This Capitalism Is Terrible Game Design

What Madden 95 on Sega Genesis can teach us about why our entire economic system is crumbling.

Note: If you're expecting a solution to the prevailing flavor of Capitalism, I'm sorry. Tweaking systems, especially massive ones, can have wildly unpredictable and often dangerous results, and that's the most conservative thing you'll hear from me. For many left-minded folks, this is frustrating to admit, especially when the established system is already a nuclear minefield of plaguesnakes for most of the people on the planet (and for the planet itself).

"But things have never been better!"

Guy Who is Doing Well

I'm not going to pretend that I know how to fix the world economy. I simply want to frame the problem from my vantage point, which I can't seem to find presented elsewhere.

Also, I'm a Capitalist Hypocrite, so don't listen to me.

As I've begun to have some financial success in my mid-thirties, I can't help but notice that each level I attain makes it considerably easier to reach the next one. This is simultaneously:

Great for Today Me.

Bad for Back Then Me.

Terrible for anyone starting at or behind where I was financially when I started (so... at least 95% of people).

When I present this to peers who started similarly and made it through these first couple of levels, they agree that it's getting a lot easier, and the financial growth curve tilts upward.

This is, of course, the opposite of how any sustainable system can be allowed to function, and while it's advantageous for me and my family today, if it isn't corrected, it can only end in catastrophe, and we're watching that catastrophe unfold around us. The pandemic is a nuclear accelerator for economic disparity, explosively knocking the millions treading their way to Level 1 back to Level -10 while people like me who own businesses are bailed out in 98-0 bipartisan fashion. Yes, I'm both relieved and appalled that the pandemic looks like it will be a net benefit to me, and the people above me who own stocks? They are reaping trillions. For everyone else, here's 1,200 bucks and some bootstraps.

The ruling class of the country has two choices at this point:

Become comfortable with the prospect of 6 families owning the entire wealth of the country (yes, look at the graph, they will eventually get yours too). Stay comfortable with the increasing threat of dictatorial rule. Retreat into gated communities with private police and hope that people adjust resiliently to rapidly worsening living conditions for long enough that you can punt the problem on to your kids.

Reform This Capitalism so that more people can participate.

This choice is so stark that I'm stunned it isn't talked about by more people in my position. If it's because of #1 above, that would be really, really sad, but I'm a bit more hopeful about humanity than that. I suspect it's actually the case that there are just so few people left in my position to notice it. For the vast majority of people who are starting out lower on the economic ladder than I did, they aren't in a position to truly experience just how much easier things do get once you've got some money. And for those who started out higher, everything has always seemed pretty easy, and gee whiz, why can't people just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?

Champions of the current system are usually the first to mention Game Theory, but for Ggame Ttheory principles to apply, you first need a game that people want to play. [^1]

One reason that so many people defend "Free Market Capitalism" (yes, even those without power or resources) is that its internal logic feels sound. Humans generally like making their own decisions and they like games where everyone plays by the same rules. Sports are the second or third most popular artform in the world largely for this reason.

Capitalism, in theory, should work like a well-designed game.

Almost everyone who currently occupies a position of economic or political power feels this way. They marvel at its simple sophistication. Supply and demand. Private property and voluntary exchange. What an elegant way of gamifying the distribution of resources... It almost feels like the Natural State of Man in Nature (or some shit).

And it's not just the people in power. If you look at who we vote for in America, even today, most people continue to vote in capitalist establishment ideologues. But that ideology has no clothes anymore.

Most lefties tend to focus on how badly people are suffering (for good reason), but there's another cause that could fit more neatly into the scaffold of establishment thought: A majority now suspect the game is stupid and they're no longer interested in playing.

They're not wrong.

The biggest internal problem with Capitalism I, The Game, has to do with level design.

Here’s the way every good and fun game is designed: The first level is easy, the second level gets a little harder, and so on, until you get to the really hard/near impossible levels.

This is how all voluntary competition works. You compete against people or forces who are a little bit better than you until you can beat them, and then you move up to the next harder opponent. Even small mammals follow these rules when they tussle.

But this isn't at all how the levels in This Capitalism (we’ll call the game “Capitalism I”), are designed.

The way our economic game works today is that the first level is nearly impossible. The second level is a little bit less impossible. And when you get to the highest levels, you're a team of five Lebron Jameses playing full court basketball against one middle-schooler with plantar fasciitis.

When I used to play video games (which coincidentally happens to be what many are turning toward as they turn away from Capitalism I), there was a game on Sega Genesis called Madden 95. The game had an unintentional easter egg in it that you could exploit and which was sure to make no one want to play with you ever again.: Playing as the Atlanta Falcons, you could substitute in Deion Sanders, the fastest player in the game, at quarterback. Then, all you had to do was snap the ball and run a sweep, beat the whole opposing defense around the corner, and score touchdown after touchdown, from anywhere on the field, forever.

This is what it’s like to be Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. But for some reason, they just keep running that sweep, over and over again, like a rat licking a cocaine drip.

They aren’t spending even one calorie of energy[^2] to fix the broken game they’re playing, and I sincerely can’t understand why. This is the game by which we currently decide who gets to live or die or have a dignified existence. What greater glory is there than to "save the world"? Just what the fuck are these guys doing with their lives?

The most charitable conclusion I can arrive at is that they are deeply, deeply sick people. This lack of action is the greatest lost opportunity (and abdication of responsibility) in the history of mankind, meaning that there have never been greater failures than the few dozen families that have currently amassed most of the world’s wealth. They are squandering the greatest power ever afforded to individuals, and for what? So they can keep putting in Deion Sanders at QB...

My fear is that we are going to need their participation to have any chance of redesigning the levels of this game before the world spirals completely out of control into chaos and war. The population is only becoming angrier and more disaffected, electing more and more tyrannical leaders, and eventually, there won’t be any game left to play.

Of course the system is unfair, everyone knows that.

But here's the thing: It's even worse than people think.

It's impossible to overstate how much easier it is to get from $100,000 to $1,000,000 than it is to get from $10,000 to $100,000. And getting from $1,000,000 to $10,000,000? Wildly easier than getting from $100,000 to $1,000,000.

This is backwards. It is suicidally stupid game design. For every 10millionaire who skips daintily across the pasture to being a 100millionaire, we must realize that the same amount of wealth accumulation translates to one thousand families in poverty reaching $100,000 in net worth. Jeff Bezos made $13 billon in a day recently, and for just one simple example of how obviously dumb this game is, Bezos will pay lower taxes on that $13 billion than will be taken out of the paycheck of any teacher or nurse in America.

Is it any wonder why people don’t want to play the game anymore?

We need a game designed more like every good and fun game:

If all of the big Successes/”Job Creators” are so smart, it's time they put their big brains on the problem of making their dumb game playable. The fate of This Capitalism is in their hands.

[^1]: For a game to work, you need the players to be equally "bought in" to the game. Ever played a game against someone who stopped caring halfway through? You can play poker with my wife past 7PM to see what it feels like. It's very not fun.

[^2]: Gates once said his taxes should be higher. Good effort, Bill.