business is not a game

“In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to using games as a model for understanding institutional behavior,” said Peter French, director of Arizona State University’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. Undeniably, the metaphor of business as a game is ubiquitous in business language and culture. While this linguistic tool helps to articulate a variety of business concepts such as competition, hierarchy, and goal achievement, business metaphors as games are not always morally neutral and can be very morally questionable. In fact, I largely believe that this metaphor also establishes a blatant fallacy.

Business as a game metaphor ignores the key difference between the tone and the vehicle of the metaphor. While gaming is self-sufficient, business cannot be a self-contained activity because it is deeply connected to the rest of society. A game is just an isolated bubble that people can choose to enter, knowing the rules that apply there, and people usually do it for personal enjoyment. What’s more, if a person doesn’t like or agree with the rules of the game, he or she has the right to knock the game out. But exiting the economy is not easy. Business and commerce are an undeniable part of everyone’s life. There is not much voluntarism associated with it, as opting out means completely isolating oneself and choosing to be completely disconnected from modern corporate practices.

Another important consideration is how the business can be used as a metaphor for the game, greatly reducing the real risk. In any game, from poker to football, almost always, the only stakeholder who will be significantly affected by the outcome of the game are the players themselves who choose to play and understand the costs and risks of playing. In business, however, the narrative is much more complex. Comparing business to a game, it’s easy to forget that in the quest to win or outsmart an opponent, business is actually more risky than most people’s conception of a game. These higher risks can severely impact the health, safety and quality of life of many voters. Take the Bhopal disaster, for example. Officials at a company made several bad decisions that caused the factory to spew 40 tons of toxic gas that scorched thousands of lives outside the walls. Thirty-seven years after the incident, the 70-acre site in Bhopal remains largely unchanged and still contains hundreds of tons of contaminated waste that continues to put the health of nearby villagers at serious risk. Businesses are “completely in the human realm” and have a wider impact on real, complex human life than games can.

Another concern is that business metaphors as games incorrectly portray the nature of business as temporary. Games cannot be endless; they have a definite beginning, middle, and end. However, business practices cannot be so clearly described. Professionals in the corporate community may focus on short-term profits, but may achieve success with positive quarterly returns at the expense of other social or moral interests. The short-term thinking of a similar game that pays off in the marketplace isn’t always in the best interest of the larger community, or even the long-term interest of the company itself. Commercial activity has no clear end point, but the game metaphor artificially implies the existence of a conclusion.

Going forward, a major failure of business as a metaphor for games is that it attempts to separate the moral realm by implying that there is a set of business ethics that differs from the set of ethics practiced in everyday social life. By making corporate ethics self-referential, like the rules of the game, companies are ethically accountable to the source of social norm ethics. Once business is nominally understood as a body of independent “business professionals” who are more morally irresponsible than others, the superposition of the strong metaphorical understanding that business is a game actually underpins the realm of ethics. Differentiation and division.

In conclusion, an in-depth study of the structural differences between business and games suggests that the business-as-game metaphor may have ethical issues, if not entirely inadequate. The game is fun, has understandable rules, and has the promise of glorious victories. But as businesses try to communicate their identities through vision and mission statements, ethical practices will demand more than what usually makes up the game. As the French philosopher Roger Caillois commented in his book Man, Plan and Game, “The real problem begins here. Because it cannot be forgotten that adults themselves continue to play complex, diverse and sometimes dangerous games , these games are still considered games. Although fate and life may involve one of these in similar activities, games are different from these even if the player places less emphasis on life than the games he is addicted to. Because games are still independent closed, in principle without any significant impact on the stability and continuity of collective and institutional existence.”

Krista Akiki is a senior, majoring in business analytics and minoring in computing and digital technologies. She grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and later returned to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree. She enjoys learning new languages, traveling, and of course trying new foods. She craves adventure and new experiences, and hopes to share these with readers through her writing. She can be reached on Twitter at or @kristalourdesakiki.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the observer.


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