My startup, Electric Sheep Wrld, had just released the yPhone 5, and the public hated us. Maybe it was all the factory suicides, or the fact that this was yet another edition of basically the same product we’d been putting out all year. Either way, some hype work was necessary, and although a sponsored music festival was beyond our budget, perhaps it was time to splurge on some “causewashing” to brighten our bad name.
Playing The Founder: A Dystopian Business-Simulator is an interaction with the dark side of tech, in which you grow a company from your humble apartment into a world-destroying monster. And after that, there’s always Mars for a new market. Created by developer and designer Francis Tseng, the online game was released for free on January 27.
When I covered the Kickstarter for The Founder last fall, Tseng explained that management simulations “often reinforce or try to validate existing systems rather than examine them critically. For the most part these games are not conscious of their own perspectives and assumptions, so they can’t be critical of them.” For example, eradicating crime in SimCity can only be achieved by increasing police stations, instead of, say, adding parks to your giant lizard–ravaged neighborhoods.
The Founder is critical to the point of cynical, but spot-on in its simulation of startup culture: your employee buses come with “number of protests” in their stats, and one “win the game” option involves you, the founder, adopting transhumanism and becoming immortal with telomore therapy. (The “ultimate disruption is the disruption of death,” the game text quips.)
As with Subaltern Games’ Neocolonialism: Ruin Everything — a world domination strategy game that you “win” when the planet is wrecked and your Swiss bank account is full — the familiar model of The Founder lulls you into being complacent about a really terrible system. Tseng stated in his release notes that he hopes the game “will not only provide some relief from the madness of the past few days, but also inspire you to appropriate technology to better ends (e.g. Twitter shadow governments of rogue national agencies).”
From the beginning of my gameplay, I was lowering my employees’ salary expectations by emphasizing company culture over ambition, then augmenting their meager pay with perks like butter coffee and a “text-a-therapist” service. My “incubator mentor” regularly popped up with advice, using buzzwords such as “disruptive” and “innovate,” highlighted in rainbows. Meanwhile, the employees of Electric Sheep Wrld moved listlessly around the office. Their cone-shaped, vibrant bodies seemed cheerful enough, but glimpses of their tweets suggested their malaise in building products meant to mash up mobility and logistics verticals into what the game candidly labeled “junk.”
Even if we bested our competitors, another startup awaited to battle us for more of that market share. No matter: eventually I would replace all my workers with clones, then robots. And finally I’d get an AI to take my founder job, so that I could step away from this bleak startup world, at least in its digital form.
The Founder: A Dystopian Business-Simulator is available to play free online.