The Greatest (Social) Game Ever Built


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Buzz words are the lifeblood of the Internet. We have “Web 2.0″, the “Cloud” and of course “Gamification”. Empire Avenue of course has Gamification on many levels but certainly if you are listed on the Empire Avenue Stock Market then you are essentially playing a game out of all that you do online. With the concept of Gamification and the fact that people contact us all the time to talk about our game mechanics “in the real world”, it’s as if adding so-called “game layers” to applications and web sites had suddenly sprung out of the ether. Well, I’m not going to give you a treatise on what is and what isn’t “Gameification” but let me tell you about the greatest (social) game ever invented. Zynga probably wishes they could have invented it I’m sure, Electronic Arts and Activision could take lessons, and well, the rest of us?

Filing Income Tax.

Yes, in my mind, Income Tax has all the qualities of a game and the government should be patted on the back for having created something so incredible. So why is it a game?

With US and Canada Income Taxes we are presented with a whole host of possible tax deductions (I cannot speak for other countries). As individuals and households we have to choose which options make the best sense. Similar to how we might have to create different options in a SimCity game or even in a Dungeons and Dragons situation where we are kitting out our party with the correct options. Take the Deduction for Education for your child out of state and you lose out on that Deduction on proposal XYZ in state. But the government is the game designer, they know that the end goal of the game (for us) is to keep as much money in your pocket. Throughout the year you will spend your time “playing the game” and buying items such as Hybrid Cars, doing certain renovations on the house… all just so you can get specific deductions at the end of the year.

Wait, could I call these “Missions” with a predictable and rewarding outcome in the end?

So now we have a game where the government has given you “Missions” from which you can save Money at the end. If you fail in your mission, you get to pay the Government more money (unless you roll a lucky number 8 in something else). The game mechanics are such that “gaming the system” in a good way rewards the behaviours that the designers (lawmakers) want you to act upon: environmentalism, entrepreneurship, education and so on. The choices you make determine your eventual outcome on tax day. Finding a great deduction, by the way, is the equivalent of unearthing a sword +10 by accident. Gaming the system in a “bad” way is attempting to find loop holes or tax havens to squirrel away money.

A good game lever to have is a loss/punishment mechanism. In the case of Income Tax, that’s obvious. Get Income Tax wrong or not pay at all and you will end up in jail far faster than a mass murderer. Al Capone,
after all, was caught by the IRS. But the simpler punishment mechanism is exorbitant interest rates on unpaid amounts and certainly loss of further money on an audit.

The Income Tax system even has “levels”, the more money you make the higher your tax bracket. For those that want to, they can brag about their tax bracket. All that’s missing is for the government to send you a Facebook Badge icon that you could share with all your friends and family. For others it’s a reverse level system: your goal is to not climb to the next tax bracket.

The amazing thing is that this game even features the equivalent of World of Warcraft’s so-called Gold Farmers. Depending on how much you can spend, you can hire tax lawyers and accountants that will do your taxes for you and will actually “Farm” the maximum amount of money from you!

The last thing that the Government does is take a page from the Zynga playbook. Every year, the government looks at the metrics of payments and the role of other parts of the economy and iterates the game to another version. We can’t possibly get bored with the tax guidelines of today because “Taxville version 345″ is on its way.

I applaud the government: here is a sticky game of Missions, Levels, Rewards, Battles and even Gold Farmers worthy of some of the world’s best game designers. For those that say “I don’t play games” take a closer look at the real world and you will see the human penchant for playing games with real life is clear and ever-present.

Now I have to go do my taxes. I think I might even have found that Sword +10 this year.

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9 thoughts on “The Greatest (Social) Game Ever Built

  1. Like any game it also has cheats. And Messiahs that teach how to beat the game. We call them CPA’s , Lawyers, and Tax in the Box like H&R Block.

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