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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:

https://twitter.com/Ian_Willey/status/525643010714132480

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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