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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Reset, Not Recess: Why We Need Our Politicians to be Gamers


With apologies to Evgeny Morozov, my latest intellectual hero, I believe that technology really can save the world. I don't mean that in the bull-shitty tech-startup way that entrepreneurs always use; I'm not referring to Twitter's info-anarchism, or Facebook's nebulous goal of "making the world a better place" by connecting everybody, or Google's increasingly meaningless motto of "Don't be evil".

No, I'm referring to a very specific type of technology: our political class needs to play more videogames.

It might sound like I'm joking or being provocative, but this is a serious point. And it's not even about "connecting with the kids, man". It's about a specific way that playing videogames teaches you to view the world.

I come from one of the earliest generations to play videogames – my family had each of Nintendo's US-released consoles from the original NES to the GameCube, and every time I've moved to a new place one of my first actions has been to buy a new console, for gaming as well as DVD-viewing.

With nearly thirty years of videogame-playing affecting my brain, I think it's fair to say that my way of thinking is different from that of people who don't play at all, for better or for worse. Specifically, being intensely goal-oriented and knowing when to quit and start something over.

I don't mean that people who don't play videogames can't do either of those things. Rather, videogames are designed to reward those behaviors, so they're stronger in gamers, because those particular "muscles", if you will, get a lot more use.

As far as being goal-oriented, that's pretty self-explanatory. When you pick up a game, you're presented with a goal: get to the end of the level, kill the bad guy, save the princess. There are a bunch of cute things you can do along the way, like collect things or earn a certain number of points, but if you don't accomplish that main goal, you don't win.

It's easy to see how this applies to politics, especially in the US and especially now. The game has been subverted – instead of governing, the system rewards parties and individual politicians who disrupt their rivals' policies.

If you want to put this in economics terms, it looks like game theory to me, specifically the prisoner's dilemma – the system works if everybody works together, but falls apart when someone cheats, ie, performs an action that advantages them specifically while not necessarily bringing them closer to the actual conditions for winning. In practical terms, it means that politicians are rewarded more for jockeying against each other (and fundraising) than for governing, so they don't govern.

The other point, about quitting and starting over, is also valid here. Some games give you a limited amount of attempts to accomplish your goal – if you run out of attempts, you start from the beginning (or the last save point). Other games require actions to be taken in a certain sequence, and if you miss something important, you get to a point where you can't advance anymore. The thing to do in these cases is to start again and try again, applying the lessons learned from the first attempt.

There are a lot of areas in real life politics where we could stand to rip everything up and start again. The tax system in the US is the main one I'm thinking of here; not just in terms of how much everybody pays, but the whole system of credits and exemptions, and the way it's become something that you need to hire a professional to do. Another example of a system that would be completely different if we designed it from the ground up today is education, particularly for those in poorer areas. Foreign policy is another, particularly our presence in places like Afghanistan.

We don't need iterative change in these areas (to borrow another obnoxious term from the tech world), but a hard reset. There's something to be said for staying the course, but sometimes that means getting mired down in unnecessary infighting and holding onto outmoded notions. If our political leaders had sufficient clarity of vision (see my first point), they'd be able to see where to cut their losses.

So my solution is this: supply everyone in Congress with an Xbox (because I would hate to imagine the shitstorm if we gave them a foreign-made console), and get them to play for an hour a day during their numerous recesses and breaks. It can be Need for Speed, or the SIMs, or Assassin's Creed – it doesn't matter, as long as they learn to focus on what's important again, and to try something new when the same old shit isn't working.