Sunday, September 27, 2015

On game theories

Paul Dechene's riff off of this post is definitely worth a read. But while we're largely in agreement on the significance of polls, I will challenge his wider view as to what election coverage means:
Policies? Platforms? These are not the weapons political parties wield in an election. Those are the clothes political hopefuls wear. They define the personalities of the contestants. They’re the pixeled skins that overlay each blank politician sprite. This guy here is the angry Bowser who’s scary and likes to blow things up but at least he’ll cut your taxes. Here’s the cheerful Princess Peach who’s kind and generous, but oh, her naivete is going to get her into trouble. And look! Over there it’s Yoshi! He’s a dinosaur! He’s green! And he has a sticky tongue! How can you not vote for him?

In other words, you root for the guy in the costume you like best.

All that stuff that the activists and academics and huffy old columnists dismiss as political theatre is the actual election.

Is most of that morass of petty conflicts, dirty tricks, flubbed press conferences and debate shenanigans nothing more than random noise? Hellz ya. But humans are storytelling creatures and taking a chaotic pile of stupid nonsense and constructing a narrative from it is one of our brains’ favourite things to do.

And polls are just one more expression of our storytelling natures. They gather up a bunch of people’s opinions, quantify them, put them on graphs. Then everybody makes guesses about what it all means and what’s going to happen next.

Polls take the noise of a real life election and turn it into a game involving little racing red and blue and orange and green avatars in exactly the same way that a Nintendo machine takes a bunch of random numbers and the inputs from your controller and turns them into Super Mario Kart.
I've commented before on the concept of elections being treated and commented on as a game rather than an event of political and social importance. But Dechene effectively raises two related questions arising out of the view that's how campaigns are currently covered: can we treat campaigns as something more than a game whose primary importance is as a source of entertainment? And if so, should we bother?

On my reading, Dechene seems to answer the first question with a no, rendering the second irrelevant. But even if we recognize that elections will fall short of a "lost Platonic state of democracy", that doesn't mean we're stuck with it instead representing nothing more than a matter of rooting for laundry.

In fact, the same experts who have pointed out our tendency to jump to conclusions and frame what we see around biases and preferred narratives have also noted that we do have another cognitive system available - one which requires more effort to use, but results in a far more thorough analysis than our initial reaction to events. And a conscious effort to use the latter system seems to be largely successful in providing an appropriate challenge to the surface analysis.

There's no prospect of analyzing everything that happens in a campaign through that more detailed lens even on an individual level. But I'd suggest it is possible to prioritize coverage to shift how we see politics on the margins: by talking more about substantive issues than trivia, by evaluating them with something going beyond a surface analysis, and by encouraging others to do the same.

And the potential importance of doing so is hard to overstate. While the election itself can be lumped in with any given sporting event as having a winner, one or more losers, and lots of characters to be discussed, the result of an election (being the election of the people empowered to chart a social course on our behalf) has profound implications for everybody within the influence of political decision-making.

If we currently lack a critical mass of voters willing and able to shape our democratic future based on more than either entrenched affiliations or nebulous narratives, I'd consider that a problem worth solving, not an inevitability to be accepted. And while the political theatre which shapes votes absolutely does matter, we can work within that reality without giving up on the cause of a better-informed electorate.


  1. Anonymous6:52 p.m.

    What's the difference between an election campaign and a beauty contest? Beauty contests have rules.

  2. In answer to Mr. Dechene, I would say "Jeremy Corbyn".
    The man came from nowhere to take the Labour leadership against almost entirely hostile media coverage, pretty much entirely on the basis of his policy platform, which was substantive, uncompromising, and very populist (and I'm not saying that last as an insult, quite the contrary).