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.


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.

National Game Design Month Kicks Off!

We all know that November is known for mustaches and turkeys, but I hope soon it will also be remembered for great innovative game designs. National Game Design Month started a few days ago - I hope you'll get some dice, a spinner, heck, even a pop-a-matic and think about some great ideas to bring your ideas to life. All you need is an idea. The game I'm working on this month is a spoof of America in the 1950s called Red Menace. It's a simple card game with player elimination. My hope is it'll take 15-20 minutes to play. Post here about your own designs!

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 8 - Competition

Level 8 - time for a little PVP…

One of the core notions in game design is competition. What opposes the player? Is it a fearsome boss at the end of the game like in Diablo? Or is it a mental challenge, like in Portal 2? Perhaps what opposes the player isn't at all clear...like in the game Journey, perhaps the opposition doesn't really exist, or is so abstracted, that it might not exist at all.

In the gamified classroom, one of my biggest challenges was setting up the systems of opposition and challenge to motivate learners/players and to sustain their motivation/learning. The literature on game design is frequently focused on theory associated with these questions, because we all know what happens when we play games where there is little opposition or challenge. Candy Land, anyone?

This question vexed me throughout the process of designing and then teaching America 3.0 and in fairness, I don't think I ever really hit on the answer. There were two major problems that I encountered. The first problem was the question of the game versus the players. How difficult was the game/course? For many students, merely understanding what was expected of them was so difficult, that they struggled, even months later, to move past this point, despite regular explanation. I discussed this challenge in a previous post. For other students, the course was easy enough to understand, but they challenge facing them wasn't structured as well as it might have been. As a result, they would bog down very early in a problem that I thought was straightforward, or at least doable, which they found difficult or impossible. Hence the practice of "nerfing" the experience. The lesson for me and for you if you are thinking of gamifying your classroom is to be mindful of the challenge you establish for your students/players, and how essential it is that these challenges be structured so that students can manage them. Be prepared, particularly in the first year, for this challenge. Interestingly, the younger your students, the less likely this will pose a problem.

The bigger challenge that I am going to direct myself to next year is the idea of competition between students/players. Earlier this year I emailed with Mark Hendrickson, a former student of mine, about this question (he studied this idea in graduate school). In response to a question I wrote asking for his thoughts on the spirit of competition, he wrote:

"...defining the "spirit of competiton" on a sociological level may help: a rivalry between two or more persons or groups for an object desired in common, usually resulting in a victor and a loser. This, of course leads to more questions. How is "object" defined in the classroom? What do students in grade X desire to achieve in the classroom that could result in a friendly rivalry if subdivided into individuals or groups? What kind of rivalry or competition in the classroom would not result in only one side winning?"

Next year, I will be teaching a course on the federal election in the United States. Clearly, my intention to divide the students into an Obama staff and a Romney staff will give me a chance to explore these ideas some. Providing ideas and work to their side that has a measurable impact on their candidate's success (within the laboratory setting) would be a great "object," but it doesn't go far enough. He then wrote:

"One of the examples in gaming with the MMORPGs, as you pointed out, were the boss battles. These boss battles could be done individually or with a team. I think your spirit of competition ideal could spawn from these battles. In other words, what better way to provide competition than defeating a boss, or seeing what individual or team could beat the boss most effectively."

And this is where it gets interesting. In the MMORPG setting, teams of players are opposed by the game itself - the boss is a construct set up by the game designers. I do not know of an MMO that injects a player-versus-player (PVP) element into this kind of encounter. And this is what Mark is suggesting here. Constructing a boss battle that is clearly defined and static, but which two different teams could approach, struggle with and overcome. As the teacher, I would have the opportunity to measure their successes according to a single rubric, but the students would have the opportunity to explore what "effectiveness" would look like in that encounter. He concluded:

"Also, the "random encounters" idea in the other teacher's classroom would be a good place to start. One random day per week, you could divide the students into any number of individual or group combinations. These groups would compete to answer questions in your "modeling" form, and if you chose, winning these random encounters would have no impact on their level or grade. What is the purpose of a random encounter in an RPG? For me, it has been to fight weaker monsters to be able to beat the stronger bosses through stat increases. What is the purpose of a random encounter in a gamified classroom? To apply my current knowledge  to be able to effectively challenge and solve a larger issue or problem through confidence increases."

Take a look at that last sentence again. Application of knowledge...this is at the core of great games, gamified learning and game-designed courses. By structuring the student's experience effectively, this would give the student the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a skill or a content concept. By structuring it like a random encounter, it generates the "spirit of competition" that most of the game literature suggests is critical for successful game-based instruction. It reminds me of the Food Network program "Sweet Genius," in which the contestants are given a baking/candy making challenge and then part way through the challenge, have an additional obstacle put before them in the form of new ingredients that have to be incorporated into the mix. I am very much looking forward to incorporating these ideas into my class next year.

Mansions of Madness - an example of a boardgame featuring competition and cooperation.

Mansions of Madness - an example of a boardgame featuring competition and cooperation.