Inequity by Design

There is an endless supply of game metaphors for daily life. If we aren’t happy with our circumstances, we may be told that we all have to “play with the cards we’re dealt.” When something unexpected happens, we’ve been “thrown a curve ball.” Senator Cory Booker once cautioned against acting “…like you hit a triple when you were born on third base” to remind us that factors beyond our individual effort often play a role in our success. Despite our tendency to frame games as a simulation of daily life, the metaphors don’t all hold up. While many focus on strategies to secure resources necessary for survival and eventually abundance, the parallel ends there. The extent to which strategies and resources are equally accessible to all “players” are, by design, drastically different in these two realms. Monopoly players start with $1,500 and video game characters come pre-programmed with relevant attributes and tools. In the U.S, people do not begin with the same resources at birth or upon entering adulthood (e.g., guaranteed basic income). Unlike the world of games and gaming, what we start with is quite variable, depending on where we’re born and to whom.

When the stakes are low and the consequences of “losing” don’t influence our long-term livelihoods, it is relatively easy to agree on “fairness.” The high stakes game of living life, on the other hand, is more complicated. If we want to ensure that people have the opportunity to thrive and contribute in our society and remain actively engaged in the “game,” it is imperative that we do the hard work required to make the game board—our systems and society—more equitable.

Game Equity by Design

Both video and board games are increasingly popular. A recent Pew Research poll shows that about 50 percent of both men and women report that they play video games and many believe they are useful beyond entertainment value. Sixty-four percent agree that video games help develop good problem solving skills and 47 percent agree that they promote teamwork and communication. Given their growing popularity it’s no surprise that game designers go to great lengths to ensure that games are fun, which includes creating the proper balance of difficulty, complexity, fair competition, and enjoyment. They recognize that we are more likely to play (and purchase) games when we have a fair shot at winning or if our wins can be attributed to one’s own skill and ingenuity rather than some other external advantage. This balancing process involves constantly reworking game mechanisms that are too weak, too powerful, or too complex. It can take months, or even years to get this right and comes at significant cost in time and money to game designers. These mechanisms are scrutinized in the online gaming world, often invoking loud critiques by players; you may see claims that some element of the game is “OP” (overpowered) or “imba” (imbalanced) if it far outweighs the benefits awarded by other elements. It is also common to see cries that some feature has been “nerfed” (weakened) or needs to be “buffed” (strengthened).

If you think of our social systems as the board game, the design flaws are glaring. The long history of slavery, segregation, and stalled mobility in the South make the stakes especially high for low-income families and people of color. Securing high quality, reliable sources of food, housing, family-sustaining work, and healthcare while navigating the complex system of rules that dictate the distribution of those resources is difficult. The rules are always changing and those with the fewest resources often have the least say in how the game is played. Black WWII veterans, for example, were awarded the GI Bill alongside their white counterparts and promised low-cost loans and funding for education and housing. However, opportunity-inhibiting policies and other government-sanctioned barriers to success at the time, including the lack of schools admitting black students and the redlining that constricted their ability to purchase homes with higher property values, prevented many black veterans from reaping the benefits of their effort.

Life is (not) all Fun and Games

Many American households devote a significant amount of time to games as a form of entertainment; it reveals both our intense desire for fairness (and competition) and the ways in which these feelings drive our motivations and behaviors. We’ve all played games with sore losers and, while it is unpleasant, most of us accept milder forms of this type of reaction as an unfortunate, but common, part of the game.

However, we expect better “sportsmanship” in daily life when the stakes are higher, the chances more uneven, and the rules more complicated. When communities with the fewest resources play by the rules and lose, many are surprised when they challenge the rules of the game. Even when it is done peacefully, the efforts of these groups are met with a narrative that largely calls them “poor sports” or sees this as evidence of their lack of patriotism or work ethic. This is where an understanding and empathetic approach is more productive. The ability to step back and give credence to an experience different from our own can go a long way in identifying cracks in our system. Implicit bias can influence who we see as “sore losers” in our system. If the dominant group has a different set of OP or imba advantages, it may seem that “nerfed” complaints from others are unjustified; if we return to the rule book, we might see something different.

Game designers have a vested interest in all of the players; given the degree to which daily life is more complex than gaming, we should expect that it would take at least as much time (and surely much more!), effort, money, and collaboration to ensure fairness and balance. Our institutions should be designed in a way that makes the rules of the game explicitly and publicly stated, starting places shouldn’t determine final scores, and systems should be regularly re-evaluated to ensure that we all have a fair shot at success. It’s difficult to play by the rules when there is not a level playing field. Without this presumption of balance in the game of life, people will walk away from the game and we all lose—because our systems are at their best when everyone has a seat at the table.