I've been playing a little game on Facebook called Packrat. (OK, I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but there it is anyway. So sue me.)

There's an interesting sociological phenomenon going on here, though, and I thought it deserved a few minutes of prodding. See, on the surface of it, this game is designed to be absolutely cut-throat competitive. The object of the game is to collect matching sets of digital picture cards; there's a collection of candy-themed items, for example, and a tiki set, a zoo set, and so on. To do this, you can purchase items with money you randomly accrue while looking through your friends' current packs... or you can filch an item from a friend (and leave another item in return).

If you don't want an item taken, you can lock it by buying a lock and playing a minigame -- but another player can always try to break the lock by playing the same minigame and scoring better than you. Once you find five items from a matching set, you can vault those five things, adding it to your permanent collection and making them unstealable. But there are, in every set, numerous items that can only be built by acquiring and combining other items. So for example, to make a hula dancer, I'd need to combine a coconut palm, a grass skirt and a lei.

Some items are very scarce, and never sold in markets at all. And there are several rats -- basically faux friend profiles -- that will try to take your stuff; and there are some items that can only be built by combining several different levels of items. (There's an item in the Montezuma collection, for example, that can only be built by combining 27 maizes, 27 gold coins, and one rare two-headed serpent.)

With this setup, you'd expect to see a lot of nasty behavior, right? Lots of stealing that rare item from under a friend's nose, intense competition for the same super-rare item from an expired set that you might never see again. If this were how the game was currently being played (at least among my peers -- and I have no doubt it's being played that way by other groups) then it would be absolutely zero fun to me and I'd have stopped playing as soon as it became apparent.

In practice, though I see people making sets and completing collections in a community-based, collaborative fashion. If I'm working on the shoe set and I need the rare Fellini Eight Point Five pink pump to drop, I tell my friends, and they keep an eye out for me. If a rat turns up with something I need, a friend will steal it for me; and if one of their friends has the shoe but doesn't need it, because they don't want to collect that set, or because they've already vaulted that item, then it's going to make its way toward me.

I even have one friend who's working toward vaulting a set of items from a collection that expired in early March -- and he's got four of the five items he needs, because he has a broad network of people looking for him.

I'm just fascinated at how this really friendly, supportive community has grown up around something that at first presents as an astonishingly competitive game. I wonder if this was a conscious choice on the part of the designer, or just a decision to build up a more satisfying set of rules around the existing framework of the game on the part of the player community?

If somebody knows the designer for Packrat and could put me in touch, drop me a line. I'd love to hear about it.

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