The Admin Law Game

There’s a new kind of computer gaming being developed, and “fun” isn’t exactly the point:

[Games] created by Bogost’s development studio, Persuasive Games, invite us to be ruthlessly greedy, helplessly incompetent, and breathtakingly rude. The goal of Airport Security, for example, is to relieve infuriated passengers of prohibited items in accordance with continuously changing carry-on rules. In Bacteria Salad, players grow veggies for profit and try to avoid poisoning too many people. And in last year’s Disaffected!, we assume the role of a Kinko’s employee struggling to deliver print orders as lazy coworkers shuffle papers into the wrong stacks.

I wonder if they modeled the airport game on Dan’s action figures? Less bleak scenarios are also in the works.

These innovations remind me of the “game-like” aspects of administrative law: how do you navigate a labyrinthine agency to advance your client’s interests? The “game design” in Bacteria Salad has to include classic modalities in influencing human behavior: markets, common law, regulation, or norms. As Yochai Benkler notes, games themselves are also creating social relations: for the designer, “the interesting questions are, which approach will better foster creative autonomy, and create a more effective social network.”

The recent Washington Post stories on Dick Cheney’s influence on sub-cabinet level appointees also reminded me of “god mode” in games. You may think the rules of a given agency are set–and legally, they may well be. But the political aspect of administrative law means that an executive branch higher-up can get a lot done outside normal channels. Consider the case of Klamath river fish:

Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the [Engdangered Species Act], aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney’s intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

The story of admin is often the story of how politics, law, and science collide. The unpredictability of these “rock, scissors, paper” conflicts makes the subject matter all the more game-like.

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