As I’ve watched the January 6 investigation, I have been struck by the various testimonies from people reporting on their actions and responses to what was going on before, during and after the assault on the Capitol.
I realized that somewhere within Trump’s chaotic orbit, the game had changed for his minions as well as for the MAGA crowd. The ‘win’ for the GOP had shifted (perhaps long ago) from managing what they thought was best for the country to managing Trump. The goal post had moved, giving birth to games within games, so that by the time of the insurrection, a ‘win’ no longer fit the definition of the effective demonstration of citizens participating in how their democracy operates, but had changed to adapting to the schemes and spitefulness of a con artist. Perhaps that’s what it’s been all along, but for me, it crystalized as I listened to these people trying to make sense of, reason with, and act upon events that were unfolding. Void of a moral compass, and functioning as either game players or obedient soldiers, there were very few whose respect for democracy and the Constitution surpassed their obedience to a sociopath. Those few managed to ultimately admit that the former president was clearly off the rails, to the point of his Cabinet threatening to invoke the 25th Amendment. Everyone else was busy calibrating their position. I suspect that within Trump’s entire orbit, the game is all about calibration. Rather than playing toward the goal of leveling up (i.e., improving) the country, the goal became calibrating their plays to a disgruntled showboat with a singular self-serving focus.
Politics is a game. The purpose of any game is to achieve a specific goal which requires a number of individuals coordinating their efforts in a common cause. The ‘unit of individuals’ involved varies according to the number necessary to achieve the intended goal. It can be as few and simple as a basketball game, or as large and complex as a war. Achieving the goals benefits the participants, as well as others who are not directly involved (fans, associates, and beneficiaries) with the victory. The goal can be for the pleasure of winning, for the challenge of playing and finishing, or, in some cases, simply surviving. Games have rules that place limitations on how players can achieve intended results. They generally have a feedback system (such as scoring) that encourages players to continue playing. Finally, in any game, everyone knows they are playing and are doing so willingly. By their participation, they knowingly accept the goal, rules, feedback, and the collaboration it takes to reach whatever the mission happens to be.
What enlivens games for everyone is that they arouse certain characteristics in players and, vicariously, in fans/observers. These are the same characteristics that have allowed our species to thrive over millennia. Author and game designer, Jane McGonigal, draws the correlation between these characteristics and what is needed now, given the social and environmental challenges we are facing over the coming decades. Game players are risk takers, adventurous, and open to new experiences. They have passion, fortitude, ability to focus, and a sense of purpose, all of which precipitate ongoing skill development, a driving enthusiasm, and the ability to accept failure as learning. These characteristics are highly desirable when driving toward a ‘win.’ In her book Reality is Broken, McGonigal lays out the elements of games. Successful games are collaborative, i.e., larger than the self. They engender proficiency, excitement, risk tolerance and ability, collaboration, goal orientation, focus, mental discipline, and elasticity. They offer, and teach, team/goal-orientation, which has to be accepted from the start. She further explains how gaming can be seen as future preparation and a social force in the direction of change. Games help us plan for challenges by activating those elements and, when we all agree on the rules and rewards, they motivate us to actively implement plans to meet our challenges.
I have been an athlete nearly all my life. I played competitive basketball until I was over 65. I have observed over the years that teams that played collaboratively where more successful than those who played as a group of individuals. Though the quality of athletics is important, playing as a team, and with determination, were just as important, if not more so. Wilt Chamberlin was perhaps the best player to ever play basketball, but the teams he played for never won a national collegiate championship. As professionals, the Boston Celtics consistently played better as a team. This year, California’s Golden State Warriors, a superbly coordinated and skilled team, won their seventh national championship. Such a record depends on three factors: organization, leadership and talent - not just talent alone.
Chapter 21 of my book is on Gaming. It focuses on understanding games as collaborative practice in the direction of social order. I talk about how, and why, all human groups need to cooperate at the basic level in order to survive. I point out that when selfish individuals find ways to ’game the system’ for their own interests, they begin to degrade that system. If the behavior is allowed to continue, this type of game playing will ultimately destroy the system altogether. This process is what we have been witnessing as the truths about the Trump administration come to light. The self-serving leadership of an administration that gave rise to the MAGA mentality, domestic militias, and conspiracy theory as a legitimate modus operandi, thrives on changing the game, the rules, moving the goal post, cloning its own characteristics and fostering the subversion of the status quo…in this case, the rule of law and democracy itself.
Historically games taught children the skills they needed to survive as adults. Games have provided pathways for societies to release aggression and have served as a safe release for competitive activity that still provided winners. For 2500 years, the Greeks designed games (the Olympics and others) to provide a substitute for war. But more recently games have become more than competitive events and more than entertainment. The elements of gaming have been layered into all walks of life; perhaps nowhere more obvious than on the public stage. A good example of this is being revealed in the investigation into the Trump administration and the January 6 insurrection. It hangs in the balance as to whether these elements will lead us to social renovation, social destruction, or, by extension, planetary survival, destruction, and the birth of a new system. New systems begin when old structures are degrading. New structures, large and complex enough to stop destructive gaming, begin to emerge. I’m an advocate for planetary survival and a social structure that works for everybody. How about you?
All of these characteristics and elements of gaming are tools that, when combined and organized can produce both positive and negative results. In my opinion, the GOP, together with the MAGA movement, is playing to a different goal while using the same elements. Within their rank and file, two reality games are going on simultaneously. Their overarching perception is that society, and their government, are not working; that they are being replaced by people of color, women and other ‘inferiors.’ They are increasingly being left out and see the present, through Trump (and similar people), as their last chance to retain what social privilege they have. People are increasingly resistant and systems are in collapse. The ‘followers’ fight as foot soldiers while the self-interested power players within the GOP (supported financially by dark money, big business and others) are profiting from the conditions. With an escalating authoritarian agenda, they use civil upheaval, mass shootings, etc. as marketing collateral to gain support. What the January 6 insurrection points to is their willingness to accommodate and encourage an armed militia that can be riled up and activated for a probable civil war against a liberal order. I see this as similar to the rise of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts in Italy. Trump follows the same plays book as these other authoritarian dictators. They continue to change the rules and move the goal post. The game they appear to be playing is Conquer by Any Means Necessary. They’re playing it while the rest of us are playing Democracy.