of action that makes sense no matter what everyone else does.

Of course, in real life, things are more complicated (the late Lin Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for investigating the circumstances under which commons did not get over-exploited). But this logic helps explain why people are having so much trouble trying to play Pokémon Go. The Pokémon Go system is not just being overwhelmed because lots of people are trying to register or authenticate their accounts. It is being overwhelmed because when people don’t manage to register, they make multiple attempts to register again, taxing the servers more and more.

This is, if you think about it, a Tragedy of the Commons-type situation. All individuals want to maximize their chances of registering or authenticating successfully. Thus, all individuals have a strong incentive to keep on hitting the refresh button. However, everyone’s individual efforts to pursue their own interests leave everyone worse off, since all of these failed efforts to register overwhelm the Pokémon Go servers even further.

If all these people could somehow agree not to try to register or authenticate more than once every hour, then the flood would abate, and the problem would likely be much easier to solve. That’s not possible. Nintendo’s plea that people should wait for an hour if they can’t register is presumably intended to try to achieve this. However, game theory would predict that self-interested and rational people will ignore the plea. If everybody else respects the plea, then you will be selfishly better off by ignoring it, and taking advantage of their behavior by maximizing your chances of registering. If, in contrast, no one respects the plea, then why should you respect it either? Either way, continuing to hit the refresh button will be the most advantageous strategy you can pursue.