The Gamification of Politics

Gamification is a trendy topic lately. We've enthused or lamented about the gamification of education, low-consumption driving, buyer loyalty, learning to use your word processor. We've wondered where else we might apply game rules to hack society into the shape we'd prefer to see. But we've largely neglected to examine a thoroughly gamified element of our society to see what happens when gamification goes wrong.

I'm talking, of course, about politics.

Politics is a team-based spectator sport. It's built into the very language we use: we win and lose elections. We pick our team, and then we support that team with all we've got. The rivalry between Republican and Democrat reminds me of nothing so much as the rivalry between Yankee and Red Sox -- irrational, bloodthirsty, hostile beyond all reason. (C'mon, guys, it's just baseball. Chill.)

The problem with the gamification of politics, though, is that it necessarily results in the gamification of government, too. And government isn't just a game, in the sense of an entertainment with no meaningful externalities. Government is the stuff of lives saved or broken, economies buoyed or sunk, wars fought or peace brokered. The stakes are high.

And yet we treat is as though it were just a game. The biggest game. As a result, everything government does is part of a long-range strategy toward winning elections. Every law, every speech, every idea is scrutinized through the lens of: If I support this, who will it help more to win the next election... them or me?

Our short-term governance is held hostage to the long-term strategy of politicians and parties angling to win the next big game; nothing more, and nothing less. The things we can agree on as a nation are too easily abandoned. Rational, sensible ideas are attacked merely because they come from the opposing side. And we can't let the other team get any advantage, can we? Because their advantage must surely mean our disadvantage.

There is nowhere in this strategy for the good of the nation, or the people who live in it. It simply isn't relevant to the game, except perhaps as a weather-like factor to be predicted and corrected for when necessary. There is no incentive in place for cooperation or for good governance; no incentive for a life saved or a peace brokered, except to the extent that it might boost your numbers for a while.

I'm at a loss for how to un-gamify politics. Maybe it can't be done. But perhaps we could engineer changes to our political system designed to provide incentives for the outcomes we really want -- turning it into a cooperative, collaborative game, instead of a versus blood sport. 

But even aside from a game designer's pipe dream of redesigning our political system, there are always things that we as a nation can agree on. We should focus on those, so we can all win. As things stand now, we all lose the game. And we always will.

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