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Special Feature: Playing games with payments

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Games are fun and payments are fun so when you put them together you get doubleplus fun.

Hey it was what we Brits call “half term” recently, so the kids got a week off of school, for no obvious reason. I expect it must be something to with ploughing fields or shearing cows at the dawn of mass schooling back at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The holiday, for many families, means kids hanging around all day playing games. Our family was no different. So I took a couple of days off work to organise a Dungeons & Dragons day (classic 3.5, of course) for no.2 son and some of his friends and to play a few board games for relaxation before the madness of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Our favourite board games are the same as everyone else’s: Settlers of Catan (which many believe to the be the best board game of all time), Dominion, Carcassone, that sort of thing. The boys current favourite is Game of Thrones and they’ve had a few late night sessions with mates around the Westeros map.

Anyway, since I was home, I thought I’d get down with the boys and teach them to play a few games that would turn them away from swords and sorcery fantasy and on to one of the world’s most interesting subjects: retail payments. I went and dusted off my copy of the “The Diners’ Club Credit Card Game”, published by Ideal in 1961. This was time when cards were far from a mass market proposition, so it looks to me as if the promotions people at Diners had had the idea of using the popular genre of the board to game to raise awareness of what exactly a card did and why anyone might want one.

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It’s nice game, a little random, but it works ok. It teaches you to spend for big-ticket items on your card so that you keep cash in hand for other purposes (investments etc). It didn’t take long to pick up and get going and we had fun playing it but to be honest I’m not sure if the youngsters would, unprompted, pick up and have another go.

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Having helped younger members of the community to understand what a card is, it was then time to move on to a more sophisticated game. I broke out “Charge It! The Credit Card Game”. The original version of this game seems to date from 1972, when the combination of technological and regulatory change (ie, the introduction of the magnetic stripe and Visa’s BASE I authorisation system together with the change in state usury laws) were pushing credit cards to the mainstream. My version of the game is a later revamp from 1996, in which players collect up to four different cards (thinly disguised Visa, MasterCard, Amex and Discover schemes) and move around a board collecting stuff of one form and another. Here’s no.2 son defying his father by using cash to purchase at carphone for $400, having first had to ask me what a carphone was.

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When we were playing D&D 3.5, we were playtesting a Viking-themed variant with some house rules removing arcane magic from the game. Variants are a great way to have more fun. I decided to make “Charge It!” even more fun by replacing the pretend cards with real ones, but I’m sure your family would have just as much fun with the cardboard ones.

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When I was looking up some background on these games, I noticed that they were classified as “economics” games. I think I take issue with that. I suppose you might argue that they are about economics in the original sense of the Greek root (ie, household budgets) but they don’t really teach modern economic concepts. My kids learned their economics from games, of course, but they learned them from:

  • World of Warcraft. All parents should insist their children play this game while at middle school. My kids learned all basic economic concepts from playing this game: supply and demand, comparative advantage, price curves, options and futures, auctions and reverse auctions, arbitrage and so on. They also learned all of the basic tools of the modern investment banker, including market manipulation, price-fixing, insider trading and shill bidding. It’s a shame they have both opted to study socially-useful STEM subjects at University, much against my direction.
  • Crunch. This is a card game that teaches the rudiments of banking, and we all loved it. Each player is a banker and, in essence, you have to collect asset cards so that you can make loans and investments. The really clever part of the game is that the banker with the most money at the end wins: it doesn’t matter whether their bank goes bankrupt. If you over-extend the bank but manage to trouser the treasure before the roof falls in, more power to your elbow.
  • Illuminati. This remains my favourite table top card game of all time and I’m glad the kids loved it too. It has a superbly clever game mechanic which means that you build up power structures based on secret societies (e.g., The Gnomes of Zurich) but you need money to consolidate the power and you basically can’t win without screwing someone else over. A much better introduction to 21st-centruy pseudo-capitalist Corporatism than any text book.

Meanwhile, back at “Charge It!”, I’ll just mention that I liked the two-track board idea and I thought it worked well in terms of game dynamics. You basically choose whether to go round an outer track or, once you have some credit cards to your name, an inside track with different kinds of interactions. The players don’t know what each other player is trying to collect so you have to keep an eye on what your opponents are buying as the game develops. We enjoyed playing this game and I think the kinds might well play it again sometime.

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It was then time to return to an old favourite, Monopoly. Now, the truth is that I’ve never much liked Monopoly (it’s too random for my liking) but my kids have always liked it and they still play it (the World of Warcraft edition is the current favourite). We started with our copy of Monopoly Electronic Banking edition, which replaced cash with cards some years ago and thus obtained my deputy-head-of-household seal of approval.

You may be aware that the annual Consult Hyperion Forum (“Tomorrow’s Transactions”, this year on the 19th-20th March 2014) is a not-for-profit event and any surpluses that we are able to create, thanks in no small part to the generosity of our sponsors, go to a variety of charities. When we had our tenth anniversary Forum back in 2007, the wonderful people at Hasbro very kindly donated a few Monopoly Electronic Banking sets to the event and we ran a tournament!

Well, the tenth Digital Money Forum turned out to be a big, big success. The feedback that we received was unbelievable: not only did we all get some new ideas and meet new people, but we had a lot of fun doing it, what with the guided tours of the historic Royal palace of the Tower of London and the Monopoly electronic banking charity tournament.

[From The big 1-0 – Tomorrow’s Transactions]

Within a couple of years, our thoughts had naturally turned to mobile and contactless, so we played a version of the game using contactless cards and NFC phones using some software that I pestered our in-house development team (the “Hyperlab”) to put together for the event.

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And so we meander to present times. As I said earlier this year, proximity and vicinity interfaces are going to be big in the coming twelve months: we’re finally going contactless and in a variety of different ways. So it seemed fitting to have a game of Monopoly Zapped. In this game, the players have cards (with no embossing any more, unlike the replacement payment cards sent to me in last month by my actual card issuers following the Target hack-insipred reissuing) and the “bank” is your own iPad rather than a custom piece of hardware. How right this is, on so many levels. To effect a transaction, you simply touch your “ID card” to the iPad when necessary.

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The family verdict on this one was very positive indeed. The contactless interface was quick and simple, it was convenient having the iPad keep track of everything and the game play zipped along at a decent pace. If your kids like Monopoly, they will like this. I think my kids and their friends especially enjoyed.

Which brings me to my point. In 1961, Diners’ Club needed a game to teach people about cards. In 1972, “Charge It!” taught people about credit. Monopoly Electronic Banking introduced a cashless economy and Monopoly Zapped the contactless economy. So I think it is time to create a game to teach people about cryptocurrency. I’m thinking either a combination of Crunch and Illuminati that builds the blockchain on the table in front of the players with some kind of Trivial Pursuit-style game to represent the distributed proof-of-work or a combination of Cluedo and Monopoly where the goal is to find the Satoshi (“It was David Chaum, in the library, with a TRS-80”) while hoarding your Bitcoins and stealing your opponents. Anyway, I’ve started to make a prototype, let me know what you think…

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While I was kicking around some ideas on this I remembered the fun we’d had with “The Privacy Game” back in 2012. We were working on a project concerning informed consent and trying to find ways to help members of the public to understand the consequences of different choices that they might make around data sharing. Our partners at UCL came up with the idea for a game, which I have to say that I loved. We play-tested it at Intellect, it memory serves, and have a variety of different friends come and join in. So I decided that something based on cards would be good (especially given the deep irony of Mt. Gox having started life as a shrine to Magic The Gathering) and got to work.

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So my idea is that there are like 100 wallets, each with a two digit number and when players create a new wallet they get to pick the next card from a shuffled deck. So each player knows which wallets are theirs. Money gets transferred between wallets according to some kind of trading that I haven’t worked out yet and the players try to nudge the game so that more money ends up in their own wallets. At the end of the game (when the last coin has been mined) the wallets are given to their owners and the contents added up so the person with the most money wins. At various points in the game, players can prove ownership of a wallet and cash it out into $$$. Players will be trying to hack each other throughout the game and will gang up to stop the richer players from winning. I haven’t thought it all through yet, but basically unconfirmed transactions go onto the table and when player gets a puzzle question right (or maybe all the players are given the same puzzle?) they get to add the unconfirmed transactions to the blockchain and win an extra Bitcoin for themselves.

Here’s a few more “Uncontrollable Event Cards” from the game:

“Hard drive crash, lose all of your Bitcoins”

“The exchange has been hacked, lose all of your Bitcoins”

“The dog ate your cold wallet, lose all of your Bitcoins”

“Your favourite exchange turns out to have been a scam, lose all of your Bitcoins”

“Your PC is infected with malware that stole your password, lose all of your Bitcoins”.

It’s got winner written all over it, but on the outside chance that one of you may have a better idea, I’m all ears!

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