Let’s say you’ve just come into some money. Maybe you earned it through your labors. Maybe you didn’t—no need to get bogged down in the details. Anyhow, you have this money. Now what?
A series of choices present themselves, which is to say that this situation has the makings of a game. Well, at least it has the makings of an interesting game so long as you don’t choose to disclose your wealth at every possible turn. Should you choose to do that, things will end quickly and with little excitement. But humans are not always that moral—at least not all the time—so a game can work.
The game in question is Stairway to Tax Heaven. It’s a newsgame published by the Toronto Star as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The subtext of this game is the release of the Panama Papers, a massive leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that reveals the extent to which the global elite has gone to hide its money. Coverage of the 11.5 million files has so far identified 214,000 offshore companies linked to individuals in over 200 nations. Iceland’s prime minister, the father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, and soccer star Lionel Messi have all been implicated. They are hardly alone in that regard.
Stairway to Tax Heaven is effectively an interactive version of Fusion’s infographic explaining the workings of shell companies. You select a territory with a history of secrecy, appoint shady intermediaries, give your new company an anodyne name, and if all has gone according to plan you have hidden your wealth. (It should be noted that not all of the actions revealed in the Panama Papers are illegal.) Stairway to Tax Heaven is not a particularly challenging (dare I say taxing?) game. The moves that lead you to tax evasion or a shell company are heavily telegraphed; just pick the least transparent option at every turn. It really is that simple.
— Hjörtur Jóhann Jónss (@HjorturJohann) April 4, 2016
In reality, hiding all your money isn’t so simple. That’s how law firms like Mossack Fonseca make their money. Obscurity is possible, but it is not easily accessible. In light of this latest leak, however, we must consider that obscurantism is still too easily accessible. In that respect, the real game in Stairway to Tax Heaven is not the one created by the Star, but the underlying financial systems. Rules create strange choices at the margins, which can be manipulated by those with the will—and resources—to do so. That doesn’t mean that tighter financial regulations are not desirable, but it is a game where both sides are trying to outmaneuver one another. If nothing else, 40 years of documents from Mossack Fonseca show just how hard it is to make the rules of the game work for everyone.