Jon Cassie is an educator, writer, podcaster and game designer based in Southern California. See his work at Game Level LearnIlinx and SchoolNEXT.

A Gamer's Take on the 2016 American Election

The mechanism by which Donald Trump will assume the American presidency has had my gamer's hackles up ever since Election Day. For the second time since 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote is not going to be president. Why? Because of the mechanism mentioned in the previous sentence - the Electoral College. There's ample conversation and discussion about most of the inadequacies of the Electoral College, but my perspective as a lifelong game player is this: the Electoral College is an example of a terrible game mechanic because it confuses the win state of the game.

What?

A well-designed game has a single win state. Just one. And it's clear. Monopoly (not a great game, but properly designed) ends when every player but one has been eliminated from play due to bankruptcy. Settlers of Catan ends when one player scores 10 points. Badly designed games do not do this well. 

The Electoral College is a classic example of not doing this well. Why? Because without exception every other election in the United States is decided by the popular vote. The most important election in the country, rather than being decided in the same way that every other election is decided, is instead decided by an 18th century edifice designed to manage the will of the people and increase the voting power of the slave interest. That's bad enough. Worse still is the fact that even though the popular vote doesn't matter at all in the presidential election, that vote tally is nevertheless reported to the whole country. A reasonable alien from another planet would see this state of affairs and assume she'd landed in Cuckooland, not a republic that professes to be the gold standard model for doing democratic government for the rest of Earth.

Imagine how this might work in the World Series, gloriously won this year by Chicago's own Cubs. In baseball, if you've got the most runs at the end of nine innings, you win that game. Win four games before your opponent does and you win the World Series. Easy to understand. One way to win that's clear to understand. And it's the only way to win the World Series.

But in a Cuckooland version of the World Series, it works like this. The rules of winning for every regular season game, divisional series and league championship series are modified. The teams will play seven games. At the end of the seven games, a victory committee will be empaneled. Whichever team has the most hits over seven games in the first, third and eighth innings, will get 12 votes on that panel per inning. Teams that had the fewest errors in the second inning get 3 votes on that panel. Teams that score the most runs in the fourth and the ninth innings get 17 votes per inning. The teams that give up the least runs and hits combined in the fifth and seventh innings earn 9 votes per inning on the panel. The sixth inning doesn't matter and earns no votes. Once the seven games have been played, the victor committee votes to decide who wins the World Series. But every network in the country will also share who would have won if the rules for every other baseball game played was in effect.

Imagine how betrayed the team that won more games in a seven game series would feel to lose this kind of World Series. Quite betrayed indeed.

It's one thing to have a poorly designed sporting contest. To have an election process that can generate two different "winners," only one of whom is going to take office, is both ridiculously unfair and ridiculously dangerous. Democratic government is fragile and is dependent on everyone believing in three things:

  • the system creates a clear winner and,
  • the system is fundamentally fair and without obvious "rigs" in favor of one side or another and,
  • a reasonable person would argue that "even though we lost this round, we'll win one down the road and then we'll have a chance to move the country in our direction."

This country stands in 2016 in a place where each of these three notions is imperiled. 

Notion 1: A Clear Winner? Twice since 2000, the winner by one metric loses by another metric...the metric that matters, but only for this one election in the entire country. Both times, the popular vote loser / Electoral Vote winner is from the same party. A toxic outcome for the side that earned more votes (and would have won any other election in the country).

Notion 2: Fundamentally Fair? Unclear win states lead the players of games to rail and rail about the smallest slights and injustices. Unclear win states put everyone on edge and cause players to dream up all kinds of complainings. 

Notion 3: "We'll have our chance." If we all play the game by the same rules, I'm happy to lose this time because I have a good chance of winning next time...but if we don't play the game by the rules/conventions/customary practices, then very quickly players feel something is fundamentally wrong with the game. And that's fine if we're playing Monopoly. But it's a real problem if we're trying to decide how a country we share is going to be run. I voted for Barack Obama twice. When the Republican leadership in Congress decided on January 20, 2009 to do everything in their power to ensure that his presidency was a failure, they undermined this fundamental principle. When the Republican leadership in the Senate refused to confirm Merrick Garland, defying customary practice going back to the dawn of the republic, they undermined this fundamental principle.

I've played enough games to know that if the rules/conventions/customary practices are going to be bent or stretched, it won't be long before no one trusts the game anymore and will either want it to be redesigned or they'll play something else. What does "want it be redesigned" mean? It is the reason Electoral College protestors protest. "They'll play something else" is the home base of both California secessionists and white supremacists. If either get their way, the country will be radically different.

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