Mutually Destructive Metrics — The Game of Business Ethics

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April 25, 2019

I wanted to explore how businesses make decisions about the big ideas of our day — AI, privacy, security, bias. I wanted to better understand the ethics of business. I wanted to be a better writer, so I could get it all down in words. But I wasn’t. So I wrote it into a game! A game which you can play and make the decisions for yourself.

The game can be found a little further on in the blog. Before that, however, I would like to explain a bit more about the background and technology of the game.

The game works as follows: as you complete the game, you will make the tough decisions that many companies are facing today. There are no right or wrong answers. There are only different ways of navigating tricky problems.

The result is a window into the world of how business decisions get made. By playing it, you may gain insight into how/why the organisations you know have ended up where they are.

The game develops information literacy by encouraging players to consider ‘mutually destructive metrics’.

The Background

I was troubled by scandals that are regularly rocking technology companies. As a tech worker, I feel that something should have — must have! — been done to make these things not happen.

Yet, as a human who's worked with other humans, I recognise that what you end up with is not always what you start out to achieve.

Humane Technology

I’m a fan of Tristan Harris and the work of the Centre For Humane Technology. They recognise that society is being ‘hijacked’ by technology, and that we need to address this. They decry the attention economy, as it erodes society and is open to manipulation.

The idea that the big tech companies are intentionally manipulating us is, I believe, over-stated (although not untrue). More likely is that all the people working there are trying to do their best. The result is what we see on our desktops, on our devices, and in our newspapers.

At least that’s what I want to think! This is not a piece about who did what when, and what they should have done. Rather, it’s about trying to better understand the processes that led to these scandals.

To dig a little deeper into the ethical conundrum, I turned to Cennyd Bowles' excellent book, Future Ethics. I had seen him discuss ethics on a panel at UX Live in 2018, and was impressed by his clarity.

There are many themes addressed by the book. These include the different approaches that any given human may take towards ethics. It also includes tests that we can give ourselves to see if we are abiding by our own ethical framework:

  • Am I treating people as ends or means?
  • What if everybody did what I’m about to do?
  • Would I be happy being any of the different actors in this system? (the veil of ignorance)

Mutually Destructive Metrics

However, the idea that struck me most was mutually destructive metrics. Instead of taking a single metric such as profit, take profit and user satisfaction. Or any or all of the HEART metrics.

With this method, any given decision must be evaluated against these two metrics. Will it increase profits? Will it increase user satisfaction?

If a company over-indexes on profit, user satisfaction will likely suffer somewhere along the line. If they over-index on user satisfaction (hey, it could happen!), then profits will likely not be as plentiful.

The idea of mutually destructive metrics is an elegant solution to profit-hungry companies. The profit motive can often be a short-sighted stance. Rushing forward in search of the almighty dollar may undermine your foundation for growth at a later stage.

Mutually destructive metrics allow you to produce power-combo moves later in the ‘game’ of running a successful company.

You can find out more about mutually destructive metrics in Melissa Perri’s book The Build Trap.

Serious Games

Betty Adamou is the leading proponent of Research Through Gaming - using games for market research. Games are more engaging than surveys, and respondents are more likely to complete them.

Her work bucks the trend for dwindling participation and retention rates for market research. Her book, Games and Gamification in Market Research is a future textbook of the genre.

Games for serious purposes are increasingly popular. Sea Hero Quest gathers data points to help research into dementia. Eye Wire asks players to help map neurons in the brain. Flight simulators help pilots learn the ropes of an aircraft without any of the risks. A plethora of educational games abound on any app marketplace. Search for ‘Games that help research’ and you will find plenty more!

Using gaming in WORTH’s research

Turning then to WORTH, as a growing technology company. While we have not created a game to track how users answer ethical dilemmas (it doesn’t collect any data at all), we could. Should enough people play it, and if they answered a couple of simple questions, we could build up an interesting data set.

We’ve not done this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, time and effort! Secondly, there is no need to collect this data, other than perhaps showing players how they compare to other players.

However should an organisation want to help increase information literacy internally, then this game could be repurposed and sent to all employees to complete. This could help set training targets. Replaying the game, after relevant training has been completed, could help assess the effectiveness of the training.

The Game

Mutually Destructive Metrics puts you in the seat of a high-powered CEO of a sophisticated technology company. Exciting, right!?

You’ll get to experience first hand the highs and lows of the dynamic, make-or-break world of corporate decision making! Amazing!

  • Should we invest in better data models? Yeah!
  • Do we encourage users to spend more time in our products? Heck yeah!
  • Want to hear one of the developers tell a joke? Get. Out.
  • Should we investigate a merger with a competitor? Or consider another round of funding? Or unisex toilets for the staff? BRING IT ON!!
  • What do you say when the tax people come calling? Er, hello?
  • What the heck kind of products does our company make anyway? You know, stuff.
  • What is this company?! Seems like a lazy compilation of tired Silicon Valley tropes. As you make your decisions and proclaim your wisdom to those who have an appointment, your company’s profit, user base and brand equity will fluctuate. Your goal is to make them ALL rise!

Your actions have consequences

If you focus solely on profit, this will have consequences further down the line. Behind-the-scenes stats track how ‘ethical’ you are being. These affect your daily revenue and retention rates, and how much tax you pay if the tax people should ever come calling.

The characters who come to you for guidance are randomly chosen from a pool of characters, but the chance of each getting chosen is not equal. Once you start consorting with the data brokers or get-rich-quick investors, they will be more likely to turn up again!

So, it’s up to you - will you tread the path of least resistance, or weigh up your options carefully? The future of the company is in your hands!

The Conclusion

The game meets its primary goal of allowing players to experience decision making in high-tech companies. It encourages an appreciation of mutually destructive metrics. This develops the player's information literacy.

There is potential to develop this game into a tool for exploring decision making.

Above all, it’s nothing without people playing it! What did you think of the game? How did it affect you? What do you think it should become? I’d love to have your feedback!

To read more about the development proces of the game, click here.

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