Originally published on Game Politics.
Civil Asset Forfeiture is the process by which law enforcement can seize private property of citizens without ever needing to charge those citizens of committing a crime. Laws governing civil forfeiture vary from state to state but most states allow officers to seize any amount of money or property and keep the proceeds for department use.
This procedure is highly controversial and has many proponents as well as critics. Most critics equate civil forfeiture with highway robbery, while the proponents consider it another tool to fight crime and pay for law enforcement.
One critic of these laws is the Institute for Justice, a Libertarian law firm that fights civil forfeiture and other laws. As part of their continued efforts to fight these laws and inform the public of their impact, IJ has released the results of a behavioral study (PDF) they performed that seeks to answer the question of whether these laws benefit or harm the public.
Opponents contend that civil forfeiture laws encourage law enforcement to seize property instead of fight other crimes, leading to systematic abuse. Proponents counter that any abuse is the result of a few “bad apples,” and that civil forfeiture laws create a “win-win”: Criminals lose and the public wins as more resources are available for law enforcement to fight more crime. Using a laboratory experiment, the study tests these competing claims to explore how people respond to the incentives of civil forfeiture.
In order to explore this question, IJ created a custom video game in which four players collected tokens. (A video description of the game and the study results is to the above.) There were three blue characters and one red character. Each blue character had certain colors they were allowed to collect. Then there was a red character that represents law enforcement.
Blue participants, or citizens, can do only one thing—pick up tokens of their assigned color to earn real cash rewards of three cents per token. To pick up tokens contained within walls, citizens need the help of the sheriff, the only player who can knock down walls with a hammer and clear a path to the tokens. In our experiment, knocking down walls is analogous to fighting crimes: By knocking down walls—eliminating crime—the sheriff provides public benefits to the citizens, enabling them to collect tokens. Put simply, the bigger the decrease in crime, the bigger the increase in public welfare. At the beginning of each game period, the sheriff is given two hammers; using both earns her 30 cents per period.
With these assigned roles, players were grouped randomly and assigned three sessions of the game. In one session, the players played games in which civil forfeiture rules were in place, a set where the rules were not, and one more set where they were. The other group played three sets with the rules set in the reverse.
What IJ found in this study was that regardless of the group of players, if civil forfeiture rules were in place, the red player more often than not took as many tokens as that player could.
The results from Scenario 1, shown in Figure 1, suggest that if law enforcement can pursue forfeitable goods at the public’s expense, it will. In Figure 1, each bar represents three periods of Scenario 1, played with or without civil forfeiture. 42 Citizens were substantially better off in periods without civil forfeiture, collecting nearly all of the 27 available bright tokens—22.8, 23.4 and 24.1. But under civil forfeiture, citizens collected just 0.8, 3.5 and 1.3 bright tokens, as sheriffs swept them up instead. (See Appendix A for the full results of Scenario 1.)
Scenario 1 demonstrates that the temptation to obtain property that others have a claim to—the grandmother’s house or the highway driver’s cash—is strong.
Similar results played out for all play sessions.
While the study itself is interesting for policy and legal reasons, and I recommend reading the whole report, for GamePolitics readers there is something else entirely to admire. While most studies involving games are aimed specifically at the games themselves, this is one of those rare instances where games are used to study human behavior in general. Instead of using human behavior tests in which participants interact directly with what may or may not be a real human, this game gives the researchers an opportunity to have players interact with each other without potential negative consequences.
Without this game, the IJ researchers would have had to rely on older methods that may not provide as clear of a result as this game nor the benefits of having the ability to receive constant data from the game during the game play sessions. By providing the researchers real time metrics without the need to constantly monitor the players, the participants were more free to act in a way that was not constrained.
This study is just one of what we hope to be many many more behavioral studies that use video games as a safe way to measure the impact of externalities on human psychology.