By eavave • April 29, 2011

The Gamification of Income Tax... or "The Government's Big Game"

This was actually written by our intrepid CEO, Dups. But he's not awake yet, so I'm posting!


Buzz words are the lifeblood of the Internet. We have "Web 2.0", the "Cloud" and now the mot-du-jour is "Gamification." Running Empire Avenue, which seeks to make a game out of all that you do online, we get calls to give quotes on gamification all the time. It's as if adding so-called "game layers" to applications and web sites had suddenly sprung out of the ether. Well, I'm not going to give you a treatise on what is and what isn't gamification, but let me tell you about the greatest (social) game ever invented. Zynga probably wishes they could have invented it, I'm sure, Electronic Arts and Activision could take lessons, and well, the rest of us? Well, we're the great suckers who play it and get played. As with Vegas, it's a game where the house always wins.

Filing income tax.

Yes, in my mind, income tax has all the qualities of a game, and the government should be patted on the back for having created something so incredible. They’ve crafted an RPG (role-playing game) that we end up playing over and over and over again. Game designers dream of this: the perpetually replayable RPG.


With US and Canada income taxes we are presented with a whole host of possible tax deductions (I cannot speak for other countries). As individuals and households we have to choose which options make the most sense, similar to how we might have to create different options in a SimCity game or even in a Dungeons and Dragons situation where we are kitting out our party with the correct options. Take the “deducation for education of your child” out of state, and you lose out on “deduction on proposal XYZ” in state. But the government is the game designer; they know that the end goal of the game is to keep as much money in your pocket. Throughout the year you will spend your time "playing the game" and buying items such as hybrid cars or doing certain renovations on the house, just so you can get that deduction at the end of the year. In essence, you are on a “Quest” – or a series of quests – to keep your money.

Rewards, Battles and Punishment

If you fail in your quests, you get to pay the Government more money (unless you roll a lucky number 8 in something else). The game mechanics are such that "gaming the system" rewards the behaviours that the designers (lawmakers) want you to act upon: environmentalism, entrepreneurship, education and so on. The choices you make determine your eventual outcome on tax day… you’re being rewarded for playing the game as intended.

A game must always have a loss/punishment mechanism. In the case of income tax, that's obvious. Get income tax wrong or not pay at all and you will end up in jail far faster than a mass murderer. Al Capone, after all, was caught by the IRS. A simpler punishment mechanism is exorbitant interest rates on unpaid amounts and certainly loss of further money on an audit. You may face a battle with the IRS (or other equivalent government agency)… we hope you’ve applied the most effective “buffs” to overcome the challenge!

Finding a great deduction, by the way, is the equivalent of unearthing a Sword +10 by accident. Phat loot!

Leveling Up

The Income Tax system even has levels. You work harder and harder all the time in your quest to earn more cash. However, the more money you make, the higher your tax bracket. Level up to the next tax bracket, and you’ll be more powerful, yes, but there’s the downside of needing to support the government a bit more. For those that want to, they can brag about their tax bracket; all that's missing is for the government to send you a badge that you could share with all your friends and family… that would be nice. For others it's a reverse level system; your goal is to not climb to the next tax bracket.

Gold Farming

The amazing thing is that this game even features the equivalent of World of Warcraft's so-called Gold Farmers. Depending on how much you can spend, you can hire tax lawyers and accountants that will do your taxes for you and will actually "Farm" the maximum amount of money for you, while you sit on your butt and eat Cheetos.

Taxville II: The Reckoning

The last thing that the government does is ensure that players of its game come back every year with a new set of quests, rewards and levels. Every year, the government looks at the metrics of payments and the role of other parts of the economy and iterates the game to another version. We can't possibly get bored with the tax guidelines of today because Taxville II is just around the corner. It’s going to be another blockbuster hit for April.

I applaud the government. Here is a sticky game of Quests, Levels, Rewards, Battles and even Gold Farmers worthy of some of the world's best game designers. For those that say "I don't play games" take a closer look at the real world, and you will see the human penchant for playing games with real life is clear and ever present.

Now I have to go do my taxes. I think I might even have found that Sword +10 this year.

Disclaimer: Our owners, writers, and/or guest post authors may or may not have a vested interest in any of the above projects and businesses. None of the content on this blog is investment advice nor is it a replacement for advice from a certified financial planner.