A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. i)

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. i)

 

 

Hey, did you get starside R and D?

 -No.  I got Games and Theory.

Games and Theory?  That’s military intelligence.

 

—–Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven, Tristar Pictures/Touchstone Pictures/Big Bug Pictures, 1997

 

 

I am not a political scientist.  I have read some political science, and I’ve read a fair amount of political philosophy.  The main difference between the two is that political science says, “Hey, I only built the bomb; I didn’t drop it on anybody;” while political philosophy looks at whether one ought to drop the bomb, or whether it is a bomb or a tool, destructive or useful, good or evil, what purpose it ought to serve.  The political scientist says, “Appeal to the people’s fears, hatreds, lusts, and you will win power;” the political philosopher says, “Appeal to the negative may win in the short run, but it will destroy the society, the people and the one who gains power that way.”  But I am not primarily interested in writing as a philosopher, either, except insofar as I might not bother writing at all if I did not think it was important.  I am interested in tapping my decades of experience as a gamer.  I am old-school.  I began with chess and Stratego and Risk as a child, graduated to Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970’s.  I have played the part of Eisenhower and von Rundstedt, Ben-Gurion and Bismark, and sent the Jesuits to burn the Lutheran heretics.  In 1975 I learned Dungeons and Dragons, and from there played nearly a dozen different RPGs.  I’ve also played my share of computer games; but IMHO they lack the personal experience.  When you play in the same room with the other players, you play the person, not the system.  You learn to “watch your enemy’s eyes,” gauge not just the board but also the manner of the person.  I have not always won, but I have at least been a challenge in most of the games I’ve played. I consider myself a competent strategist.

One lesson I’ve learned as a gamer is that games are not just games.  They are fragments of life, distilled until just the elements that the game designer and players care about are left.  Monopoly was originally designed to show the dangers of unrestrained capitalism, as players spread bankruptcy and ruin across the board.  The players, of course, tend to be more interested in being one of those filthy capitalists; but even though the game has drifted far from its original roots, elements of even this abstract and silly game show harsh economic realities.  Military academies have played war games for centuries, rehearsing strategies and defending against hypothetical threats; the Pearl Harbor attack was carried out after Japanese military leaders realized, after playing various military scenarios, that the only chance they had for a crushing victory was a surprise attack.  As a philosopher, I read that Ludwig Wittgenstein argues in his Philosophical Investigations that all human language, and thus all thought and behavior, can be explained as “language games.”  We learn what it is to be a person, a citizen, a Christian, a liberal, or a conservative or atheist not by listening to the protestations and assertions of others, but much more simply by watching what moves people make and what rules they seem to be following

Another lesson I learned is that you can’t just assume that everyone is following the same rules or aiming at the same target.  You can’t even assume most people are really aiming at the target they claim to be aiming at.  As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, the problem in life is that your pawn to K-4 is often answered by your opponent’s back-lob across the net.  We are often playing different games.  Sometimes we don’t even realize the other person is playing a different game; sometimes (unlike “real games”) we don’t even quite realize what game we ourselves are playing.   At times we need to look at what moves we ourselves are making, what goals we are achieving, and then deduce from this what game we are actually playing.

Role-playing games in particular are mini-labs in group dynamics theory.  In RPGs, the players often have disparate individual goals, but must work together to attain some joint goal and in the process realize their individual goals.  A group takes on a life of its own; it is never merely the sum of its parts.  Who is the leader?  Who has the power?  How many ways are there of gaining power in the group, of influencing its direction and goals?  Which of these help group cohesion and functioning?  What ways can one advance one’s status and influence, only to destroy the group altogether and leave one the leader of nothing?

What games are being played now?  The Republicans claim to be trying to negotiate changes to the health-care law; but if they wanted to negotiate, they had years to do so.  In 2009, Democrats were crawling on their knees to beg even one Republican to sign onto the cause of health-care reform; but none would make any suggestions.  On July 20, 2009, Republican Senator Jim DeMint called for the GOP to fight all health care reform, to “just say No,” arguing, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”  So instead of trying to make health care reform better, or even caring about whether health care was good or bad for the country, it was determined the first move in the game of presidential politics would be to fight any and all possible health care reform.  Well before there was any actual health care proposal, Republicans were fighting “Obamacare,” even though Obama was taking a hands-off approach and leaving Congress to work out the particulars.  In the past, one party would propose policy, the other would negotiate changes based on its bargaining position, and eventually enough people on both sides would get what they wanted to convince them to sign on.  Instead of trying to have any influence on health care, Republicans determined to fight it as a way to weaken the President and win control of the government for themselves.  Even when Republican ideas were adopted by Democrats in an attempt to create a health care plan that both sides could accept, the Republicans repudiated ideas put forward by Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation.  If the goal was to negotiate over the health care bill that was being written at that time, this was not even a move; it was walking away from the game.  But the game was not “Operation” or “Let’s Make a Deal;” it was chess, and the Republicans were playing a gambit.  They sacrificed a piece, hoping to gain the initiative and a superior position for the endgame.  By being the Party of Nope, they were able to disavow responsibility for everything that might go wrong, while sacrificing any right to claim any credit for anything that might go right.  They therefore had to make sure nothing went right; so they set out to delay and sabotage.  This is good strategy.  They may have prevented any meaningful improvement on the jobs market, where they said they would have a “laser focus,” but they made staggering gains in the mid-term elections.  In chess terms, they seemed to have made up their initial sacrifice and then some.  They took over most of the state legislatures in time to control the post-census gerrymandering, rewriting the boundaries of congressional districts to give Republicans safe districts even as they were losing national popularity.  But in the midgame, they made a very risky attack, threatening to default on the national debt (most of which represents money spent by Republicans or at least voted for by them).  As a governmental policy, this was a bad move; it damaged the national credit score, probably permanently, which will cost the nation billions of dollars over time.  However, it was not a governmental policy; it was a political move, another step in the presidential campaign.  It was part of the Republican “Presidential Monopoly” game, and part of the individual game of several Republican politicians with presidential ambitions.  And in the personal ambition game, it was an extremely good move; several Tea Party Republicans gained fame and, more importantly, money from PACs and anonymous donors.

The health care battle remained the central strategy in the Republican version of Presidential Monopoly.  Like a player who sells off all the yellows and greens and reds in order to put four motels each on Park Place and Boardwalk, the GOP staked everything on the “No Obamacare” campaign.  And to an extent, they succeeded; they have so tarnished the idea of “Obamacare” that even though a majority of people say they support the Affordable Care Act, a majority also say they oppose Obamacare—completely unaware of the fact that the two are the same thing.[1]  However, it turned out not to be enough to win the Presidency.  Against the “Stop Obamacare” campaign slogan, the Democrats had “Bin Laden is Dead and GM is Alive.”  Against the “big tent” approach of the Democrats, the Republicans focused on what Republican Senator Lindsey Graham described as “angry white males;” and as he himself said, that’s not a winning strategy.


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2 Responses to “A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. i)”

  1. cd garnett Says:

    I found this article very interesting. I saw a TED video recently where a PhD researcher was taking gamers very seriously, with an academic interest in them, and came away feeling hopeful as to what gamers might bring to the global and national table.

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