Jeff's World of Game Design

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Risk management in the real world

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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I've said repeatedly that I vehemently disagree with "output randomness is bad" because output randomness tests risk management, a crucial real-life skill. And a good risk management game allows players to try different approaches to risk management (usually mitigate or assume or avoid, but ideally also share or transfer) and exhibit varying risk tolerances.

This game is about to be played out in real life, with the arrival of several COVID vaccines over the next several months. The vaccine makers will report the efficacy that they achieved in clinical trials, and whatever side effects were observed during those trials. They may have done broad enough trials to know that certain preexisting conditions, or certain other medications, interact unfavorably with the vaccine, but one assumes they didn't test everything and there's some stuff that will be discovered once an entire population receives the vaccine, just as how the data from a game that was playtested 100 times is less robust than the data about that game once it's released into the wild and may get 1000s of plays (unless it's Sands of Time, whomp whomp...).

So here we have what would seem to be a risk management problem that each individual can contend with: you have on the one hand the risk posed by COVID, and on the other the potential for the vaccine to reduce the risk of contracting COVID, but the vaccine itself may have risks of its own, including unknown risks that won't be known until people start taking it.

And of course then there's the element of trust: do you trust that the scientists and pharma companies cut no corners, did everything by the book, left no stone unturned, and all that? Vaccines take years to develop, do you believe that this one, emerging in less than a year, is as robust?

These would seem to be questions for the individual: what does your gut tell you, what level of risk are you comfortable with?


But it seems that leaving this up to the individual may not actually happen. For one thing, we don't all exist in isolation, and so the risk tolerance of others comes into play. We can see this already in simple ways. If I run a store, and I believe that wearing a mask is important, then even if you are comfortable with assuming the risk of not wearing a mask, I can insist that, in my store, you must wear a mask. Insofar as this imposes no great burden on anyone, most--not all, but most--people go along to get along, and anyway, your store, your rules..

Ok, but what about when that ratchets up to "if you want to enter my business, you must have received, and prove that you have received, the vaccine?" Or when this is a precondition of, say, entering or attending a government school -- i.e. when the government is compelling you to incur something that exceeds your personal risk tolerance?

Now surely the response to this will be "the science says it's safe", to which a counter-response could be that not only are we required to relinquish our bodily autonomy but our intellectual autonomy as well!

Don't misunderstand, I suspect for my day job that I'll be required to take the vaccine and that I'll in all likelihood do so, because the risk of not being able to pay my bills feels more significant to me than the risks associated with this vaccine. But I think it provides yet another interesting clash between the rights of the individual in tension with the good of the collective, (perhaps there's a good Man vs. Society game in here?) and it's interesting to me that it's entirely, in this case, around what level of risk you are willing to accept vs. that which society, or government tells you you must accept. Surely sometimes that's reasonable -- "a hurricane is about to hit our town, you must evacuate now" -- and sometimes not and a lot of times it's in the ambiguous middle.

But I think at a minimum, the principle of charity suggests that we at least hear one another out with respect to the risks that we're comfortable with. If "I'm not comfortable going in to work for fear I'll get sick" is reasonable, then so too is "I'm not comfortable with taking this vaccine". And in general, we should try by any means possible to refrain from making it compulsory to take on risks that you're uncomfortable assuming, because of the principle of charity.


Obviously, there's a close association between risk management and peer pressure. Almost anyone who has done anything truly stupid in life did so at the goading of some other person or group of people. And it doesn't end when we emerge from our teenage years, hopefully will all of our bones and teeth intact. We see this same psychology at work in, e.g., TV game shows. The person is sitting on $10,000, enough to [pay off their car/pay back a student loan/take that dream vacation/make improvements on their house], but there's the chance of "going for it" and getting $100,000, or of going bust and losing it all. The peer pressure exerted by the audience on the contestants is ferocious. And to be fair to the audience, the show is supposed to be about entertainment, and drama and high risk are more entertaining than playing it safe and making the prudent choice. But even so, as the contestant, it's still usually unwise to go for it, and yet almost everyone does!


Perhaps it's "too soon" to try to gamify this, but one could see a risk management game that has a layer of interaction built around risk tolerance. Such interactions are nothing new: "To be in our club, you have to jump your bike over that ditch", etc. A game could model this by giving you several, e.g., WP bins (oh no, two posts with WP ideas now, what is happening to me?) that each carry a certain risk tolerance profile--or maybe it's that previous players' workers escalate the riskiness required to use that space. If, for example, using "the hideout" space means jumping a puddle, once someone does it now it means jumping the ditch, then the train tracks, then the tracks while a train is coming, and so on.

Or it could be that players can enter into a variety of alliances but each one has a characteristic risk profile, which is perhaps determined by the members of the alliance themselves. To be in this club, you have to be a high roller, whereas that one you can just be a slot machine junkie and fit in perfectly well.

As readers know, I like risk management games very much, and I think introducing the social aspect of risk taking into a game is something we may not have seen too much of but that might add some fun dynamics to such a game.
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