Games, Gamification, and North Korea

I’ve been the watching games coming out of Japan for the last dozen years.  Particularly fascinating is the way in which Japanese design responded to eurogame design–a cultural exchange leading directly to the microgame renaissance we’re seeing today.

As early as 1994 and only 650 miles to the east, North Korea’s greatest game designer was already exploring eurogame design in his own way. And we never even knew it because his game was the nation’s economy.

The recent documentary Money And Power in North Korea: Hidden Economy covers not only its economy but also how this economy has influenced international politics.  It’s a solid documentary and I recommend you watch it for yourself.


At roughly the eleven-minute mark, the narrator explains its basic workings–the economy designed by Kim Jong-il.  The narrator explained that North Korea actually has two economies.  First, there is the People’s (public) Economy and second there is the Royal Court (private) Economy.  The public economy is a familiar communist economy; the government assigns jobs to citizens in exchange for distributing goods and services.  The private economy is more classically monarchical; the supreme leader awards gifts to citizens and higher-ups in exchange for their loyalty.  And where does the Royal Court Economy get the funds for such pursuits?  It gets these funds by skimming them off the top of the People’s Economy of course.

Does that structure seem familiar?  It should.  You’ve likely played dozens of games with exactly this structure.  Let’s take a look.

North Korea Tabletop Game
Government dictates to citizens where they will work. Player assigns workers to locations on the game board.
Citizens supply services, harvest resources and produce goods. Workers harvest resources and produce goods.
Supreme leader gives a portion of goods and services to citizens. Player pays upkeep on workers.
Supreme leader uses a portion of goods and services to purchase gifts for subordinates. Player uses a portion of resources and goods to purchase prestige items.
Subordinates give supreme leader their loyalty. Prestige items give player Victory Points.

These parallels disturb me.  Could it be that games of this type have a darker subtext?


The Ethics of Gamification

Gamification is the use of game mechanisms and game thinking in areas not traditionally thought of as games.  Gamification is often applied to analyzing reward structures so that these rewards lead to desired behavior.  Gamification is not inherently objectionable.  It can be a powerful tool for understanding human motivation, to improving morale, and to increasing productivity.

By offering bonuses to employees when they reach fixed goals, workplaces can use gamification.  By playing to their constituent base to earn re-election, politicians follow the logic of gamification.  By offering unlimited opportunities to correct previous work and earn credit, a classroom can exemplify gamification.

But while gamification empowers us to design a more engaging world, it still must be applied ethically.

Employers go too far when game structures are used to coerce workers into exhausting or unsafe work.  Politicians go too far when they cater to their vocal minority or to supporters with the biggest bank balance.  Classrooms go too far when students are pitted against one another in an exclusionary ranking system.

When we play the latest tabletop game, it’s perhaps not an issue that we have unilateral control over our workers.  They literally are only inanimate objects carved from wood or molded in plastic after all.  But what about the case of Kim Jong-il who applied the same design principles to living people?  He designed an economy from the most amoral corner of game design.  His citizens have no agency–treated only as objects to be assigned and reassigned at his discretion.  His citizens have no opportunity–earning only what he chose to give back to them.  And when he shows his appreciation, the appreciation is false–more properly a bribe for loyalty than any real attempt to acknowledge or inspire his people.

For the next 24 hours, I challenge you to look at each process in your life through the lens of gamification.  Watch the traffic in your commute.  Watch the line at the grocery store.  Watch your coworkers.  Watch your managers.  Watch the news.  And as you watch each of these, ask yourself the crucial questions.  What are the reward structures in place?  Do they align with the intended outcomes?  Are these reward structures moral?


What do you think Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il’s game design?  Do you see any other game analogies in North Korea?  How about in your own nation?  Or in your own neighborhood? And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.