Mike Bucks

A friend wanted to encourage betting on the dice game threes during their birthday party. Knowing that betting on dice is more exciting and attractive when playing with physical currency I thought I’d bring a bunch of extra one dollar bills and “sell” them to people using Venmo. But the bank was closed on the weekend and the two stores I went to didn’t have singles to spare.

But if people were going to pay me for singles, then I could just sell them an IOU and buy it back. Perhaps not as fun as real money, but I had Kathryn design Mike Bucks specifically for the event with a unique design, printed them on high quality paper, and cut them out.

By the time I arrived I had laid the basic framework for Mike Bucks.

  1. Value and Conversion: Established a conversion rate for Mike Bucks relative to a standard currency (e.g., 1 Mike Buck = 1 USD). This simplifies understanding its value.
  2. Distribution: Sell Mike Bucks in physical form (like printed paper money). Participants exchange real money for Mike Bucks or they can play with real money.
  3. Usage: Mike Bucks are used as a currency during the event, mostly for betting, but for any purpose. This standardizes the value and allows side bets.
  4. Time Limit: Mike Bucks are valid only for the duration of the event. After the event, Mike Bucks can no longer be used or exchanged.
  5. Redemption: Participants can cash in their Mike Bucks for money with me acting as the bank. Seeing redemptions builds trust in the currency.
  6. Security Features: The unique design, size, and material make it nearly impossible to counterfeit during the course of the event.

It ended up being more fun to play with Mike Bucks than actual money. I have two theories about why:

Psychological Distance from Real Money: Using a bespoke currency like Mike Bucks creates a psychological separation from real money. This can make participants more comfortable with the idea of betting and potentially more willing to take risks they wouldn’t with real money.

Not unlike a casino using chips, Mike Bucks reduce the pain of loss associated with gambling because the player is one step removed from actual money. The mind has far less of a connection and history with Mike Bucks than with dollars.

Novelty and Theme: The novelty of a unique currency adds an element of fun and playfulness to the event. It creates a more immersive and playful atmosphere more like playing Monopoly than actual betting. The design and feel of paper money helps create the “Magic Circle” that game designers talk about.

The magic circle in games refers to the psychological and physical boundary that separates the game world from the real world. For example, we can be bitter enemies in a game and still be friends in real life. The magic circle is a place within the game where we play by a different set of rules and social norms.

Playing betting games, even for real stakes, with Mike Bucks helps create a unique world that feels distinct from reality and this separation means that even a non-gambler is allowed, within this magic circle, to make bets. The rough hand-drawn design reinforces the low stakes and temporary nature of the experience, adding to a game-like feeling.


Stumbling on the idea of Mike Bucks made me think of other magic circle economic structures I’ve played with in the past. Obviously KmikeyM itself could be seen in this light, but also my love of burning money (especially in public), and the idea of re-creating an onion futures market.

Looking at these examples I find myself drawn to the edges of the magic circle and wanting to make those edges more porous. The blending of the agreed temporary reality within the circle vs the “actual” long term reality outside the circle makes people uncomfortable because it highlights how much of our existing reality is just an invented game (like the concept of money, religion, borders, etc.).

Based on my poor understanding of Hakim Bey’s TAZ I’ve been grouping my experiments with these ideas into a concept called a TEZ, or Temporary Economic Zone. Mike Bucks is perhaps the most perfect example of a TEZ as it creates an overlapping space of the magic circle and the “real world.” From this example we can extrapolate a framework for what a TEZ is and/or could be:

  1. Temporary Nature: TEZ emphasize temporariness. A TEZ is set up for a limited period of time and/or space. It is meant to explore alternative social, economic, or cultural norms within its designated time and space.
  2. Autonomy and Experimentation: The TEZ is a space for experimentation and mistakes. In the context of a TEZ, this specifically applies to economic activities and monetary systems, allowing for the exploration of alternative economic models or currencies, like the use of Mike Bucks or concepts like demurrage.
  3. Challenging Conventional Boundaries: A TEZ challenges traditional economic systems and practices, while also confronting societal and cultural norms. This aligns with the idea of blurring the lines in the magic circle, where the game’s environment intermingles with real-world elements. This overlap of real and game allows us ethical and legal flexibility.
  4. Creating Immersive Experiences: A TEZ, while temporary and playful, is immersive and serious. The creation of a unique economic environment can enhance engagement, creativity, and a sense of community and/or animosity among participants.
  5. Social and Economic Critique: A TEZ can act as a critique or exploration of economic systems, offering insights into alternative ways of managing economies and understanding value and highlighting the arbitrary nature of the current systems in place.
  6. Ethical and Legal Considerations: A TEZ can require careful consideration of ethical and practical implications, especially when intersecting with real-world laws, regulations, and societal norms. The blending of reality and the magic circle works in both directions.

Community currencies, the concept of Temporary Economic Zones (TEZ), and the creation of “Mike Bucks” all represent explorations of economic systems outside traditional boundaries. Community currencies, like the Wörgl Experiment or modern equivalents, challenge conventional monetary norms to stimulate local economies and foster community cohesion.

The TEZ concept extends this idea further, creating a space for temporary economic experimentation. “Mike Bucks,” as a specialized, event-specific currency, embodies these principles on a micro-scale, offering an immersive, playful experience that pushes the boundaries of the ‘magic circle’ in games thinking.

Seen together, these concepts encourage us all to rethink the role of money, value, and community in our economic systems (or economics in our community systems?), opening doors to creative and potentially transformative approaches to finance and social interaction.

Which is to say, money isn’t real.