The System is Rigged: Politics as a Video Game

The original Doom
The original Doom
Video game still

Rigged is a word that has definitely gotten out of hand this election cycle. I still run across sore Bernie Sanders supporters feverishly asserting that the Democratic primary was rigged against the Vermont senator. Donald Trump is currently going around the country telling whoever will listen that if he loses on November 8 it will because Hillary Clinton somehow cheated.

Being a gamer, I often think of the System with a capital S the same way I think of video game systems. This election has in many ways been like watching one long video game in which one player clearly understands how the game plays better than the others.

When you break it down, most video games are about achieving win states navigating various simulated environments while avoiding fail states. These vary widely across titles, of course, but that’s the general gist.

In the election’s case, the simulated environment is America, with each state or territory representing a level. Think about it in terms of the original Doom and how each off the wall level altered the way you played that particular level. Texas doesn’t play the same as Washington, and neither play the same as Kentucky. Some levels are similar, but no two are alike.

And also like the original Doom, or with its inherent system of resource control Bioshock might be a better example, a good player in the election game knows the map. They know where the stat boosts and ammo are, what sort of enemies are in that stage, where you can conserve ammo and where you need to unload everything you’ve got.

Depending on a player’s skill level and play style, some levels will be harder than others. Sanders, for instance, lost in levels where the fail state was not getting the black vote. Trump is doing dismally in similar levels (worth noting that this is a two-quest game and those levels move around between the primaries and the general election). Clinton lost in levels where navigating the caucus system was the win state, but as that’s not a thing in the general election it’s not affecting her current play.

The person who wins this game is the person who best navigates the simulated environment and achieves the most win states. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. America, being the incredibly complicated and big place that it is, doing that requires having a very big toolbox of play styles and inventory. It’s like a Batman: Arkham game. You can’t win with just what you start out with.

So, it’s not that the system is “rigged” really. It’s that the game is really diverse and very hard. The only thing it’s rigged against is a player who doesn’t sufficiently navigate the space according to the rules of each level. Not knowing the rules or refusing to acknowledge what each level fail states entails a player not doing is not the system’s fault.

And the game can be won unconventionally. Chester A. Arthur, for instance, survived being disgraced for his corrupt management of the New York Custom House to land the Vice Presidency and ended up president shortly after following the assassination of James Garfield. Heck, even this election it’s not inconceivable that come January we’ll be swearing in President Evan McMullin.

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A lot of games are like that. Bryan Pierre beat Fallout 3 as a baby. Bearzly plays Dark Souls with a Guitar Hero controller. You can reach Level 90 in World of Warcraft without killing anything. Systems not in any way designed for certain outcomes can be circumvented through a combination of hard work, out-of-the-box thinking and a ton of luck.

But neither Sanders nor Trump aimed for that sort of game-breaking path to the White House. They got in the game the old-fashioned way, and it’s clear they didn’t study the game as well as Clinton. Sanders decided he could ignore the ally-building mechanic until the endgame, and he was wrong. Donald Trump just straight up doesn’t know how to place his pieces in the space, and it’s costing him the election just as much as his inability to stop saying terrible things over live chat.

I don’t necessarily think a system is fairer because it allows you to win with a different play method than the system intends. You can’t play Destiny like Portal, or Tomb Raider like Life is Strange. You can scream at Call of Duty that you should be able to finish it like you finished Gone Home, but the system will not change and does not care.

So when people say, “the System is rigged” I think, “Of course it’s rigged.” All systems are rigged to produce a desired result, otherwise they wouldn’t be systems. You can argue that the game needs a software patch. God knows some of my favorite titles are buggy as heck, but the overall game is not broken. Some people just play it better than others.

Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now. 


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