Irwin Chen on Kleptocrat and Using Games to Explain Corruption

Journalism + Design’s Irwin Chen will speak on a panel on November 27 about the new iPhone game Kleptocrat, which puts the player in the shoes of a corrupt public official, moving money to evade arrest. The panel will be moderated by New Yorker staff writer Mark Singer and include Chen’s co-creators: Jim Mintz, CEO of the global investigative firm the Mintz Group, and award-winning game designer Joshua DeBonis of BumbleBear Games.

Here, Chen talks with J+D about how his team managed to turn complex, real-world patterns of money laundering into a playful experience.

Where did the idea for Kleptocrat come from?

The precursor was an interactive map that I made with Jim Mintz. When we started working on that, in 2009, there was a database of all the cases relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for American companies to go overseas and bribe officials, but the database was really hard to use. So we made this map, which we called “Where the Bribes Are.”

The map got a lot of attention in the compliance community, and Jim sort of caught the bug. He realized that the interactivity was what was compelling, and he appreciated the ability of games to connect to people and get them to interact with complex systems.

What did the first version of the game look like?

In the beginning, there were five steps. First, you find a way to steal money. Second, you enlist your friends and family. Third, you set up a structure. Four, you move the money into the structure. Five, you spend it. And we originally did it as a physical card game.

We tested it out, but people found it complicated and we realized the game mechanics weren’t exactly there. We did another iteration in digital form, then we decided we needed to hire an actual game developer. So that’s where Joshua DeBonis came in.

Once Joshua came onboard, how did the game find its current form?

It was a back and forth between Jim, who wanted to include all of the facts, and Joshua, who was focused on gameplay. We didn’t want to be overly simplistic, but we wanted people to understand the actual mechanics of hiding money.

We did a lot of iterations. We have iterations where it’s on a game board, where it’s on a map of the world. So there were all these other mechanics we wanted to put in, but we couldn’t. We had to make compromises to get it out the door.

How has the response been since you released it?

We set an internal goal of 2,500 downloads, and we’ve now almost doubled that. We weren’t expecting this to be Angry Birds.

The people who are playing and reviewing Kleptocrat on the App Store have been surprisingly positive. A writer from Compliance Week, an industry publication, wrote a really amazing review that said Kleptocrat hits all of the points.

Then there are others who just play it for fun. One guy, a history of science professor, played the game so much that he won 48 times in a row. He found these subtleties that we didn’t even realize were there. I asked him what he learned about money hiding and kleptocracy, and he gave a very detailed and accurate understanding of the mechanics. So that was a huge success in my book.

What’s your hope, for how people will learn from Kleptocrat and use that information?

That if you play the game enough, you will internalize the mechanics in a way you might not if you’re just reading about it.

When you are looking at a complex system, I don’t think it’s realistic to think that everyone can see that people are abusing it and stealing the public’s money. They can see that the president of some country is wearing a watch worth seven times his annual salary, they see these egregious displays of wealth.

And then they connect the dots — they’ll see news items about privatizing an industry, about a company with only two employees winning a government contract. So they can start to see these items not as isolated events, but as part of a larger system.

Having people connect the dots when they look at the news, understanding the system at play — that’s the ultimate goal.

Join us at The New School on November 27 for Gaming the Financial System, a free event where Chen, Mintz, and DeBonis share more about the challenges and pitfalls of creating fact-based games. Registration is free.