Ignoring the rules of engagement, Ender cheats and wins. He expects to be expelled for his tactics, but to his amazement the crowd of observers erupts in cheers. He has been duped: Ender learns that for months he has been unwittingly fighting, and winning, real battles, and has now obliterated an entire species of intelligent beings.
It was not just a game after all. Ender is consumed with guilt and furious at his leaders.
2013 AD: More bright young men sit surrounded by luminous screens, calling themselves “the A-Team” or “the players,” and playing to win. Coordinating their strikes, executing commands at light speed through vast networks, they speak the language of “one team, one dream,” rack up “scores” by “double teaming” opponents, and cheer each other on with “bravos,” “hoorays,” and the occasional exultant “YESssssssssssss!” Like Kirk and Ender, they have abandoned the official rules for new ones that stack the deck in their favor.
The game they were playing is called “manipulating the foreign exchange market.” Their opponents were other market participants, including their own customers. Their “scores” were the profits of crooked trades that corrupted the international financial system, exploited victims worldwide, and ultimately cost their employers a collective $4.3 billion in penalties. For at least five years, in the words of the UK Financial Conduct Authority’s CEO, they had been “gaming the system.”
No doubt this debacle had multiple causes, unremitting greed and performance pressure high among them. But when grown men employed by several of the world’s most prominent financial institutions form all-star teams to commit massive fraud for years on end—and execute their scheme with the ebullient glee of a Pee Wee Football team—it may be time to ask whether this whole business-as-a-game metaphor has gotten out of hand, and whether it may play a role in business misconduct.
Framing the Situation
Psychologists have much to say about the phenomenon of “framing”—the process by which we decide “What kind of situation is this? What rules and expectations apply?” How we frame a situation affects our thinking and our behavior. We know, for example, that merely framing an issue as a “business matter” can invoke narrow rules of decision that shove non-business considerations, including ethical concerns, out of the picture. Tragic examples of this “strictly business” framing include Ford’s cost/benefit-driven decision to pay damages rather than recall explosion-prone Pintos, and the ill-fated launch of space shuttle Challenger after engineers’ safety objections were overruled with a simple “We have to make a management decision.”
We are surprisingly susceptible to external cues about how a situation should be framed. For example, researchers have found that simply renaming “The Community Game” as “The Wall Street Game” cuts cooperation in half: the business frame suggests not only what is expected of us, but what tactics we should expect from our opponent.
In another experiment, a city’s crime problem was presented in two narratives, differing by just a single word: crime was described as either a “beast” or a “virus.” Participants were given one of the narratives and invited to propose solutions. Fifty-nine percent of those receiving the “beast” narrative recommended enforcement-based remedies, but 63 percent of those receiving the “virus” version suggested addressing root causes. We hunt or trap a beast, but prevent or cure a disease.
The workplace is full of potent framing cues. What leaders say, what they do, what they reward and ignore, and what interests they consider in decision-making all convey messages about how employees should frame their roles.
Metaphors like “beast” and “virus” are a powerful kind of framing commonly invoked by leaders. They offer us a ready-made mental model for our situation; if the metaphor seems to fit, its simplicity and familiarity can make intuitive sense of the situation and provide useful guidance for behavior. But seductive as metaphors may be, they are also inherently reductive: just as they reveal similarities between two situations, they may conceal important differences—and there’s the rub.
The Frame of the Game
The game metaphor for business is easy and, on the surface, compelling. Both have rules, rivals, competition, referees or enforcers, winners and losers, and even numerical scoring, quarter by quarter. But look at the differences: A game is an artificial, insular world, and its rules are entirely arbitrary. Fundamentally, games are entertainment and—office pools and emotional trauma aside—cheating doesn’t impact the public’s health, wealth, safety or security. By contrast, business touches every corner of society and is governed by laws enacted to protect the public from harm or to achieve other real-world goals.
Framing business as a game belittles the legitimacy of the rules, the gravity of the stakes, and the effect of violations on the lives of others. By minimizing these factors, the game metaphor takes the myopic “strictly business” framing a step further, into a domain of bendable rules, acceptable transgressions, and limited accountability. If it’s just a game, it is easier to forgive our team—or ourselves—for cheating a little, as long as the referee doesn’t notice. But those little cheats have a way of snowballing. If they’re successful and profitable, the misconduct is rewarded, reinforced, and usually repeated, and we may soon find ourselves careening metaphorically down a slippery slope.
Treating laws as equivalent to the arbitrary rules of a game also has a more insidious side, even for persons of strong character. It encourages scouring the rules for an exception, a loophole or ambiguity, or just an argument that what’s in our self-interest is somehow not forbidden. We may try to go as close to the legal line as possible without crossing it. It’s like the game of mumblety-peg, where the goal is to flip a knife into the ground as close to your own foot as possible. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to get hurt.
Games, of course, are often described as ritualized warfare; games, war and business share many features and much vocabulary, and at work it is not always easy to tell whether the metaphor in use is game, war, or both.
All’s Fair in Warfare
The war metaphor may be even more ubiquitous in business, and more toxic, than that of the game. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War commands an enviable franchise on the business bookshelf, flanked by its many modern-day spinoffs, and “war gaming” is a popular strategic planning tool.
The war metaphor conditions our thinking in a way distinct from the game frame, but complementary to it. War is a matter of survival: the stakes are enormous, the mission urgent, and all’s fair. Exigent pressures grant us wide moral license, releasing us from adherence to everyday rules and justifying extreme tactics in pursuit of a higher goal; we must, after all, kill or be killed. If business is war, survival is at stake, and competitors, customers, suppliers, rivals or authorities are our enemies, then not only may we do whatever it takes to win, it’s our duty to do so.
It is no surprise, then, that Kirk and Ender stumbled ethically in their war games—the worst of both worlds. Game framing minimized the legitimacy of rules and the significance of violations; within the games, war framing maximized the stakes and urgency; and so both provided cover for unethical conduct. In both stories, the pressure to win at any cost and the built-in rationales for cheating guaranteed the result.
Kirk’s superiors imparted the perverse lesson that cheating is not only forgivable, but praiseworthy, if the outcome is good—at least in a game. Fortunately for Star Trek fans, Kirk did not apply this lesson to his command duties, but in that respect he is exceptional. For most people, commendations powerfully reinforce the rewarded conduct.
Ender’s mentors disguised war as a game and, trusting them, he did what it took to win. Had he known he was being asked to exterminate an intelligent species rather than erase pixels on a screen, he would have followed his conscience and refused. The game frame blinded him to the ethical dimensions of his actions.
Business leaders should reflect on these stories—and on the foreign exchange scandal—before invoking the easy morality of gamesmanship or the weaponized rhetoric of war. Our actions have real effects and business exigencies do not relieve us of accountability for them. Our Kirks and our Enders need to understand that business is not a game, and it’s not a war.
 O.S. Card, Ender’s Game 292-3 (Tor edition 1991).
 M.H. Bazerman and A.E. Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots 70 (2011).
Scott Killingsworth is a Senior Counsel with Bryan Cave LLP in Atlanta. His practice is focused on organizational compliance and ethics and corporate law, helping boards and senior executives with compliance program design, implementation, governance, and evaluation.