Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Rigged Game – I Guess

As part of the first management development class I attended when I worked for IBM we played a game called (for no obvious reason that I have ever been able to discern) “Star Power”.

What I remember about the game is that the class was divided into four or five teams.

Each team was given a paper sack.

Each paper sack had the same number (I think I remember that correctly) of poker chips.

The poker chips were white, red and blue and were given their traditional poker chip value depending on color.

The rules of the game were that the teams conducted sequential, timed, trading sessions.

The purpose of the trading sessions was to increase the value of the aggregate number of chips in each team’s sack.

At the end of each session the aggregate value of each team’s sack was toted and made public.

I can’t remember what the trading rules were but they seemed fair and rational and seemed to create an environment in which everyone had a fair chance of increasing aggregate chip wealth.

One of the other rules that I can’t remember, but I do remember its effects, so the rule must have existed, made it possible for individual team members to accumulate individual wealth and be promoted or demoted to teams based on their wealth.

Fairly quickly there became a wealth distribution where one team had far and away the most, a couple were getting a little more wealth and one team was in the ditch.

Once the distribution of wealth had become fairly lop sided the game rules said that the dominant team could modify the rules as they saw fit.

Oddly, one of the things they saw fit to do was to “take care of” the less fortunate in some sort of trading rule accommodation – I don’t remember what the accommodation was, but it looked as if it might allow some upward mobility.

One of the starting rules of the game was that the trading sessions would go on until there was a clear cut winner.

I was on the team that was in the ditch.

We saw how things were going – we were being joined in the ditch by everybody but – mostly – members of the team who had come out of the first trading session on top.

The apparently accommodating rules just made things better for the dominant team.

So we forcibly took the sack away from the dominant team and the game ended.

Our instructors said that they had never seen the game end that way.

They also debriefed us about how the game was set up and why it worked the way it did: over the course of the trading sessions very few of the initially elite players fell out of that status and very few of the second tier group replaced those initial elites who fell out.

Those who were in the ditch remained there and were joined by most of the rest of the other players who were not initially elite and saw their wealth diminish with each trading session.

The final thing of note was that the sacks were rigged from the start.

The rich sack and the initial rules made it inevitable that the holders of the rich sack would not only stay rich, but would wax monstrously more prosperous as the trading sessions progressed.

And once the rich were able to modify the rules – apparently helping the laggards – the rich only got richer.

Apparently only an idiot could lose the game given the initial distribution of the chips.

I’ve always thought that that was an interesting game.

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