Governing the serious games of society

Governing the serious games of society

European School of Governance, position paper #12  by Louis Klein.

We are inescapably thrown into a world of games.

Civilisation is a matter of governance based on value-based rules which organise the Many through which a whole emerges that is more and different from the sum of its parts.

We are now living in the Anthropocene, a historic situation where human kind is collectively so powerful that the future of the entire planet depends on its capabilities to govern and civilise itself. In the Anthropocene, we leave post-modernism behind and then it is neither the politician, the technology innovators or the business entrepreneurs who save the day but, as it was already know a thousand years ago, the civil servants and managers who shoulder the responsibility for a peaceful and prosperous future and the serious games we play.

There are good games and there are bad games. Each year, there are awards of so-called Games of the Year. We may smile when we come to think of it. However, if you have a closer look for example at the Game of the Year 1995, “The Settlers of Catan”, we learn that it was awarded because of three qualities. First, it keeps all players in for the entire duration of the game. Second, it unfolds in a way that all player through the entire have the rightful impression and hope that they could win in the end. And third, the winner wins by a margin and not by a humiliating defeat. The theory of games, not to be confused with game theory, has a term for it: European Game Design.

The well-known board game “Monopoly” is a bad game. It bears the opposite qualities of a Game of the Year. Very early in the game, it becomes clear who has the best chances to win, the game unfolds in agony while one player after the other goes bankrupted and drops out, and in the end one person has all the money and everybody else has nothing.

Is it more than peculiar that our economic order looks rather like “Monopoly” and not like “The Settlers of Catan”. We are collectively engaged in a bad game instead of a social systemic setup that, like a Game of the Year, grants beneficial outcomes for everybody.

And it is not only the economic order in our post-modern societies that are questionable. What about health, education, defence, science and even politics themselves? All those games, those sub-systems of society, are in crisis. They do not work, they do not produce what they are supposed to produce. For this they cost far too much. Nobody is happy neither those in the system doing the work nor those on the receiving end. So why are we playing those games and is there anybody to be hold accountable for the mess?

The games of post-modern societies seem to be governed by the invisible hand, by self-organisation which does not care for the outcome. We believe that self-organisation is good per se. Yet, it is not. Self-organisation is a metaphor for processes of emergence. Famous is the market example of the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith.  On markets a balance between offer and demand will emerged like ruled by an invisible hand. However, cancer is another example for processes of emergence and there is not invisible benevolence involved at all. The invisible hand is not our friend. We better watch it.

The games of the post-modern society are broken. Some are simply bad in character, some are incoherent, full of contradictions, some are incomplete or not thought through. It is a mess and no invisible hand will fix it. What we need is proper, responsible governance, a governance accountable for the rules and regulations that provide the frames for the games of society unfolding in a beneficial way for everybody. It needs professional social game designers to set up the games. It needs intelligent designs which allow for a maximum of freedom for the single players to perform along their personal ambition and talent. And it needs professional referees which support a proper conduct.

In such a society, the individual is free to perform, without worries and distractions by the game, be it business, education, health or any other of the games of society. The individual’s focus could be on playing well and on choosing their games they are involved in wisely. And we could collectively learn to improve and innovate our games continuously. It would be a learning society.

However, good games are only half of what we need for governing the Anthropocene. We need to account for the ecology of games of society, for the coexistence of different games on different levels. Looking at the whole of society, we need to acknowledge that optimising sub-systems, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann would name the games, does not necessarily emerge in a consistent and beneficial whole. The warning about the invisible hand applies again. The output of one game will be the input for another game, like education could be regarded an input to business or health. And there will be mutual effects along the games. And each player will be a player in different games wearing different hats in different roles. Games will be in symbiosis and mutualism will as well be the case as competition. There remains a lot to watch carefully, to optimise and to learn, to improve and to innovate.

The magistri ludi of the Anthropocene are unlike the game masters the German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse described in “The Glass Bead Game”. The future of work in the Anthropocene, the vast demand for jobs, will be in management and civil service. Sure, it will look differently. We are not looking at administrators only. We are looking at social system designers, coaches and referees, educators and change agents. We need the brightest talents to do the job and should educate and reward them accordingly.

Holding the group of civil servants and managers in the highest esteem in a society, surprisingly as it sounds for us today, is not a novelty. Visiting for example the temple of literature in Hanoi illustrates that in 1070 C.E., when the temple was founded, civil servants had been in charge of the coherence, the peace and prosperity of society. They were regarded the Watchmen of society, the super heroes who had to submit their super powers to serve society. With great power comes great responsibility.

If we look at the challenges of the Anthropocene, if we look at climate change, inequality, the dying ocean, armed conflict, poverty and hunger, just naming but a few, and if we look at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), it all comes down to humankind’s ability to steer and govern a course of progressing civilisation.

We still have it in our hands. It is not far away. In fact, our situation bears the qualities of a picture puzzle. A slight shift in perspective does the trick. It is all in place already. We do know all we need to know about social design and governance to get started. We can rely on systems sciences and cybernetics to support the thinking and practice. We have all those managers and civil servants eager to enlarge their jobs from mere administration to engage in the design, the learning, the continuous improvement and innovation of social systems. We have all those millennials who learnt in all those computer-based strategy games to explore and to navigate complex systems. And finally, we are in midst of the digital transformation providing all those technological means to map and manage social complexity.

It is just a small step. Let’s go!