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Business is not a game

“In recent years, we have grown accustomed to the use of games as models for understanding institutional behavior,” observes Peter French, Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University. The business as a game metaphor has undeniably become ubiquitous in the language and culture of business. Even though this linguistic device can be useful in clarifying multiple business concepts like competition, hierarchical structures and goal achievement, the business as a game metaphor is not always morally neutral and can be quite ethically problematic. In fact, I largely believe that this metaphor also sets up a flagrant fallacy. 

The business as a game metaphor overlooks a critical difference between the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor. While games are quite self-contained, business cannot be a self-contained activity as it connects deeply to the rest of society. A game is quite simply an isolated bubble that people can voluntarily choose to enter knowing what rules apply there, and more often than not people take part in games for personal enjoyment. More importantly, if one doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with the rules of the game, he or she has the power to just sit the game out. But opting out of the economic system is not as easy. Business and commerce are undeniable parts of everyone’s life. There is not as much voluntarism associated with it because opting out means completely isolating oneself and opting for a radical disconnect from modern corporate practices. 

Another important consideration is how using the business as a game metaphor dramatically trivializes what’s really at stake. In any game, from poker to football, almost always, the only stakeholders that will be heavily affected by the outcome of the game are the players themselves who chose to be there and understood the cost and risks of the game. In business, however, the narrative is much more complex. With the business as a game metaphor, it is easy to forget that, in the process of seeking victory or outmaneuvering an opponent, business actually has much greater stakes than most people’s conception of games. These higher stakes can heavily impact the health, safety and quality of life of numerous constituencies. Take, for instance, the Bhopal disaster. A couple of misguided decisions by a single corporation’s officials resulted in 40 tons of toxic gas being spewed from the factory and scorching the lives of thousands of people outside these walls. Thirty-seven years after the incident, the 70-acre site in Bhopal has remained mostly unchanged and still contains hundreds of tons of contaminated waste that continue to put the health of nearby villagers in grave danger. Businesses are “fully situated in the realm of humanity” and affect a much broader spectrum of real, complex human lives than a game ever could.  

Another concern is that the business as a game metaphor falsely paints the nature of business as temporary. Games cannot be never-ending; they have clear beginnings, middles and ends. Business practices, however, can not be so clearly delineated. Professionals in a corporate community may focus on short-term wins, but the success of a positive quarterly return may have been achieved at the expense of other social or ethical interests. Game-like, short-term thinking that’s rewarded in the marketplace is not always in the best interest of the larger community or even the corporation’s own long-term interests. Business activity has no clear end, yet the game metaphor artificially implies that a conclusion exists. 

Moving forward, a critical downfall of the business as a game metaphor is that it attempts to separate moral spheres by implying that there exists a different set of ethics for business than the set of ethics practiced in everyday social life. By making the morality of business self-referential, like the rules of a game, corporations become less morally accountable to sources of normative ethics in society. Once business is nominally understood as an institution made up of a separate class of “business professionals” who are less morally accountable than everyone else, the overlay of a strong metaphoric understanding that business is a game actually solidifies the differentiation and the compartmentalization of moral spheres

All in all, this deep dive into the structural differences between business and games has revealed that the business as a game metaphor can be ethically problematic if not completely inadequate. Games are fun, have intelligible rules, and hold out the promise of glorious victory. But as businesses attempt to communicate their identity through visions and mission statements, ethically aligned practices will demand more than what normally constitutes game playing. As the French philosopher Roger Caillois comments in his work, “Man, Plan, and Games,” “The true problem starts here. For it must not be forgotten that adults themselves continue to play complicated, varied, and sometimes dangerous games, which are still viewed as games. Although fate and life may involve one in comparable activities, nevertheless play differs from these even when the player takes life less seriously than the game to which he is addicted. For the game remains separate, closed off, and in principle, without any important repercussions on the stability and continuity of collective and institutional existence.” 

Krista Akiki is a senior majoring in business analytics and minoring in computing and digital technologies. She grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and moved back to the U.S. to pursue her undergraduate degree. She loves learning new languages, traveling and of course trying new foods. She craves adventure and new experiences and hopes to share these with readers through her writing. She can be reached at kakiki@nd.edu or @kristalourdesakiki via Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.