I’m a dictator, and things are pretty good. I’ve just rigged re-election for my second term, got the press more or less under my thumb, and I have a load of fancy cars, boats, and houses scattered around the world to escape to if things go south. There’s just one problem—I can’t get this goddam money-laundering investigator off my back.
Right now, he’s homing in on the cash I picked up from fabricating a state emergency and handing the security contract to a mate. (Don’t raise your eyebrows like that, reader—I’m hardly the first leader to use a national calamity for personal ends.)
Such are the dilemmas faced by players of Kleptocrat, a phone game designed by the Mintz Group investigations firm, which traces hidden assets around the world. The game’s aim is to demystify the way kleptocrats hide their cash, improving the public’s understanding of how the offshore world works. It’s a notoriously difficult thing to explain—with reports like the Panama Papers tending to rely on headache-inducing maps breaking down every shell company and jurisdiction the kleptocrat’s cash has passed through. Those do a great job of showing just how complex offshoring is, but aren’t much help for the average reader trying to get their head round what’s actually going on.
This game disposes of all the confusing networks, paperwork, and legal chicanery, giving players visceral insight into the surreal tastes and utter amorality of kleptocrats. You might find yourself stealing defibrillators from impoverished hospitals, then using that cash to shoot elephants on a rare game safari (an activity enjoyed by both president Donald Trump’s sons and by recently-deposed Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe alike). Based on schemes uncovered in real investigations, the game gives you a firsthand look at the plethora of options available to kleptocrats looking to use loot stolen from their countries’ taxpayers.
Take, for example, my trusty accountant’s plan to deal with that pesky investigator. We put the money in a shell company which is owned via bearer shares. That means that whoever physically holds the piece of paper is the owner of the company; I can hold on to the share or give it to a friend for safe-keeping, and my name’s nowhere near the cash. I’m also in great company: former British prime minister David Cameron’s late dad used to love using these when he ran a Bahamas-based wealth management firm. Their main downside? It’s a nightmare if you lose the papers and your whole company effectively disappears, as German billionaire Joachim zu Baldernach once had the misfortune of finding out.
All good for me, though. With the detective looking the other way for a minute, I can get a lackey to carry a briefcase full of cash around the world and buy me one of Elvis’s original “Starburst” jumpsuits. You may laugh, but I’ve been riddled with envy ever since I read about Teodoro Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, getting his hands on Michael Jackson’s “Bad Tour” glove.
The game also handily introducers players to the enormous web of people across the West who, as Quartz has investigated, are more than happy to help stash your stolen cash or clean up your reputation for a—relatively small—fee. Accountants, offshore lawyers, structuring lawyers, real estate agents, travel agents, and bank managers are all standing by to help kleptocrats. Normal people, whom you may well know in real life, are profiteers of global corruption.
The main issue with Kleptocrat is that it’s far too difficult to be realistic—try as I might, I just can’t get beyond a third term. The game’s information page has a disclaimer: “By the way, before you think of using Kleptocrat for ideas on actually hiding your money, just remember: In all the cases we studied, sooner or later the corrupt officials were exposed.”
Unfortunately, history shows that officials whose corruption is exposed aren’t necessarily ousted. The Panama Papers exposed a score of national leaders or people close to them. The prime minister of Iceland quickly resigned, but he’s the head of a tiny, democratic island. Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif followed a year later, but not one of Pakistan’s 18 prime ministers has completed a full term in office—and there are questions as to whether the case against Sharif was driven more by internal politics than genuine outrage over his alleged corruption.
Authoritarian regimes, meanwhile, were barely touched. The most high-profile Chinese person to lose his job over the revelations was the Hong Kong newspaper editor who published them. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev batted away the reports with little fuss. Mugabe was forced out of office not because of the $1 billion he has allegedly stolen, but because he riled too many political rivals by lining up his wife to succeed him.
The game’s wily, unstoppable detective also makes offshore corruption seem far, far more risky than it actually is. The amount of wealth stashed offshore has been estimated at 10% of global GDP by UC Berkley economist Gabriel Zucman. Yet we only know about a tiny sliver of what’s going on—mostly because of massive leaks like the Panama and Paradise Papers. In reality, corrupt elites can simply hire a web of crafty lawyers and accountants, who’ll spend an immense amount of intellect and creativity on concocting complex schemes so kleptocrats can enjoy their plunder.