The year is 2001.
You've just started a company and are working out of your apartment with a few employees and your cofounder. You're hoping to disrupt an industry—any industry—with your social network and advertising service. But as you work to keep your board of investors happy, that means expanding into more and more verticals—mobile and hardware at first, but soon you're working in defense and biotech. By 2020, you're building drones for the government and a brain implant that helps with decision-making. Your research team is looking into artificial gravity, bioprinting, and the possibility of a building a colony on Mars so there are new markets to expand into. You're investing heavily in lobbying because it has big payouts. Your financial products have an impact on the world economy, and your mobile hardware business is contributing to climate change—so much so that your server farms, built along the California coast, begin to flood.
This dystopian future is one possible outcome of the startup simulator game The Founder. Created by the designer and developer Francis Tseng, the game is like The Sims for startups: You start by naming your company, choosing a cofounder, and picking a city in which to launch. Then, it's time to build products, and, more than likely for newcomers to the game, watch them fail miserably.
Tseng's experience working in Silicon Valley and at startups in general informed the design of the game, which is deeply critical of tech companies—he believes these companies wield great influence over people's lives, but don't always take responsibility for their actions or even realize the unintended impact they might have. "Technology is really, really powerful, but the effects it has in the world are very much dependent on the context it's developed in and is deployed in," he says.
Initially, the game offers a more shallow criticism of Silicon Valley. Tech industry buzzwords like "innovative" or "disrupt" are highlighted with a cheesy rainbow gradient. The only way to keep your employees happy is to load up your office with perks like butter coffee, gym memberships, text-a-therapist services, and unlimited vacation (which comes with a caveat: "Social norms means no one will use this").
You play your way through the game by first hiring employees with different numbers of engineering, design, marketing, and productivity points. Then, you build products by combining two product categories (like social network + ads, or e-commerce + logistics). Some are innovative and will make you a boatload of money. Most completely fail. For each product, you enter the marketplace and face off against competitors like Kougle, Coralzon, and Carrot, Inc. (cheeky references to Google, Amazon, and Apple) in a mini game. The board expects 12% growth in profit from you every year.
The game's logic feels very much like a formula for startup culture: There's the mentor that guides you, the tireless cofounder, the buzzwords, the perks, the stupid products (the game names them for you automatically; one combination I saw while playing was literally dubbed "junk").
But as time goes on, the more insidious dynamics of the game echo some of the structural flaws of the venture capital-startup system. When the system demands that companies continually grow the bottom line, how do the people driving the tech industry keep up with that expectation in an ethical way?
"You have to keep expanding profit. As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to do as you sort of saturate all the markets and you continue to try and build new products. But eventually it becomes harder and harder to innovate," Tseng says. "As you go further in the future, you get more and more of these crazy technologies, really futuristic ones. My hope is that at some point the player realizes, this is not a world I would want to live in."
The world of The Founder is indeed a dark one. At a certain point within the game, you have to expand into defense in order to keep playing. You have to colonize other worlds in order to keep growing your profit. And soon enough, you can replace your entire staff with artificially intelligent robots, who are cheaper and more efficient than humans. At the center of it all is the founder—you, the player—who ultimately is responsible for decisions that turn the world toward dystopia.
"In a movie you're pulled along, but here you make a decision and see an outcome and you know that's because of something you did. It's a little more personal and more powerful," Tseng says. "You make these decisions and you see the consequences of your actions. I think that makes it more compelling and a more potent learning experience."
By putting the player in the founder's shoes, Tseng subtly critiques the social weight successful founders carry. "They're revered in many ways. That's really interesting to me, the way that you as someone who's created one of these really successful businesses accrue all this social and cultural power," Tseng says. The name of the game was actually inspired by a lecture Peter Thiel gave as part of a startup class at Stanford called "Founder as Victim, Founder as God."
Still, you may not realize the implications of the game the first time you play through it—especially because you're bound to fail the first few times, like any respectable startup founder. Tseng designed the game to appear friendly, with cute, triangular-shaped employees that putter around your office cloaked in bright colors. "A lot of the offices of places like Google have a similar sort of aesthetic in that there are a lot of light colors and toys—ping-pong and other child-adult objects, like slides," he says. "I wanted to bring some of that because it contrasts so much with some of the things that these companies might be doing and the seriousness of the effects that their work has on the world—there's such a contrast there."
The Founder's deep cynicism was inspired by Tseng's own experience in Silicon Valley. After graduating from the University in Pennsylvania with a degree in cognitive neuroscience, he spent a year at a startup in Beijing before moving to San Francisco to work as an interaction designer at Ideo. But nine months of working in startup central was enough—he transferred to Ideo in New York, then worked as a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow at the New York Times. Now, he's a researcher-in-residence at the New Museum's incubator, New Inc. He's been working on The Founder in his spare time for the last year and a half, though the initial idea to design a startup simulator came to him four or five years ago.
"I saw a lot of really amazing, technically amazing stuff happening in Silicon Valley, but the way it was being applied, the way was being directed, just felt like a shame—it felt like a waste," Tseng says. "I was really interested in bringing that out in the game. That there's all this kind of marvelous innovation and technical development going on, but it feels like a lot of it is being squandered."
This observation informed one of the ways to play the game successfully—to make terrible products, but to hype them up using promotional tools built into the game, which range from your basic press release or commercial to a "DENT" talk (a parody of TED) or a sponsored music festival. Hype brings large returns, which give you room to experiment with new product combinations until you find another winner. When negative consequences due to decisions you've made result in "outrage" in the media, hype is the best way to counteract it (though Tseng admits that the outrage meter on your dashboard doesn't ultimately have much impact on your profit, since people forget fairly quickly).
Different products lead to different real-world events: If you're building hardware, you might contend with suicides in your factories, a detail inspired by Apple; if you're developing biotech, you can get in trouble for not following laboratory safety regulations, inspired by Theranos; your company can also face patent lawsuits or rare mineral shortages or sexual harassment accusations.
Tseng hopes that the game, which was funded on Kickstarter and will be released January 27 online, will reach folks within the tech sphere. Some of them have already supported it. "[The venture capitalist] Fred Wilson backed the Kickstarter, but he only put in like $5—I know you probably have like millions and millions of dollars," Tseng says. "But if he played it, I would love to hear his thoughts."
How do you win? Well, there's only one way right now—to keep making money, regardless of the implications of your actions. But winning ethically is another matter entirely. "The way to win ethically is to get to a point where you feel like you're making a good amount of money and just stop," Tseng says. "The only way to win is not play."
However, Tseng's cynical view of the Silicon Valley economy is no longer quite so dire. If he were to recreate the game, he'd design a way to navigate it while sticking to your values. But even if Tseng has grown more optimistic, he hopes The Founder will help people in the industry think about the impact of their work.
"Technology is really really powerful, but the effects it has in the world are very much dependent on the context it's developed in and is deployed in. I don't necessarily want people to feel bad about their lives, but an ideal outcome is that they maybe think a bit more critically about the work that they're doing," Tseng says. "From where they are as a developer or a designer, how they can influence it in a better way?"
[All Images: Francis Tseng]