ARTICLE: Office Politics-A back-stabber's delight


Thursday, October 17, 2002 - Globe and Mail, Print Edition, Page B16

Ethics and profits are not words one often finds together in corporate vocabulary these days. A decade or more of naked, barbarous greed has stripped much of the moral gloss corporations laid claim to, justly or not. How to act now? If you're a corporate boss, you're probably putting on a humble face while frantically assuring your shareholders their investment is safe.

If you're not, then you're probably laughing. Scott Adams has been leading that response for years in his Dilbert comic strip.

Now a Toronto e-business has turned the issues of morality and ethics into an on-line game. Called Office Politics, it was launched quietly in beta form in August and has spread like wildfire, mostly by word of mouth, with nearly 1,800 registered players and five to 10 times that many "lurkers," people who just visit the site.

The game is the brainchild of Toronto artists and Web developers Bill and Franke James, who call themselves James Gang Advertising Inc. and their company Nerdheaven Ltd. They confess that they were inspired, in part at least, by the Dilbert strip, but their creation is darker and more menacing. As the site says, the game is about "the toughest, meanest, slimiest office politics."

And the meanest and slimiest politics, they say, happen in meetings.

Players are given an employee handbook, which says the mission statement is to unseat the CEO.

The Jameses post five new moral and ethical questions a week. Recent ones include: "The boss's kids can do no wrong. And get paid huge sums of money. Do you try to get 'adopted?' " and "You're hired to work on a great project. After moving 2,000 miles, the project gets canned. Do you sue?"

Players are invited to start meetings on each subject. There can be any number of meetings, and each player can start one or more and attend others all on that same subject. Players who start meetings get the title of CEO and start by telling their inferiors how they are to cast their votes, which are secretbut which are accompanied by public remarks that can be sincere or dishonest.

The CEO then tries to accumulate points by viewing any of the secret votes. Each vote in support of the CEO earns the players points, including the CEO. A vote against the CEO's recommendation is regarded as a stab in the back and -- if the boss decides to view it -- results in all other players, including the CEO, losing all their points, ending the game. The back stabber, on the other hand, earns double points, though he or she may earn a reputation and thus be distrusted in the next meeting.

Players are ranked within the corporation by the points they accumulate and are given corporate titles: vice-president of bottom-feeding, senior suckup to the CEO, upper mismanager, inhuman resources manager or dominatrix of the copy room. The player with the most points becomes the CEO -- not a meeting CEO, but CEO of the entire game.

The appeal is the opportunity for commentary with each meeting. In fact, Office Politics is "basically a glorified chat room, and a little like Russian roulette," Bill James said. "The decisions the players make may not be the way they'd do it in real life, but here they can try it out for fun. It's an opportunity to step outside of yourself."

But it's more serious than that.

It was motivated, the Jameses say, "by the injustices we've been reading about in the paper," such as the scandals that rocked Montreal-based animation company Cinar Corp. and WorldCom Inc. in the United States. Even the low-life-in-high-places scandal involving former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then U.S. President Bill Clinton also proved to be an inspiration.

The Jameses ask players to fill out an optional survey form, with the demographic and psychographic profiles to be used as research data for the study of on-line communities and social networks.

Office Politics also has its own guru: John Burton, an ethicist, mediator, lawyer and theologian who teaches alternative dispute resolution at Queen's Law School and ethics at the Schulich School of Business. Players are invited to throw their questions at him, and receive considered responses.

But beyond all that, Office Politics is also an e-business. Bill and Franke James have woven advertising subtly into the game, keeping it out of the individual meeting rooms and attaching it to the wild cards players are given. has signed on, as has Communications and Information Technology Ontario, the provincial agency promoting high tech.

The daily ethics question is being carried on TV screens installed in elevators of Captivate Network Inc., which delivers ads and other content to passengers who are (appropriately) on their way up or down.

By next year, the Jameses hope to spin all the data they get into a daily newspaper cartoon or a series of TV spots, even a regular newspaper feature, and a cellphone version of the game.

In the meantime, they're just polishing the software, with a relaunch scheduled for Monday.

The reason for their optimism, they say, is that players' comments and the way they play offer insight into corporate behaviour, even if players think it's just a game. "If it's true and it hurts," Franke James said, "then it's good." Visit the e-Insider page at for Report On Business Television video, exclusive case studies and more.

Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.