Decentralise! – The Game

This is a game for adults that I imagined to explain the principle and the advantages of the Internet decentralisation. It is supposed to be presented as a workshop for #openschoool. It hasn’t been tested yet, so it might actually not work in practice! Also, feel free to suggest critics and improvements.

What is needed:

  • a normal card deck;
  • between 5 and 13 participants, plus the “game leader”.

Presentation from the “game leader”:

Welcome to the “Decentralise!” game. Each of you is an Internet user willing to communicate with the others. The cards represent private messages to be sent using your favorite social network (to make it easier, we don’t play with public messages). On the table we will imagine some Internet servers able to receive your messages: each server is a pile of cards. At the beginning, we will play with only one server, so you will all play on the same pile. We will increase progressively the number of servers until you understand the benefice of using decentralised Internet applications.

There are two types of messages:

  • black color is for safe messages. For example: pictures from your last holidays, what you had for lunch and if it was good or not, video of a cat jumping around the camera, small talks with your friends…
  • red color is for sensitive messages, any content that might not please the people who govern you. For example: critics of the Prime Minister, organisation for tomorrow’s demonstration, expression of support toward Wikileaks or Edward Snowden, anarchist or alterglobalist organisations, complains about the massive surveillance in the subway or articles pointing out the increasing coercion of the actual regime…

By the way, I forgot to present myself: I am a spy working for the national security agency. My goal is to catch your messages, as many as possible, and if I don’t like what I read, I will denounce you to my superiors who have the ability to turn your life into a misery. For each of you, this is what you have to be prepared to if I signal you:

  • 1 time: you will be put on a special list for active surveillance;
  • 2 times: you will be considered as a potential terrorist and your professional career will no more evolve;
  • 3 times: someone you don’t know will bring rape charges against you or you will be accused of belonging to a pedophile organisation;
  • 4 times: your passport will be cancelled, your bank account blocked and a cell is waiting for you in the jail for political prisoners.

You got it? So now, how to play. It’s very easy. It’s not really a game, there’s not a lot of fun, the goal of it is just to understand the principle of decentralisation. Each of you receive four cards with the same number or figure (jacket, queen, king): the four aces to user number 1, user number 2 gets the four “2”, user number 3 gets the four “3”… [etc. in the sitting order until everybody got his number or figure]

We don’t play with the rest of the cards. You will play turn by turn, the player sitting on my right starts and we follow the order until it comes back to me. When it’s your turn, you pick a card from your hand and depose it on the table on the server of your choice (at the beginning there’s only one so you have no choice), face down so nobody sees the card. Finally, when it’s my turn, I will also select one and only one server, and pick N cards from it in order to control them.

[N value depends of the numbers of users. See in the end of the presentation the table giving the suggested values to use.]

[Play the first round.]

Ok, let’s see what I got here… I keep the red cards with me for later, and the rest (black cards that I controlled and the cards left on the server) are normally delivered to their recipients. To make the game easier, we just put them aside but you can imagine that the server is distributing them to who you want. Then we continue like that until you have no card left.

[Play the 3 resting rounds.]

Well, I intercepted in total [count the red cards and say it] red cards during this game. And in detail: you, player 1, I see that you are a terrorist! Players 2 and 3 have been put on a special list, but apparently they were just kidding a bit… good boys. But you, number 4! You are searched by Interpol! [etc. for all the players]

Let’s play again, a second game exactly the same way but this time, we will add some servers so we now have X of them, and the ability for you to really choose your server.

[As for N, X value also depends of the numbers of users. See the table again.]

Don’t forget that the spy, at the end of each round, can select from only one server the N cards that he will control. So your goal, as Internet users willing to protect your privacy and your freedom, is to make a smart use of all the servers in order to decrease the effect of my surveillance.

[Play the 4 rounds of the second game. Users should distribute their messages equally on each server, not put all of them on the same.]

What did I got this time? [bla bla bla] Mmm, during the first game I collected more red cards than now, damn servers!

Ok, you start to understand what’s going on. Let’s play a last one with this time a total of Y servers.

[As for N and X, suggested values for Y are given in the tab.]

[Play the 4 rounds of the third game. Again the users should use all the servers and the spy can only select one. There should be only a few cards on each pile, less than N. For the spy, it’s like fishing with a huge net to catch a couple of small fishes. This shows that the surveillance with many servers is not profitable enough, because to control a server costs the same regardless the number of messages it handles.]

Damn it! I was so ineffective this time that I got fired by my boss… you won! Let’s make the appropriate conclusion: the more servers you, the users, you use, the better your privacy and freedom are protected. In the reality it’s of course much more complicated, but it stays true. For example, suppose that before being able to control the messages on a service provider, the surveillance agency has to pass a deal with it. If there are numerous service providers, the agency may focus on the bigger ones and leave the smaller ones in peace.

Even better, if every user has the ability to become a server itself (and this is how a properly decentralised system, like the standard email network, works), and if you don’t trust any other server you can just make your own at home, and fully control your data. This is called self-hosting.

A further step of decentralisation exists, it is sometimes called “peer to peer”. It simply means that the users communicate directly between each others, without using a server, or you can say that each user is also a server. To spy on this kind of networks, the agency will have to individually spy each of us. This might be possible in theory, but we guess that it will make it so hard that in practice, it won’t be done.

Just for fun, imagine now that we play our game again in a “peer to peer” mode, so each of you will not play the cards on the table but will directly pass it to the player of your choice. With the same rules as before, I have no server to control, no pile to pick some cards from, and all your messages are safely transmitted… Conclusion: if you want it done right, do it yourself!

The schemas are taken from the principles page of Salut à Toi (a decentralised Internet application). No need to show them during the game. I’m actually not sure if they make it easier to understand or more complicated… let me know.

Below you can find the table with the suggested value for N (number of cards controlled by the spy at each round), X (number of servers during the second game) and Y (number of servers during the third game). During the first game, there’s always only 1 server, regardless the number of player.

Number of users N X Y
5 4 2 3
6 4 2 3
7 5 2 4
8 5 2 4
9 6 3 5
10 6 3 5
11 7 3 6
12 7 3 6
13 8 4 7


With this small “game”, we want to show that the over-surveillance of the Internet is not a fatality. It has been built since the beginning as a decentralised network, it is decentralised by essence. This is good for privacy because, as we saw during the game, using many different service providers make it more difficult for the governments to spy.

What makes the Internet of today a place of heavy centralisation (a few entities like Google, Facebook, Twitter… control most of the information) is the usage that we make of it. It is possible to change that. We can decide to change our habits, replace the services we daily use with decentralised alternatives and, as in the game, add a lot of servers. I mean to add servers that are independently managed. Google having thousands of servers just count as one because they are all managed with the same policies. To collaborate with the governments are one of their policies, so that the people who are supposed to serve you can easily track you. As a matter of fact, it’s not always for your security, but sometimes to put you down if you dare to oppose a resistance to the rise of a totalitarian power.

The Internet is in great danger, and since it is the major communication medium of our era, freedom of speech is in danger, and then comes the whole society itself. (Adrien, dieKulturvermittlung, 05.09.2015)

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