In Sept. 1998 , Arthur Levitt, then chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, called for a cultural change on Wall Street in response to risky business behavior he observed in the practice of earnings management. Hinging the success of America’s capitalist markets on transparent, timely and reliable financial statements, he warned that the trust of investors in the market economy is vital in the maintenance of a stable and predictable marketplace. Levitt remarked that the game earnings management had become would someday damage America’s financial reporting system would reflect an erosion of Wall Street’s integrity. Earnings management is not an inherently malicious practice; it is often justified as a means of stabilizing markets and reporting numbers that more comprehensively account for earnings and future earnings. However, it is also known as a form of accounting that may technically adhere to legal accounting practices, but deviate from the implicit intentions or spirit of the law because it is often self-policed within businesses and corporations. I borrow from Michael Akers, Don Giavomino, and Jodi Bellovary’s recognition of the practice “as attempts by management to influence or manipulate reported earnings by using specific accounting methods (or changing methods), recognizing one-time non-recurring items, deferring or accelerating expense or revenue transactions, or using other methods designed to influence short-term earnings”. The repackaging of sub prime mortgage loans, for example, contributed both to the short-term earnings of many Wall St. companies, and to the wide scope of the largest financial meltdown of the decade in 2007 . Consequently, the maintenance of integrity (and its importance) on Wall St. has not been overlooked by scholars or others; some consequences to unethical practice are:
- aggressive earnings reports create an artificial benchmark for a future generation of managers that then have to surpass without the guaranteed means to do so (Arnott, 2004);
- overstated earnings must be covered by future earnings, which can snowball financial shortcomings (Arnott, 2004);
- when markets go bust, governments and regulatory bodies sometimes over-react, which can hinder market recovery (Arjoon, 2006).
As Swagel (2009), Trevino, Brown, and Wall (2004) have discussed, though, while an organization’s instinctual reaction to ethical misbehaving is to identify a culprit who can be punished and removed from the system, such knee-jerking does little to address the reasons why ethical malpractice are afoot in businesses in and around Wall St  . Trevino, Brown, and Wall (2004) argue that most unethical behavior precipitates in environments where such behavior is supported by the context in which it occurs—either through direct reinforcement or through benign neglect . To explore this context, or culture, in which financial analysts and accountants are encouraged to make unethical decisions, this essay will analyze the ways in which culture and practice in both the financial investments industry and videogame industry overlap. This essay will also offer a brief textual analysis of WallStreetSurvivor.com, a simulation and website that claims to acculturate users to stock market trading. Unethical behavior is also found in game design and player culture within the purview of videogame play. Virtual, anonymous spaces have a reputation for breeding misogynistic, homophobic, and racist environments (Phillips, 2012; Gambit Hate Speech Project); Mia Consalvo has recently detailed contemporary examples of what she calls “toxic gamer culture” that details this persistent reality for players (Consalvo, 2012). As T. L. Taylor notes in her analysis of dialogue at professional e-gaming events, “talk can certainly be smattered with misogynistic or, at the least, retrograde notions about women. The notion that women are just inherently not going to ever be as good at computer games as men is all too common” (2005, 117). The gendering of men as technical or mechanical purveyors and women as interpersonal sandbags is nothing new, and it isn’t limited to the sanctity of game play. As Julie Nelson points out in her analysis of neoclassical economics,
“Care and conscience are often thought to be part of our social, interpersonal, emotional, and spiritual life. As caregivers, we see ourselves as involved in morally valuable activities that we do for their own sake, or for the good of others. Commerce, on the other hand, is often thought to be part of our rational, self-interested, crass, and economic life.” (2007)
In her analysis, Nelson concludes that when people use mechanical analogies for economic systems, they mistakenly position economic decisions as either ethically-situated or market-driven, and that this mistake is in part related to our perceptions of gender (2007). Much like Wall Street, the videogame industry is a male-centric and male-celebrated space, where participating in hegemonic masculine discourse is foundational to active community participation (Fang & Huang, 2011; Cassell & Jenkins, 1998). In many ways, male and industry culture in both the business and videogame industries overlap: gendered “gaps” exist in areas like pay and employee demographics, men are more commonly found in positions of power, and both camps are subject to an endless slew of online or book-bound “confessions” that detail either sexist behavior towards women or hostile work environments      .The gendered nature of these spaces makes them echo chambers for hegemonic masculine discourse, an exclusive culture that negotiates notions of manhood, whether men actively or consciously participate within the discourse or not (Donaldson, 1993; Connell, 1997). Taylor and many others have documented performances of masculinity in gamer and tech culture at large (2012), but what do those same performances look like amongst financial analysts? Corporate CEOs? Accountants? Connell and Messerschmidt suggest that “Masculinities are configurations of practice that are accomplished in social action and, therefore, can differ according to the gender relations in a particular social setting” (2005). In her work on low-power FM radio communities, Christina Dunbar-Hester studied the identities people constructed around their technology and work; “technical mastery itself is a well-documented means of displaying masculinity,” (2008) she wrote. As Dunbar-Hester and many others have noted, masculinity can have nothing to do with one’s brawn; I suggest this as a starting point for thinking about how masculinity is negotiated amongst men whose performance is defined by their technical mastery in competitive spaces. In her analysis of gendered play, Elena Bertozzi points out that men rewarded themselves in ranking each other within play as a measurement of themselves against other men; “There is always the opportunity to make the attempt to prove yourself as better than you were the last time….Competitiveness between males is overt, socially acceptable and rewarded by status” (2011, 449). In videogames, leader boards and high scores abound; on Wall St., the stock market evaluation for business and corporations serves the same purpose. The favoring of traditional masculine forms of competition and social recognition positions both game spaces and financial markets to exclude traditionally “feminine” forms of competition and behavior by default (Elias, 2008; Bertozzi, 2011). The elision of morality and interpersonal relationships as market drivers or political forces from dominant discourses is both sexist and not reflective of how economics works outside of a game (Nelson, 2007). As a flood of texts on the culture of Wall St. and elsewhere in the business world will attest, rather than receiving positive reinforcement for making informed, ethical business decisions, people involved in business culture are more frequently rewarded on the basis of numbers alone, which suggests that the practices in and around accounting are perceived as a game—not a stable and fixed system of fair and equitable commerce that protects investors    . The online WallStreetSurvivor simulation highlights this perceived double-talk; the literature describing the game claims to democratize the knowledge and skill behind virtual stock market trading, while simultaneously codifying who traders are and how investment decisions are made. WallStreetSurvivor (WSS) is an internet-based, fantasy stock market simulator that professes to educate people about financial investing practices. Conceptually, it is a web service that designers describe as a “collaborative social network platform;” users are referred to as “Survivors” . Survivors participate within the social network community by exchanging strategies and trading virtual stocks within a fantasy economy. The economy is predicated and responsive to real-world data from the Wall St. Stock Exchange. How Survivors use the simulator varies and has changed over the lifetime of the web service. Survivors can “follow” the activity of other users; participate in “Missions” to “learn” about basic stock market strategies and terminologies; join or create “Leagues” to compete against the market portfolios of other users; and, buy fake stock shares with $100k in virtual money to curate a fantasy stock market portfolio. Virtual money in the game cannot be converted into real-world money, but active and “successful” users can earn cash money through sponsored contests moderated by WSS developers. “Successful” users experience market gains on their market portfolios, and are prominently featured on the website as community members; Survivors with declining portfolios are not featured. WallStreetSurvivor has experienced 3 iterations in its lifetime; it was initially launched as a self-branded game in 2007, then the company partnered with Bunchball to beta launch a new web service in 2011. The beta went live in 2012, at which point WSS was rebranded as an educational, fantasy simulation service. The rebranding of WSS as a fantasy simulation positioned it within an ever-growing market of products that promise to teach users how to navigate the risks of financial investment, though it remains unclear how developers for WSS distinguish the service from other virtual stock market games. The supposition that the simulation is not a game, though propelled by game mechanics, is reflected on the “About” webpage for WSS:
“At first we built Wall Street Survivor as a game. And it became the biggest fantasy stock market simulator in the world. Yet we learned from our hundreds of thousands of users that you did not come to play. You came to learn” .
Functionally, there are few differences between WSS the game and WSS the simulation. By definition, though, a simulator must imitate the appearance or character of something else. As a simulacrum for the real world industry, WSS makes many claims about Wall St. stock trading in the “curriculum” offered by WSS developers. Videos made available to educate users are subtexts that suggest—visually and practically—who trades stocks on Wall Street, how a user should assess risk, and what successful trading looks like. While Survivors can utilize an in-game “Research Center” that provides “personalized market data, charts, a stock screener, earnings calendar, a watch list, …news and other research tools that broaden your market knowledge and confidence so you can make informed trading and investment decisions,” often the emphasis on how to use the simulation is individualized and decisions are “logically” inherent and not researched. The news feed, for example, does not explicate on the reasons why anyone decided to buy or sell stock, which mystifies the decision-making process of other Survivors. WSS may not be publicized as a game, but it isn’t entirely representative of how stock market trading works either. That it uses game mechanics similar to those employed by Facebook and other social media by holding and trading stocks underscores the narratological function of framing WSS as a simulation; the use of “simulator” in place of “game” serves to employ the mythic notion that economic markets are mechanical in nature, as described by Nelson (2007). The language surrounding WSS—that suggests stock trading is an educated science available to anyone—also contrasts with visual representations that picture or describe traders as either faceless or predominantly white males who never seem to actively engage in research or learning. The repetitive depictions of animated “Survivors” in the WSS curriculum as white men suggests both a reflection of perceived power on Wall St. and sexist notions on the part of WSS animators. In these videos women are often not subjects engaged in business practices; when women are incorporated, they are often associated with mainstream notions of feminine business ownership—the few women featured own a home, own a bakery, buy gold, or work for “Regressive.”
Faceless, ambiguous white men star in most of the tutorial videos as characters looking for money through a cheap or uncomplicated trick. For men, the stock market is repetitiously drawn as a vehicle for acquiring wealth for the support of other projects and endeavors, which demonstrates, perhaps unintentionally, an ideology around stock trading that deviates from the spirit of WSS—that stock trading is something anyone can do and that should do with care. Despite scholars who call attention to the contrary, there persists a rhetoric in popular culture around both game spaces and financial markets that describes virtual, algorithmic spaces as truly democratic (Nakamura, 2002; Taylor, 2012). If you don’t like the game, don’t play it. If you don’t support a business, don’t buy its products. If you want to learn, there are spaces on the Internet where you are free to do so. In the virtual world, people have the liberty to construct their perceived identity however they like, and the only person standing in the way of your participation in most any given space is you. However, as Lisa Nakamura has pointed out, this perceived agency obscures both the gendered, racial, and/or classist privilege (or lack thereof) that people have in culturally policed spaces (2002, 139). Consider, for example, that accountants and financial analysts are part of an established corporate hierarchy that subjugates their labor to people who aren’t obligated (or necessarily encouraged) to reward moral or ethical behavior. If an employee’s principles interfere with a corporation’s ability to appear or be profitable, what incentive exists to retain that employee with the company? In an environment that doesn’t practice ethics, employees aren’t cued to practice them either. Despite a vocal desire by many within videogame communities to be inclusive by nature, the ubiquitous celebration of white supremacist and patriarchal ideology in videogame culture likewise erodes the potential for everyone to be and feel celebrated for their videogame play (Embrick, 2012). While it’s well and good to express a longing desire for fair and equitable systems of play or engagement, it’s nigh impossible to experience fairness and equality within spaces that privilege ways of thinking, being, or behaving. If anyone on Wall St. is going to be swayed from unethical behavior, the inclination isn’t going to come from selectively removing the frauds. Expect a change if and when corporate leaders decide to alter the game mechanics at work to broaden the presently narrowed definition of success.