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Bill Coffin | July 25, 2017

In my spare time, I play a lot of video games, and so does my 14-year-old son, Connor. From a very young age, he would sit in my lap as I played some game, and I’d let him handle the controls as soon as he could handle them. I remember him watching as I played the Grand Theft Auto series—an open-world game in which you go anywhere and interact with the environment in any number of ways, but you advance the story mainly by directing your character to commit all kinds of violent crime. I let Connor play along with that one, too, but we had some very different rules. No stealing anything. No hurting anybody. No breaking the law. And we had a blast driving around cars we bought in-game, jumping motorcycles over ravines, running in races, and so on. The game as designed was not the game we played. In many ways, the game we played was better.

Over the years, I’ve kept a close eye on Connor. There is always the risk of kids diving too deep into video games and picking up some bad habits along the way, so as he shares his experiences with me, I try to give him course corrections as needed. Connor is a solid young man with a strong moral center, and he has no interest in playing games that model abhorrent behavior. He does, however, get a kick out of exploiting technicalities, so I’ve had to lay a few specific restrictions on him. No paying extra money to win the game. (If anything will destroy modern video games, it’ll be micro-transactions.) No cheating, whether it’s using cheat codes or hacking into the game or anything like that. And likewise, no taking advantage of a known flaw in the game to step around the game’s challenges as designed. There’s not much point to winning if you can’t do it cleanly.

Recently, he picked up a superhero fighting game in which you can level up your character bit by bit, battle after battle. Impatient, Connor wrote a computer program that enabled his game to auto-play and grind out the leveling rewards while he slept. It wasn’t pay to play. It wasn’t cheating. And it wasn’t exploiting. It was … brilliant, really. But it still gave me pause. Why did you spend all that money just to have a game play itself? Turns out, building this workaround was as much fun for him as was playing the game. I couldn’t fault him there. He says he wants to pursue computer programming and robotics when he grows up; he’s already designing a small mechanical robot to auto-play other games for him, too. I guess rules have exceptions for a reason.

Compliance gets ridiculed often for being the stop sign, or the speed bump, or the department of “no” within an organization. On the flip side, I have heard compliance professionals say that the faster a sports car can go, the better the brakes it needs. So, this push and pull between breaking boundaries and respecting why they’re there goes far beyond how my son plays video games. Any compliance professional can appreciate this. But as I watched Connor innovate his way around a gaming console, I got a glimpse at the reality that makes compliance so necessary and so tricky at the same time. You can innovate within the scope of the law, but you can’t innovate within a culture that tells you not to bother trying. And given how much we prize innovation as the engine that drives our business, our culture, and out society, we have to learn to accommodate that certain disregard for established ways of doing things from which innovation springs. Sometimes, perhaps the most valuable part of compliance is knowing when to say yes. Maybe I’ll ask Connor to build a game-playing robot for me, too.