A new video game lets players experience what drug companies do to turn a tidy profit.
"To succeed, you'll need to master both the engineering ... and your conscience."
What's it take to run a gazillion-dollar drug company?
Chances are, you don't know the answer to that. And it's OK because most of us don't work in C-suites. But it doesn't mean we can't offer something relevant and helpful like, for instance, basic humanity. (Don't laugh just yet.)
The video game "Big Pharma" invites players to get cozy in the CEO's chair and call all the shots.
But winning the game isn't as straightforward as most games you've played.
The object of the game is to get a drug factory up and running.
You have a very clear goal: make and sell drugs. And you have a budget for buying equipment and supplies and hiring people to make those drugs. Simple, right? Well, it gets hairier.
Along the way, you're also challenged with tough ethical choices.
Like any real-life pharmaceutical company, your foremost priority is to generate a profit. As a business simulation, the game factors in market competition and even fluctuating demand, which will affect how your drugs are priced.
And as in reality, the more sophisticated your equipment, purer your ingredients, and labor-intensive your process, the more expensive are your drugs. Therein lies your first dilemma:
To cut corners or not to cut corners?
Each ingredient in your product has both desired effects (e.g., pain relief) and undesired side effects (e.g., nausea). The best possible version of a painkiller, for example, is one that does nothing more than relieve pain.
But creating the ideal painkiller requires fancier equipment, more personnel, and rarer ingredients that can end up significantly driving up your costs. So do you settle for selling a drug that relieves pain but makes patients want to barf? Your call.
The game also shows you geographically where various diseases exist and where you stand to make the most money, which raises an even larger ethical question:
Do you follow the money or do you follow the greatest need?
In an interview with Motherboard, the game's creator, Tim Wicksteed, gives an example of the sort of choice players might face:
“A cure for hair loss is a relatively small market but is highly valuable to the rich Westerners who demand it. Whereas an antimalarial drug is in very high demand but can't sustain such a high price, because most of the demand is coming from people living in poorer countries."
The key is in finding balance. But is balance truly possible?
There is a fundamental tension between the financial interests of a giant drug company and the human interests of disease sufferers. Wicksteed notes as much to Motherboard:
“People are incentivised to make decisions for the good of the company or themselves to the detriment of patients. This is very human. ... The problem with this in the pharmaceutical industry is that it can lead to human suffering, or worse, death.
It's because of this that I try to avoid overtly demonising the industry in the game, and prefer to simply place the player in a position of power and ask 'what would you do?'"
That's what sets "Big Pharma" apart from other games trying to deliver a real-world statement. We often come at complex topics like this in simplistic ways: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. But reality isn't always so simple.
The game illustrates that companies (all institutions, really) need smart, savvy, and ethical people calling the shots when the consequences are this far-reaching. If I were
a drug kingpin CEO of a pharmaceutical conglomerate, I like to think I'd do the job with honor and empathy. But like Wicksteed, it's not my job. So I'll take his cue and pass on the gazillion-dollar question:
If you were faced with a decision to honor your humanity or turn a profit, what would you do?
Check out the "Big Pharma" beta release trailer: