The Games We Play

Shu-Yi Oei

I’ve been ever so slightly glum since my colleague Ann Lipton went and blogged about this game called the Unicorn Startup Simulator over at BLPB. The goal of the game is for your startup to have a billion dollar valuation by the end of the year while keeping your employees happy. You have to make a series of decisions juggling those two goals. Turns out that’s harder than one might imagine. Here is what keeps happening to me:

Screenshot 2017-04-10 23.18.32

So, I guess the message is “don’t quit your day job”?

Anyway, I was feeling grumpy about not having cool tax games to call our own but then I went hunting around and realized, WAIT, we do have tax games! Whether they’re cool or not is another story.

Here are a couple: is a simple two-dimensional Blaster/Shooter game:

Screenshot 2017-04-10 23.46.17(3)

The game is played from the viewpoint of a group of concerned individual citizens. The premise is that wealthy corporations are evading their taxes and “costing the rest of us almost $100 billion every year” and that social services (such as schools and fire stations) are under attack. The game instructs the player to “rise up” and make these corporate tax evaders pay their fair share. The group of citizens then is supposed to blast flying monster spaceships bearing corporate logos (Facebook, Microsoft, and Goldman Sachs are just some of the ones I saw) with something that looks like a raised fist. You can see the group of citizens, the fist, and the monster spaceships in the above screenshot.

For each spaceship blasted, you gain points in the form of “Revenues.” And of course, if you fail to blast any spaceships (i.e., fail to raise any revenues), the game informs you that your social services have been cut and “all demonstrators have been dispersed.”

Personally, I don’t like the idea of blasting anybody, not even tax evaders, and not even with a fist.

Stick the IRS! The Tax Shelter Game

I found this board game on Amazon. I haven’t played it, but apparently the game allows taxpayers to choose to engage in various tax sheltering activities. According to the game instructions posted on Amazon, “The player who manages to best use his income, his CPA and his shelters, and therefore who manages to pay the least tax, is the winner, having successfully been able to STICK THE IRS” but “an exposure to the horrors and humor of audit lurks with every roll of the dice.”

Only one left in stock! Order soon!

Stairway to Tax Heaven?

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which just won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for their work on the Panama Papers, has a game on its website called Stairway to Tax Heaven. You pick a character—currently the options are soccer player, politician, or business executive (I, of course, chose soccer player)—and the goal is to figure out how to stash your wealth offshore and not get caught, in a “choose your own adventure,” decision-tree-style game. But the game actually doesn’t contain that many moves—you tend to get caught or have your plans fail pretty quickly, sometimes within a couple of clicks.

IRS Interactive Activities

Not to be left behind, the IRS itself has created a number of student “activities” on its apps website where you can take lessons in various aspects of tax policy, ranging from tax history to tax fairness to tax base and public finance. These are basically educational games. By reading the brief descriptions and testing yourself by answering a series of questions, you too can learn about the Whiskey Tax of 1791 and the Tariff of 1832, among other things.

Personally, I find this sort of online “educational activities plus quiz” design a bit of a snoozefest. (I tend to need a more dynamic interface than that to stay focused.) But I’m sure many of my fellow tax enthusiasts would disagree!

Messing around with these tax games took me back to my DOS-infested, wastrel childhood, which consisted of hours and hours and hours with the floppy disk computer games and not so much with the schoolwork. But they also got me thinking a wee bit about the (tax) games that are available: Many of these games clearly have an agenda and a message—for example, a goal of educating taxpayers, or hammering home the point that some big corporations are tax evaders. But they’re often not terribly nuanced—for example, they often don’t make any attempt to distinguish among legal tax minimization/avoidance or mistakes and actual tax evasion. And as I mentioned, the idea that one might shoot or blast a tax-evading corporation seems inappropriate in today’s climate.

These games also got me thinking about the tax games that we don’t play but reasonably could. Imagine, for example, that some tax professor with too much time on their hands invented a 3D, “real-time,” MMORPG-like, non-linear “Tax Competition” Game, World-of Warcraft style. Following the WoW model where you can choose to join the Horde or the Alliance (but avoiding all of the problematic cultural elements), players would be able to choose to belong to various “ideological factions” or blocs. For example, one could join a faction or bloc of OECD countries, BRICs, or developing countries. Each bloc would “succeed” in the game by cooperating with other players in their bloc in real time to advance their way of life, perhaps by performing quests and/or entering into engagements that advance their ideology or agenda. Players could choose which bloc to belong to and which quests to pursue in a nonlinear fashion. As per WoW, the NPCs you engage with and the other players with whom you interact would be determined based on which bloc you chose to join.

As some have pointed out, the real-world debates over tax competition may reflect parties’ preferences in tilting the playing field towards a given country’s interests. Therefore, imagine that the game designer had a particularly quirky sense of humor and designed the game so that a bloc could cause the gameplay environment to literally tilt the playing field and mess competing blocs up. 😀

A 3D, real-time tax game where alliances of various countries (including blocs self-identifying as tax havens) are pit against each other, and where there are no constraints on tax planning behaviors, might strike some as expressively problematic given our interest in tax compliance and base preservation. Such features have the potential to rub some the wrong way. On the other hand, a richer 3D gameplay environment including multiple competing narratives about tax competition, haven activity, and taxpayer conduct might also be a valuable pedagogical tool that more richly illustrates the competing interests at stake compared to a simple point-and-blast 2D game design. That sort of gameplay may help illustrate for tax policymakers, armchair tax enthusiasts, and students of taxation the genuine risks and complexities that underlie international tax-competitive discourses and interactions.



4 thoughts on “The Games We Play

  1. This is awesome! Love that you admitted that you have a quirky sense of humor. 😉 And I now need a tax board game (preferable a Euro-style one) for game night! I won’t buy “Stick the IRS” on principle, and it looks kind of like monopoly anyway. . . . A board game would be easier to create than a MMORPG, but the potential tax issues for MMORPG players would be interesting!


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