Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gamblers & Settlers

Last weekend I played the board game, "Settlers of Catan", with some friends for the first time.

The game board consists of a representation of an island divided into hexagons, each of which represent different types of landscape - forest, mountain, hills, fields and pasture. The first thing that struck me about the game was that each type of landscape also represents a "resource" - lumber, ore, brick, grain and wool respectively. There is also a 6th type of landscape - desert - which contains no resources and is hence treated as useless. The object of the game is to position your pieces in such a way as to maximally exploit these resources for the purpose of developing roads, settlements and cities. This development earns you "victory points" and the first person to acquire 10 points wins the game.

I'm a competitive person with a good mind for problem solving and strategy and I loved this game! These traits combined with a good dose of beginner's luck, meant that I also won on this occasion which of course enhanced my enjoyment considerably! I couldn't help noticing some uncomfortable comparisons with real life though:

As I've already described, the board reduces a large island - which in the real world is a thing of awesome natural beauty and splendour - to nothing more than a set of resources, which are to be exploited as aggressively as possible if you intend to win the game. Of course, within the context of the game no real islands are involved and so no damage is done, but ... what if people were to treat the real world in the same way ... ? You can probably guess where I might be going with this!

The game is necessarily one dimensional as games usually are - they are not intended to reflect or replace the fully-orbed and multi-dimensional nature of life in the real world. They can sometimes reflect the values that are prevalent in that world though, and some people do actually seem to treat life in a similar way.

This article on the BBC News website describes a workshop called, "Investment Heatmap", which took place this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  In this workshop - which was run for the benefit of some of the world's top financial "big-hitters" - each team of participants were given the task of setting up an imaginary investment fund in a particular part of the world. They had to think about what kinds of people to employ to manage the fund, local regulatory frameworks, the state of the market, etc. They also had to consider things like corruption, politics and environmental activism - but only in so far as they might help or hinder their monetary objectives.

This exercise was only a game, but it was a game with a purpose - to help people think about how to approach such situations in real life. It seems to me that the "real life" in which many of these people live though, is actually just the same as the exercise - where the ultimate consideration is the bottom line and all other interests become subservient. To underline this point though, just in case it wasn't clear enough, the room in which the workshop was held was carefully and deliberately laid out like a casino! If this is the view which the world's top financial big hitters have of our world and all of our economies, then it seems small wonder that both have ended up in such a state!

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