If this one doesn’t get cannabis lawyers of a weekend we don’t know what will…
Here’s a strange scenario from the rapidly changing world of federal and state marijuana legalization. Let’s say you’re running a completely– on the state level–legal marijuana business in California. Or, by a similar token, you’ve purchased some completely–on the state level–marijuana in Oregon. It’s still illegal to bring your legal marijuana from Oregon–where the product is legal–to California–where the product is also legal. That’s because crossing state lines falls under the purview of the federal government, for which marijuana remains firmly illegal. By the same token, the border patrol might seize your legal marijuana even within the state of California, because the border patrol is a federal agency and follows federal law. Or maybe you’re trying to sell marijuana in Maine, where it’s legal for recreational purposes. That will likely still be illegal, because the state approved recreational marijuana without a framework for selling it.
When Scott Alexander, lead writer for Weedcraft Inc. saw this patchwork quilt of conflicting laws and information, it made a sort of sense to him. It was a mess, he thought.
“It’s a tycoon game,” he says. “Which are all about cleaning up messes.”
That’s how Weedcraft Inc. was born: it’s a tycoon game based around managing the labyrinthian world of the legal and illegal marijuana business, both of which might contradict and overlap in all sorts of ways. I watched about an hour of gameplay from early on in the game: the player was an MBA student returned to Flint, Michigan to care for his ailing father and growing marijuana on the side. At the outset we were small-time, illegal growers, dealing with a suite of decisions that should be familiar to more or less anyone that plays video games: you have to pick plants and take care of them, buy better lights, more expensive soil and the like. You bring them to the street, where you set prices to attract one kind of customer or another and try to balance your spreadsheet.
The decisions get more complicated from there. Maybe you buy a set of better grow lights to get a better yield, but the increased power consumption might attract the attention of the local police. And so officer Steve Polanski shows up at your door: you see that he actually has a favorable view of marijuana or low integrity, and so a little bribe might convince him to be on his way. You might want a more forceful solution, however, and so you might hire an employee to research him for blackmail material. You also might use a little of that muscle higher up the food chain and try to sway politicians to change the laws, taking your business from illegal to legal. You might not want to do that until you’re big enough, however, because legal marijuana will mean steeper and better-funded competition. You’ll also have to start paying taxes and complying with regulation, though oversight officers can be blackmailed as well.
Video games are good at presenting scenarios and decisions that leave the moral commentary up players, and that’s the idea behind Weedcraft inc. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Alexander isn’t exactly on the side of prohibition, and the moral stance of this game is best represented by a sort of Dungeons and Dragons-style alignment chart. You can be illegal or legal, and you can be shady or decent. It’s the latter distinction that gets more interesting.
He uses the example of the Compassionate Care growers in California, who broke the law for years to provide medical marijuana to AIDs patients. He would describe them as illegal/decent. He also used the example of John Boehner, who fought against marijuana legalization for years before taking a seat on the board of large-scale cannabis interest Acreage Holdings. Boehner, Alexander says, would be legal/shady. A legal/shady operator might push for broader legalization but tighter regulation, keeping smaller players out of the business and establishing a monopoly.
And that’s the balance that Alexander describes with the game: like most tycoon games, the bulk of your time is spent trying to get your business in order and making sure that revenue exceeds expenses. But the peculiarities of your business add in an entirely different layer, one where decisions that boost your bottom line might come at the expense of your conscience–as well as tech trees linked to each alignment, because we’re still playing a video game here. But playing decent is still a tougher challenge than playing shady, because the tycoon world rarely rewards the nice.
Weedcraft inc. is due out in 2019, and I’m looking forward both to seeing how the later gameplays out as well as a few years from now when this game is a curious artifact of a very strange legal moment.