The revelations of the Panama Papers this past week have rocked the world. The “biggest leak in the history of data journalism,” as described by Edward Snowden, implicated hundreds of the world’s wealthy elite (such as the PM of Iceland, British PM David Cameron’s father, and soccer star Lionel Messi) in tax evasion schemes coordinated by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, stashing billions of dollars away from the prying eyes of government auditors in offshore tax havens around the world. We will all likely spend a long time trying to wrap our heads around the full extent and implications of the leak (which is orders of magnitude larger than similar previous revelations), but fortunately this simple text adventure news game is here to help you grok the basics.
Stairway to Tax Heaven was published this week by the Toronto Star as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that have been poring over the 11.5 million leaked documents for the last year. The game casts you as one of three different figures representing the implicated archetypes — a soccer star, a politician, and a businessman. A large windfall of money has fallen into your lap, and you want to hide it from the authorities, whether because you simply don’t want to pay taxes on it, or you want to distance yourself from its dubious source. Each of the three scenarios walks you through a series of choices for how to handle the money, breaking down the complicated process of offshore intermediaries into bite-size chunks. Terms of art such as “registered agent” and “due diligence” are conveniently defined when hovered over.
On the one hand, most of the choices you can make lead to failure, showing how tricky it can be to evade national tax authorities and leave a minimal paper or digital trail. The game highlights that risk by showing that certain steps have a chance of failure regardless of what you choose to do.
On the other, though, Mossack Fonseca has built its business on guiding people through this process, and the immensity of the Panama Papers leaks shows just how pervasive these practices are on a global scale. Stairway to Tax Heaven is a chilling reminder of the radically different resources wealthy people have at their disposal to retain that wealth, and how easy it can be to slip between the cracks of sovereign nations when you have the means. You can play it now over on the Toronto Star’s website.