Board Games As Policy Arguments

When we want to convince others to support our policy positions, we often tell stories. We tell people about things that happened to us, to people we know, and to people we’ve heard of. Journalists tell stories about what happened to famous people recently, or to whole sets of people in “studies”. Popular books also include such policy-lesson stories. And fiction often tries to persuade about policy using “true-like” stories, which are not actually true.

The way that these stories are supposed to support policies is that we are invited to imagine how such stories would have turned out better with different policies. That is the policy “moral” of a story. A big problem with this approach, however, is that even if the story is true, and even if we can correctly judge how a policy would have changed a story, each policy influences a great many other stories. Policy advocates are likely to select the stories that make their policy look best, out of all the other possible stories they could tell.

Academias often tell these kinds of stories, but we also tell other kinds that better avoid this problem. For example, formal game theory models describe entire formal worlds, including agents, resources, actions, info, locations, and preferences. So one can judge if a policy is good overall in such a world. A similar benefit holds for agent-based simulations, lab experiments, and field experiments. In each case, one can judge how much a policy helps or hurts overall for the world that is studied.

Of course most of these methods actually only consider relatively small worlds, which at best correspond to small parts of our big world. So if a policy has effects outside of the scope of the world that it considers, these methods won’t see that. You can try to analyze the many small worlds that a policy influences, and add up the overall effect across them all, but that is hard to do well.

These sorts of small world models also make many assumptions about the basic situations in the small worlds that they consider. So the lessons that they draw from their small worlds need not apply to the corresponding parts of our big world, if those assumptions are bad approximations to our big world. This is less of a problem when one relies on true stories drawn from our actual world. So both sorts of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and one should plausibly use both when drawing policy conclusions.

All these methods by which academics model policy in small worlds have one big disadvantage: it is hard to use them to persuade ordinary people. They and their supporting analysis can be complex, and also just boring, and thus not emotionally engaging. Dramatic stories from the real world can overcome these big disadvantages.

However, there is another kind of policy story that has so far been neglected, but which can combine the advantages of a wholistic policy evaluation across an entire small world, with the advantages of being simple enough for ordinary people to understand, and also emotionally engaging enough to get them to pay attention. And that is board games. Consider Monopoly:

In 1903, Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. …

Also in the 1970s, Professor Ralph Anspach, who had himself published a board game intended to illustrate the principles of both monopolies and trust busting, fought Parker Brothers and its then parent company, General Mills, over the copyright and trademarks of the Monopoly board game. (More)

The rules of each board game describe both an entire small world, and also the policies that govern player actions in that world. So when people play a board game, they get an intuitive feel for how that world works, how much they enjoy living in that world, and how alternate rules would change their enjoyment. At which point they are ready to hear and understand this policy argument:

If we changed these policy-setting rules (as opposed to these world-defining rules) in this game, that would turn this into a more enjoyable game, and/or make the world it describes more admirable. So to the extent that an important part of our real larger world is like this game world, we should try to move our real policies more toward these better game policies.

Now as far as I can tell, these policy argument fail badly in the case of Monopoly. People like playing the Monopoly game as it is, and do not enjoy it as much when its rules are changed to embody the alternate property and tax policies favored by those who designed and developed it. But the basic approach to policy argument seems valid, at least as a complement to our other story approaches.

Yes, people may have different agendas and priorities regarding life in a board game, relative to their own real lives. But that critique applies as well to all the other kinds of stories that people use to argue for policies. For example, your priorities about the characters in a story you hear may not be the same as your priorities if you were in the story yourself. Yes, to the extent that video games have board game elements, with rules on how players relate to each other, video games can also support policy arguments.

So I’d like to see more people try to make policy arguments in the context of board games. Show us two variations on a game, where the more fun or admirable version corresponds to the policies that you prefer, while the other version corresponds to policies closer to what we have now. Let us prove your claim to ourselves by playing your game. Or maybe find other rules that we enjoy even more, and invite you to prove that claim to yourself by playing.

Yes, I might still not like your policy, because I think your world differs from our real world, or our priorities differ between games and real life.  And yes, the space of fun board games is far smaller than the space of games, so that fun games are far from representative of the larger space. But still, from the point of view of convincing ordinary people about policies, adding game policy arguments probably puts us in a better position than we are in now relying mainly on personal stories, fictional stories, and academic authority.

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