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Conferences Are For Playtesting, Not Soapboxing




After attending RadicalxChange this past weekend, I reflect on the nature of conferences and assert that they should be leveraged for gaming and experimentation.

The inaugural RadicalxChange conference – founded by economist Glen Weyl – in Detroit last weekend convened technologists, entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and everybody in between for three days of learning, relationship-building, and rethinking the world's capitalist machine. Though many aspects of the Radical Markets-inspired conference were conventional, featuring the usual fare of keynotes and presentations, a fundamental and surprising component of the event was play.

Today's technology conferences generally feature some interactive elements to enable participants to engage with the ideas they're learning about and put theory into practice. That said, such interactivity is often relegated to a developer track. The general conference population remains separate from this track and may not have the opportunity to participate in – or even feel comfortable with – these activities.

Conferences, then, often become opportunities for "experts" in a certain field to soapbox about their research, professional work, unique perspectives, or any other contributions the professional community in question seems to value. While any opportunity to learn – even through one-sided presentations – can be meaningful, this method of learning shouldn't be the default.

RadicalxChange, however, was different. The event wasn't just a bridge between disparate communities (I mean, who'da thunk blockchain developers would be in the same room as on-the-ground social justice advocates?). It was also an experiment in conference design: Interactivity was the bedrock of the event. Along with other conference-goers, I had several opportunities to playtest economic mechanisms inspired by both the blockchain space and the RadicalxChange movement.

On Saturday, March 23, I participated in a prototyping workshop led by game designers Sarah Friend and Andy Morales Coto. Within this session, participants divided into groups of three to five and sat in loosely formed circles on the floor while we all worked to develop rough drafts of incentives-based games.

Our teams worked through the game design process as we thought about who the players would be, where the games would be played, how players would win these games, and what we hoped to learn from deploying these playtests, among other considerations. My team developed a prototype of a community garden game to encourage residents to beautify their neighborhoods with plants and other vegetation – think of an incentive model for guerrilla planting.

By the end of the prototyping process, the game we had designed primarily for children had transformed into a game that could include participants of all ages as a kind of community ritual, so to speak. We arrived at a card game, kind of like Go Fish, that would be played by community members every solstice or equinox to determine which seeds would be planted in a community's neighborhoods. We were inspired by the idea of a flower token (which has previously been explored in the blockchain space) to incentivize the beneficial behaviors of social gardening and community beautification.

Although our game didn't win the contest – a project focused on gentrification took the cake – the experience has stuck with me. I met some awesome people from around the world and got to test an incentive model to encourage environmental consciousness (which I care deeply about), and I learned a lot about game design in the process. If I sat through a two-hour lecture instead, I don't think I would've retained the information to the same extent that I did through play.

Later that Saturday, I had the opportunity to playtest COST Monopoly, a Harberger tax-focused version of the classic game. Rather than attempting to create a property monopoly, players participate in a perpetual auction system (as explored in Radical Markets) where individuals must pay taxes to maintain their property. At any point in the game, a player can purchase another individual's property.

With my fellow players, I was able to engage with both the benefits and consequences of a Harberger tax system as I amassed properties and had to pay taxes on them. I experienced firsthand how labor-intensive it would be to continually value your property and handle forced sales from others. I generally agree with the ethos behind a perpetual auction system because I think it would make property ownership (if you could still call it that) more equitable for all. But it was also insightful to learn about how this system could fail or be difficult to implement while I experienced those difficulties myself within the game.

Many thinkers in both economics and technology have doubts about the Harberger tax model, but COST Monopoly provided a vehicle to evaluate those misgivings in a live experiment. Admittedly, the game had many kinks, such as its confusing rules and the oversight regarding people's limited attention spans. (Monopoly isn't a game for the faint of heart.) But those user experience "flaws" were less errors in the game's design and more so valuable insights to later build better Harberger tax experiments.

Participants were able to voice their feedback about the game afterwards. As with the interactive game design panel described above, I met several lovely people with whom I shared my delights and frustrations about COST Monopoly. This game night, as it was called by the RadicalxChange team, was easily my favorite part of the conference.

These two events weren't the only playtesting opportunities at RadicalxChange. Another game of sorts, for example, was a sci-fi creative writing workshop to allow participants, through the medium of storytelling, to envision a brave new world based on Radical Markets ideas.

All these playtests got me thinking: Why aren't all conferences set up this way? Why aren't games a more fundamental aspect of the conference-going experience? I had more fun at RadicalxChange than Devcon4 and San Francisco Blockchain Week last year, which is saying something because l loved attending those conferences. I firmly believe that what made RadicalxChange more memorable for me was the games – I can't stop thinking about them and I want to play more.

That's not to say that other conferences are not being interactive. Hackathons in the technology space, for example, are a great way to engage attendees and allow them to experiment with new ideas. But we need more interaction, more games. Let's step up our conference programming and make it more fun and interactive. It may sound simple and childish, but I believe that games offer so much value above and beyond what's available through conventional keynotes and plenaries.

Let's play.

Dani Putney

Dani is a full-time writer for ETHNews. They received their bachelor's degree in English writing from the University of Nevada, Reno, where they also studied journalism and queer theory. In their free time, they write poetry, play the piano, and fangirl over fictional characters. They live with their partner, three dogs, and two cats in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.

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