StarPower: the Game That Shows We’re All Doomed

StarPowerA couple of years ago, I wrote, Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy. It involved a social psychologist’s experiment where he had people play Monopoly. But instead of the usual rules, some players were “rich” and so got twice as much money as the players who were “poor.” And what he noticed was that the “poor” players got discouraged and the rich players exhibited feelings of entitlement and felt happy about the the poor players bad “luck.”

I was over at Digby’s Blog today, where I found a fabulous article by Batocchio, Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons. I recommend reading the whole thing, because it is rather wide ranging. But it introduced me to the game StarPower. It was invented in 1969 to study exactly these kinds of class issues. Based upon how they start, people are placed into one of three groups: Square, Circle, or Triangle. These correspond to rich, middle, and poor.

The structure of the game is such that if you are a Triangle, you’re going to stay a Triangle. If you are Circle and you get lucky, you might make it into the Square group. Similarly, someone in the Square group with bad luck might fall into the Circle group. At least, that’s the case for the first half of the game. But then, the game allows the rules to be changed by the Square group. It should come as no surprise that the people playing the game don’t choose to make the game more fair; they change the rules to give themselves even more advantage.

Donella Meadows described her experiences playing the game all over the world, Why Would Anyone Want to Play StarPower. And she described one incident that actually did shock me, but I don’t know why:

Those few who don’t [act according to their “class”] are easily handled. Once I watched a Square try to convince her fellow-Squares to even up the rules. “This game is unfair, and unfair games are boring,” she pleaded. The other Squares appropriated her points and demoted her to a Triangle. They weren’t mean people, they were just Squares.

I think the reason I found this shocking is that you would think that in a game, a rational appeal like this would work. But if it doesn’t work there, how can it possibly work in the real world with actual money. I hate to think that it requires revolution, but it is true that in the real world, there are a whole lot more Triangles. Meadows deals with the real world consequences:

Who wants to play that kind of game? The Squares, maybe, but even Squares discover that games where the score is not occasionally set back to 0-0, where the starting line is not even, where the outcome is always predictable, and where winning is no sign of real merit, are deeply unsatisfying.

The wise Squares whom we call Founding Fathers, who set up the rules of our national game, knew that. They invented ingenious devices for giving everyone a chance to win—democratic elections, universal education, and a Bill of Rights. Out of their structure have come further methods for interrupting accumulations of power—anti-trust regulations, progressive taxation, inheritance restrictions, affirmative action programs.

All of which, you might note, have been weakened over the past decade or so. We have moved a long way toward a StarPower structure.

She wrote that in 1986. In the 28 years since then, it has gotten so much worse. And along with that, we have gotten a class of Squares who have convinced themselves, not that the game is fair, but that it is unfair—to them. It’s frightening to think about. But it ought to be even more frightening to them. They are living in delusion. And I hate to think what the Triangles might do if all the rhetoric about “job creators” starts to sound as hollow as it actually is.

We are all doomed.

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