April 4, 2001

Media Monopoly, the computer game

Author: JT Smith

- By Joab Jackson -

Cyberpunk -

Now that America Online Inc., and Time-Warner Inc.,
have merged their assets into one multi-billion dollar
empire of Internet
services, magazines, movies, music, and cable channels,
I couldn't help to think about creating a new kind of
computer game.You see, I've always been a big fan of the "God games,"
such as
Sid Meier's Civilization
and Microsoft's
Age of
Empires
-- computer games wherein users players control entire military
divisions, colonize continents, and are given the omnipresent
perspective of world rulers.

The trouble with these games, it occurred to me, is that
they're outdated, based as they are on the old economies, where
power was determined by control of precious resources. What we need is
a game based on the new economy, the entertainment economy. Instead
of conquering far-off lands, we'd battle for Nielsen ratings
and box-office receipts. Instead of wearing the power garb of kings, we'd
don the virtual vestments of CEOs.

So I thought of developing such a game myself, maybe even
selling it to Bill Gates. I'd call it Microsoft Media Monopoly. Has
a nice ring, yes?

The objective of MMM would be to harvest as much human
"mindshare" as possible. It's a vague concept, I know. So I'll have to
start the game with one of those multimedia slide shows to fill in the back
story.

"In primitive times," a solemn voice will intone, "people
entertained themselves. They fornicated, gazed at stars, competed in
sports, or roasted the occasional pig unlucky enough to wander by their
grass huts. It took much work on the part of the later Industrial Age
barons to shame them from these simple pursuits, pursuits that profited no
one. The tycoons gathered the world's best songwriters, athletes,
storytellers, and models, concentrated their entertainments into addictive
levels, and shot the results through international distribution
channels. Untold amounts of disposable income were reaped.

"But this vein of riches is far from exhausted," the
voice would continue. "It is up to you, my junior v.p. of marketing, to take it to
the next level -- to commodify the remaining human interactions. Using
newly forged digital tracking tools, you must hustle people's conversations into
chat rooms, their desire for sex into soft-porn cable channels, their
pick-up basketball games into multiplayer console games, and charge by the hour
for all these privileges."

And so the game would start.

Each player would be given a multinational corporation --
either a television network, telecommunications giant, or software
company -- and they'd battle it out with competitors real or
computer-generated (they'd be about seven or so) to accumulate content and
conduits.

Obtaining content should be easy, I figure. Every few
turns, a new media property goes up for sale -- a television show
(South Park,
50 gold bars), a newspaper (Village Voice, seven gold
bars), even an entire network (Black Entertainment Television, 5,000
gold bars). Cost is determined not only by audience size but also by loyalty.
The more fervent the followers, the more profit from related items
like NFL fantasy-football camps and Star Wars action figures.

More dough can be raised by advertising. I would advise
players early on to spend a few extra gold bars to collect viewer profiles
to maximize results. With assistance from academicians trained in
psychological manipulation (three gold bars), they can craft individually
tailored ads that unconsciously trigger people's desires. People with
marked pedophiliac preferences would be sure-fire purchasers of Disney videos;
those lacking shame can be targeted by Range Rover.

All the while, players should be buying conduits as well:
cable companies, Internet service providers, TV stations,
ad space on cell phones and computer desktops, and other
mechanisms used to deliver content to people. See, as AOL
probably figured out in real life, by owning these pipelines, you can
make it more difficult for customers to access competitors'
content and you can keep your own advertisers front and center on the
screen. Plus, keeping conduits locked down helps prevent an outbreak of
renaissance thinking. The last thing you need is another neutral open
platform like the Internet allowing people to create "free" content,
blowing revenue streams everywhere.

At every turn of my game you'll face difficult choices.
Do you raise Dennis Rodman's salary so he doesn't leave and take his fan
base with him? Do you buy the extra cable company and risk attack from the
slow-moving but deadly Justice Department? If you don't, will your
meager holdings risk being gobbled up in a hostile takeover? Do you fill a
Web site with free goodies that draw a big audience but anger
shareholders because they cut into profits? A picture of the legendary
John Malone appears. He wants to forge an exclusive alliance. Do you
trust this Darth Vader-like character not to sack your holdings like a
Viking run amuck? Or, instead, do you vow eternal war and risk the
worst curse of them all: obscurity?

This is heated stuff, of course, and a few hours of play
should get the greed pumping through the veins of even the staunchest
of socialists. Of course, the stakes only go up the richer you get. The
more properties you buy, the more packs of intimidating legal teams you'll
need to hire to protect these assets. After all, there are still hordes
of consumers who don't see song or sports or humor as somebody else's
"assets," and will freely appropriate your stuff for such activities as
rogue "fan" Web sites. Nothing spooks these creatures like
lawyer-crafted cease-and-desist letters. Experts in the First Amendment
will also be required to counter religious groups badgering Congress
for decency standards. This is important: Your stockholders will demand
that content be universally appealing. That means lots of sex and
violence and, well, indecency.

Not to mention gold bars.

The game ends only when one player has gobbled up all the
other media companies. Only with a true monopoly can you freely
charge outlandish fees for crappy content. (By then, there will be
no competitors offering better alternatives, and the people
themselves will have long forgotten how to make their own
fun.) Only then will all companies be beholden to you to sell
their goods. As would all politicians -- you can nullify any political
position by simply not acknowledging its existence on your news
outlets. With millions of zombie-fied souls wired into your
electronic hive, you'd possess the kind of absolute power that Mao Tse-Tung
or V.I. Lenin only dreamed about. You'd control reality itself.

Wouldn't that make a cool game? I'd play it. Who
wouldn't?

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