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Goat rodeo, issue games, and Bycatch

When Subalekha was presenting Bycatch at Playful back in October 2014, at some point Ian Willey tweeted the following:

I was intrigued by the expression “goat rodeo” and immediately looked it up. It turns out Ian wasn’t referring to games about chasing goats with lassos. In stead, he’s talking about situations that I tend to use the term “wicked problem” for. Vinay Gupta – the @leashless referred to in Ian’s tweet – has some fun and interesting things to say about goat rodeo:

For all the fancy language used in the complexity consulting trade, we all know the feeling – 14 people around the table, with no clear idea of where they are going, going through the motions of mapping a complex problem with no belief that their respective organisational chains-of-command will every approve any common-sense solution to the problem at hand, and slowly the coffee pot drains, and people consider their pensions. For all the theory, for all the hope for elegant solutions, you know it when you see it and the political need is to be able to name and identify the goat rodeo when it arises, and begin to build an alternative rather than expecting it to be resolved in its current political form. The true goat rodeo is intractable. When you see it, run. If you can’t run, call me.

Really, you should read the whole thing. The quadrants and scale Vinay proposes are conceptual tools I look forward to deploying in the future.

I like the idea of Bycatch being a goat rodeo game. After all, contemporary remote warfare using drones – which is what Bycatch is about – is a goat rodeo. (Then again, maybe all of war can be conceived of as a goat rodeo.) I mean, in today’s drone wars we have different “players” with different goals, and the technologies introduced into this mix wreak havoc with human cognitive biases. Bycatch invites players to act out this goat rodeo. It persuades them to try on the mindset aptly described by Philip Alston in a New Yorker article on Obama’s drone war in Pakistan:

“I think the greatest problem is the mentality that accompanies drone strikes,” Philip Alston, an N.Y.U. law professor who investigated drone attacks for the U.N. between 2004 and 2010, told me. “The identification of a list of targets, and if we can succeed in eliminating that list we will have achieved good things—that mentality is what drives it all: if only we can get enough of these bastards, we’ll win the war.”

Not too long after Playful, I was having drinks with games researcher Jussi Holopainen and we got to talk about Bycatch. He suggested the term “issue game” to describe a category of games that Bycatch belongs to. Issue games, he told me, are defined by the fact that their mechanics model the issue which the game is about. This in contrast to many games for change, which often model the solution to an issue, and therefore typically leave less to the player’s imagination when it comes to deciding their own perspective on the issue. It leaves less room for debate before, during, and after play.

I think issue games are an interesting approach. On the one hand it’s perhaps a less ambitious approach than some of the “save the world” type games we’ve seen in the recent past. But at the same time, I believe it is more powerful because it puts more trust in players, and their power to ultimately decide what a game is about. When it comes to the goat rodeo, there are no easy answers, and with Bycatch, we do not presume to have any.

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