When does a system become a game?

By Alan Ramias

I used to fly Southwest Airlines a lot.  And while waiting to board a flight, I would watch the games that fliers played in order to be first in line to board the plane.  The airline saves tons of money by not providing pre-assigned seats.  In case you never had the pleasure, a brief description:  Their original method of managing the boarding process was notoriously known as the “cattle call.”  When you checked in, you received a plastic ticket with a number on it, then folks with tickets numbered 1-30 boarded first and got the choice seats (unless there were through passengers already on board).  For some reason, that boarding method seemed to trigger the most outlandish behaviors.


  • I would sometimes arrive at the airport hours before departure and be the first to check in, so I would get ticket #1.  I could certainly have waited until the last minute to go to the gate—after all, I was assured I would be among the first 30 to board—but often I wanted to literally be the first person on board and so would go to the gate knowing I would stand for 1.5 hours but be first in line.  Yet lo and behold, I get there and in my way is a gaggle of children, lying on blankets, eating, reading, drawing in coloring books.  They will board before me.  But where are their parents?  Nowhere in sight.  Eventually I do spot them, leaving the bar way down the concourse and weaving their way to us.  Isn’t it supposed to be against the rules to leave minor children by themselves?  But I saw this maneuver more than once.


  • I also saw people park giant carry-on bags right at the boarding entry and walk off for long intervals, even hours, before departure.  Supposedly it’s also against security rules to abandon your luggage, but it was a very common tactic.


  • I saw people cursing at each other and threatening violence when someone with ticket #1 or #2 would insist on being first in line even though others in the group of the-first-30 had been waiting patiently.  Or a person from the second boarding group would try to sneak along with the first group while covering the number on his or her ticket.


  • I saw people with heavy limps boarding along with “those needing a little more time to board” and then miraculously undergo a cure halfway down the ramp to the plane.


Now of course you can see similar behavior at other airlines, especially exhibited by arrogant “road warriors” who imagine they really are more entitled than others, but it is fairly subdued compared to the situation at Southwest.  The question is why?  What are the factors that tend to turn a well-intended system into an out-of-control game?   (Eventually Southwest Airline revamped their system and among other things now requires passengers to board in the actual sequence of their tickets.  But if anything, the game-playing has intensified.  More on that later.)  So the question is still relevant:  What circumstances seem to spark and encourage a corner-cutting, bend-the-rules mentality?  When does a system backfire?


Examples from Various Systems


Of course, it’s not just the airport where game-playing can be seen.  The education system is rife with examples of serious corner-cutting—by educators.  Earlier this year in Atlanta the former head of the public school system was indicted on racketeering charges, along with 34 other teachers and principals, after being accused of participating in a scheme to rig test scores.  This is only the latest, though one of the worst, example of test score cheating, with experts often arguing that an explosion of teacher cheating has happened since the No Child Left Behind Act linked test scores to pay, bonuses, promotions, and tenure.


As for students, studies about cheating abound.  According to research by a Canadian expert on cheating, Julia Christensen Hughes, almost 60 percent of first-year students admit to cheating on tests in high school and 75 percent on written assignments.  Other studies show similar levels of cheating.


In the world of business, there are endless examples of incentives that trigger disastrous cheating and risk-taking behavior.  Just think of the long list of CEO’s incentivized with huge payouts and stock options who steered their organizations off a cliff, then walked away covered in money if not glory.


In an article in Fast Company, authors Dan and Chip Heath argue that one reason we don’t see that a system is bound to backfire is due to a “focusing illusion”, in which the designers of the system focus in on only one highly desirable effect and ignore the other possible outcomes.  In that same article they also point out that the world of sports is just as littered with ineffective incentive plans that end up encouraging cheating of all kinds.


Possible Causes


So what causes a system (i.e., an organizational system, a procedure or method for getting something done in a structured, presumably efficient and effective way) to go awry, to be thwarted and abused and turned around to undesirable ends?  Here are some possibilities that many of these examples seem to have in common:


  1. It’s Unfair

If you go on-line and read the comments of Southwest passengers about the boarding system, (both old and current approaches), you encounter terms like “Ponzi scheme”, “cheated”, “Machiavellian”.  The system is viewed by many as indeed a game, and an unfair one.  When something is deemed unfair, rigged, deceitful, then for some of us (okay, many of us), it seems okay to go around it.  The 18th Amendment, which wreaked the havoc of Prohibition upon this country, comes to mind.  It was an experiment in moral niceness that exploded in the faces of its creators, who watched as doctors, lawyers, housewives, heads of industry and even the clergy engaged in wholesale law-breaking and resulted in the establishment of international organized crime.  If a system is viewed as not only unfair but also bone-deep stupid, it’s you who can seem stupid for following the rules.  As the police chief of Topeka, KS, says in the book Last Call, “The girls simply won’t go out with the boys who haven’t got flasks to offer.”


  1. Everybody Does It

According to Ethics Alarms, a blog, the most popular rationalization for doing what one knows is against the rules is a perverse version of the Golden Rule:  “Everybody is doing it, so why don’t I?”  And in fact, if everyone is doing it, is it really still wrong/unethical/immoral/illegal?  That is the rationale most often given by students caught cheating.  And students are tempted to cheat by options us oldsters can scarcely imagine:  thoroughly researched and well-written term papers available on-line on virtually any subject available at low cost.  Who wouldn’t be tempted?


  1. You Win, I Lose

If I don’t do it, aren’t I letting someone else get the better of me?  According to game theory, yes, you are.  One of the standard games in game theory is the “queuing game”.  The classic example given is (duh) that of a group of people waiting to check in at an airline gate.  All of them could sit until called up to the counter, but if someone decides to stand in order to be first, that triggers a queue.  The game developers show mathematically that for the first two people there is a positive payoff but for the rest, a lesser and lesser outcome—in other words, just exactly how it feels.


Another game that seems to apply is the most classic one of all:  “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, in which two people accused of a crime have to decide whether to confess.  If neither confess, they both get a small sentence.  If one confesses and the other doesn’t, the “rat” gets off scot-free and his pal gets slammed with a 5-year hitch.  If both confess, however, they each suffer an equal punishment.  The lesson is that if everyone elects to play the game, everybody loses; you can only hope others are not playing.  Applied to the Southwest scenario, whether you stand in line, or you fake standing in line by using children or baggage, you are playing the game and hoping that others will not, so they lose and you win.  But if everyone is angling for a way around the system, everyone loses in time, efficiency, aggravation.


A Process View


From a process design viewpoint, what Southwest Airlines did with its boarding process is “push” the front end onto its customers.  But instead of designing an orderly, structured method, they applied minimal controls and let customers fend for themselves in policing the system.


The purpose of pushing the process upstream is of course to save money, as Southwest has.  So as technology has advanced, you can see this same technique being applied in many other industries.  Having customers go on-line and input all of their personal data, choose their products, enter their credit card info and order products—all this amounts to pushing the order entry sub-process onto customers.  When it works well, as at Amazon, it’s a wondrous improvement over old-fashioned telephone or mail order shopping.  But when ill-constructed or unsupervised….


So if we were to apply a process improvement approach to the Southwest boarding process, what principles might we attempt to apply?  Something simple (that was probably the initial motivation), understandable, fair and controllable.  Rules known to all, adherence rewarded, violations punished.  So is this what has happened?

The “Improved” System


Once the cattle call approach was abandoned, one could check in on-line 24 hours before boarding and get an assigned number, still in hopes of being in the coveted first-30.  But that system was quickly discovered by the mass of passengers and soon, even if you checked in within 1 second of your 24-hour slot, you could end up with a high number.  In fact, in an experiment a group of seven passengers all checked in on-line at the same instant from different laptops.  You’d think they might get numbers in a close series, like 12, 14, 15… but instead they got wildly divergent numbers.   Turns out there are multiple invisible factors at play, including the type of passenger you are.  While continuing to advertise itself as democratic—no first class, no special favors, the “people’s airline”—there are classes of passengers who get the better seats (namely Business Select and A-List Preferred).  In January 2013 Southwest inaugurated a new wrinkle, allowing you to jump to the head of the line for a $40 fee.  Then in March 2013, they instituted another change, in which in which for $10 you can get an assigned seat automatically.  (But surprise, surprise, surprise, not necessarily a good one.)


Presh Talwalkar is a mathematician, game theorist and author of a lively blog called presh@mindyourdecisions.com, which identifies and dissects games that occur in real life, such as politics and business.  He views the $10 EarlyBird offer from Southwest as a clever Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which you can win (a seat with a low number) only if others don’t pay to do the same thing.


So is the current process design better?  Hardly.  More complex, more options, more difficult to understand, despised more than ever by many passengers, though not all.  But then, when you look at the labyrinth of baggage charges, ticket change charges, seat upgrade charges, and other punishments foisted upon us by the airline industry in general, the Southwest game is almost quaint.  Airports are a wonderland of aggravation and expectations that you will be cheated.  The game is inescapable.


And if we return to the beginning of this article, where I describe how I would stand for an hour because I wanted to be first in line because—dammit–I had ticket #1, I too was playing the game, just as hard as I could—the prisoner of a process I kept trying to bend.


Meanwhile, I long for the day when the leadership team of some airline, somewhere in the universe, holds a strategy meeting and somebody says, “I have an idea for how we can beat the pants off the competition.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“How about customer service?”

“What?  What’s that?”

“Oh, there are lots of things we could do…”





Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, interviewed by CBC News, September 17, 2013.


Dan Heath and Chip Heath, “The Curse of Incentives,” Fast Company, pp. 48-49, February 2009.


Daniel Okrent, Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, pg. 222, Scribner, 2010


Ethics Alarms, blog at WorldPress, September 6, 2013


“How Southwest Determines Your Boarding Card Number, and How You Can Jump the Line for $40”, crankyflier.com, January 24, 2013


Roger McCain, excerpts from a Drexell University course on game theory at faculty.lebow.drexel.edu/mccainr/top/eco/game/game-toc.html


Presh Talwalkar, mindyourdecisions.com blog, March 5, 2013