Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 5

Greater Than Zero

Or, the politics of serious games

12 min read

An investigation into the surprising history of games designed to change our political values, from the radical origins of Monopoly to a brand-new spin on Pokémon Go created to mobilize swing-state voters in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Special guests: Jane McGonigal, Mary Pilon, and Asi Burak.

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the previous episode: Airplanes, Zoos, and Infinite Chickens (Or, Why Do Humans Like to Play?)
Listen to the next episode: “
Clever Like a Fox (Or, What Happens Inside Our Brains When We Play?)

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HILLARY CLINTON: I don’t know who created Pokémon Go, but I’m trying to figure out how we get them to have Pokémon Go To The Polls.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That was Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail earlier this summer, shortly after the launch of Pokémon Go. Now the cynics among us might just consider that a case of a politician trying to jump on a popular trend with, admittedly, a pretty lame joke. But when I heard that quote this summer, I immediately thought, wait, that’s no joke. There is I think, a huge untapped potential in the design of games, not just to amuse or distract us, but to shape our values, drive social change, even get our candidates elected. We take it for granted that there are novels written to advance an agenda for social reform, or films that are trying to champion one cause or another. So why not political games?

I’m Steven Johnson, and this is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft, and also by Riverhead Books, publisher of my upcoming book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

JANE MCGONIGAL: In the United States, 120 million Americans, adults, play video games every single week, and at most 110 million ever show up to vote for president, so even just in the gaming community, we have a 10 million-person gap of people who do not vote, and that’s assuming that the elections are not a well-designed game.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s author and game designer Jane McGonigal. Now, campaigns have used game-like mechanisms to support their cause for the last few election cycles, but almost all of these attempts have focused on just getting people to donate more money. Working with the liberal activist group MoveOn, Jane has designed a game structure to actually encourage people to have conversations with undecided voters in swing states.

JANE MCGONIGAL: Now we know that elections are games. Somebody wins, somebody loses, and our ability to participate in these games is limited, because of the electoral college system, to people who live in swing states getting to really play a much higher stakes game, and have a much higher impact on the election. And that’s where the idea for this game, for Swing Voter Go really started. There are more people in the United States playing Pokémon Go every single day than there are people casting votes in swing states for anybody, and it just doesn’t seem fair that anybody can play one game, but only people who live in certain states can really play the other.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Swing Voter Go deliberately echoes the structure and language of Pokémon Go, only instead of imaginary monsters like Pikachu and Snorlax, you’re looking for an even more exotic creature, an actual human being in, say, Florida or Ohio, who somehow hasn’t yet managed to figure out who they’re voting for in this election.

JANE MCGONIGAL: So the way this game works is, just like Pokémon Go, it’s this magical app that shows you a window into an entire world full of these magical creatures that you can interact with wherever you go. We have created an app where literally everywhere you look in your social network, there is a swing state voter, and we are revealing to you all of the undecided voters and the swing state voters who represent your biggest chance to have an impact on the election beyond your individual vote.

Right, so there are two ways to search your social graph for people that you can have an impact on and help get out the vote. The first is we do a Facebook search for you, just to find voters in each of the swing states. So you come to our map, you visit a state, we show you everyone in that state who you know who can plausibly vote in that state, and then it’s up to you to reach out to them, let them know you’re trying to get out the vote in Colorado or Ohio, and ask them, “Do you have a voting plan? Do you know who you’re voting for yet?”

And a second way for you to find swing voters or undecided voters in your social network is with something that we call lures. And these are for all your other social networks, for Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, and there are all sorts of ways to look at your network for people who might be undecided about who to vote for, but also just not sure if they’re going to vote at all, and maybe you can help them make a plan to vote, and make sure that they have the time and energy.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Swing Voter Go draws upon the new technologies of social networks and smartphone apps, but it actually belongs to a much older tradition. Games have a long history of shaping strategic decisions. Most famously, on the battlefield. In the first decades of the 19th century, a father and son team of Prussian military officers created a dice-based game called Kriegspiel, literally “war game” in German, that simulated military combat. The game resembled a much more complex version of modern games like Risk. Players used pawns on a map representing different military units, and the game could accommodate up to 10 players, working on different teams with a hierarchical command system inside of each team. It was used extensively by military officers to train for conflict for decades.

Now, eventually Kriegspiel morphed into the famous war games created by the Rand Corporation, that played a central role in the Cold War. After participating in some Rand-sponsored war games simulating the conflict in East Asia, then-attorney general Robert Kennedy inquired if a comparable game could be developed to help understand the civil rights struggle. The project sadly was dropped after his brother’s assassination. A few years later, Buckminster Fuller proposed the development of a kind of mirror image version of the Pentagon war games, a, quote, “World peace game,” that anticipated subsequent video games like Civilization or SimCity. Fuller’s game was designed to be played on a special map. They could track everything from ocean currents to trade routes. Rules were explicitly non-zero sum in nature, designed to encourage collaboration and not conflict.

Fuller said, “The objective of the game would be to explore the ways to make it possible for anybody and everybody in the human family to enjoy the total Earth, without any human interfering with any other human, and without any human gaining advantage at the expense of another. To win the World Game, everybody must be made physically successful. Everybody must win.”

TV ADVERTISEMENT: You sunk my battleship.

STEVEN JOHNSON: If you grew up like I did, playing games like Battleship or Dungeons and Dragons, you might be surprised at the idea of a board game being designed to change one’s worldview or moral system, but in fact, some of the first popular board games in the United States were designed with a very clear educational purpose in mind. One popular game of the 1840s was called The Mansion of Happiness, and it embedded a stern Puritan worldview in its gameplay. Listen to this passage from the game’s rulebook. “Whoever possesses piety, honesty, temperance, gratitude, prudence, truth, chastity, sincerity is entitled to advance six numbers towards the mansion of happiness. Whoever gets into a passion must be taken to the water and have a ducking to cool them.” It sounds more like a Cotton Mather sermon than child’s play.

Not all board games advanced a conservative worldview. In fact, there’s a long lineage of radical politics behind one of the most successful games in history. A game that would seem to be the very antithesis of left-wing ideology.

MARY PILON: Monopoly‘s a really weird game for a lot of reasons, one of which is that most people don’t read the rules.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Mary Pilon, author of a great book called The Monopolists, which traces the history of the board game Monopoly back to its original roots in a game called The Landlord’s Game, created a little more than a century ago.

MARY PILON: In this country, at that time, there was an incredible amount of wealth being created, and not only was wealth being created, it was controlled by just a handful of people, so Carnegie, Rockefeller, these are names we’re familiar with. So Henry George, who was this extremely popular public speaker and author, he wrote this book called Progress and Poverty that was this massive bestseller, he was really interested in how is this wealth going to be distributed, and the “Georgists,” as they called themselves, were really interested in land and taxing, and called themselves “anti-monopolists” because they were very interested in breaking apart these concentrated buckets of wealth.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Many politicians and activists integrated Georgist ideas into their stump speeches and newspaper editorials. But a woman named Lizzie Magie somehow decided that radical tax reform would also make a compelling subject for a board game.

MARY PILON: So most people are familiar with Monopoly. Obviously, it’s this massively bestselling board game, but before that there was The Landlord’s Game. So The Landlord’s Game was patented in 1904. It was the forerunner to Monopoly. It was created by a woman named Lizzie Magie, she was a very outspoken feminist, and an impassioned follower of Henry George and single tax theory, and created the landlord’s game as a teaching tool, to teach kids about the virtues of Georgism and this kind of wonky philosophy.

TV ADVERTISEMENT: Monopoly‘s been bringing people together for almost 50 years. That’s how long we’ve been wheeling and dealing together, building hotels together, and going to jail together. Corner the market in utilities”¦

MARY PILON: The original Landlord’s Game also, it should be noted, has two rule sets. It had a monopolist rule set, and an anti-monopolist rule set. And the monopolist rule set is what ended up kind of taking off and becoming what we now know today as Monopoly. So there’s kind of this irony, right, that her game was supposed to be teaching people these, like, left-wing ideals and about the evils of monopoly, and now, you know, more than a century later, we very much associate Monopoly with all, being all about clobbering each other.

TV ADVERTISEMENT: Parker Brothers kind of fun brings people together.

MARY PILON: The Landlord’s Game spreads among, like, a who’s who of left-wing America. So Scott Nearing, who was this famous professor at Wharton had played it, it was played by a member of FDR’s kitchen cabinet, it was played at pretty much every Ivy League school, and how much of that she was aware of, we don’t know. And as people were playing the game, they were tinkering it and modifying it.

So one of the groups that changes it quite a bit were a group of teachers in Atlantic City, who were Quakers. So the Quakers didn’t like the noise of auctions, because silence is this tenet of the Quaker faith, so they add more fixed prices. People localize the board. So if you were playing, you know, in the 20s, in Boston, you’d probably have a game with Boston properties. If you were playing in Chicago you’d have Chicago properties. So what happens is this game spreads and people start kind of infusing their own pieces of thinking on it. So the core of the game, The Landlord’s Game is still there, but it didn’t take long before a lot of the really political messaging of it was, was kind of lost.

TV ADVERTISEMENT: All new Monopoly Empire. When you own the world’s top brands, you own it all.

MARY PILON: The game spreads, and Lizzie Magie, in 1904, patents her game, she renews the patent in 1904, which was concurrent with the law, which right there is pretty fascinating because there were very, very few women patenting ideas at the time, and there was actually this really astonishing quote from one of the heads of the patent office around the time saying, “Well, women shouldn’t bother to apply because we’re not going to approve those patents anyway.” So the fact that she made it that far makes her a real anomaly of history.

When her game spreads, one of the people who plays it teaches it to this man named Charles Darrow. Unemployed, depends which story you read, but plumber, you know, heat salesmen, whatever. He plays it and he sells it to Parker Brothers, and the game, when it’s commercially sold, explodes, and there’s very much this Cinderella story of Darrow, on the brink of destruction, invents, you know, with kind of quote marks around the word invents, this board game and it saves him and his family from the brink of destruction, it saves Parker Brothers from bankruptcy. Everybody loves this story. The problem is it’s totally not true.

And Lizzie Magie reads the Darrow myth in the news, and lashes out. She does these two interviews with the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star. By now she’s an elderly woman and she holds up her Landlord’s Game boards and says, “I’m here, I made this thing more than 30 years ago,” and Parker Brothers strikes this deal with her to publish The Landlord’s Game and two more of her games for $500. And at first she’s really excited, because Parker Brothers is this huge prestigious game company and they’re going to be putting out her games, but there’s little evidence that they actually put any real effort into marketing them. And she dies in 1948. She made, as far as we know, $500 off of creating what is now known as Monopoly.

STEVEN JOHNSON: She might not recognize the technology, but Lizzie Magie would be right at home in a new movement of game design that has prospered over the last few years. A movement that generally goes by the name “serious games.”


STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s the sound of Papers, Please, a hit indie game created three years ago by Lucas Pope. Pope calls the game a, quote, “Dystopian document thriller.” You play an immigration officer in a fictional totalitarian state, trying to decide whether to let people into the country. It’s the kind of world Kafka might’ve created if he had been a video game designer.

ASI BURAK: You know, Papers, Please, which I like a lot, I mean it’s, it’s a state, statement about humanity and, and politics, using a fictional country. The context is clear, but at the same time you know it’s, it’s timeless. Teaches you things about yourself, not only about what it is to live in a totalitarian country.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Asi Burak, chairman of a great organization called Games For Change that supports the creation and distribution of social impact games. They support educators and game designers, and run an annual festival that showcases some of the most important work in this growing field.

ASI BURAK: It teaches you about what it means to be someone that is following orders. Real moral dilemmas, which you can only get in an interactive environment like this. So I think that, you know, we’re becoming more sophisticated, and the reason is that the barriers to publish a game are much lower, there is a whole new generation of game designers that is growing up with this vocabulary. I mean Papers, Please is a one man gig, you know, it’s one, one man took, took upon himself to create this game and, you know, got it out and, financially it did very well, but it also got to a lot of people. This whole notion that you can create something and it will actually have a big impact in the market is very new to, you know, digital distribution, and you know, we’re talking about the last four years maybe that you can even do something like that.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Part of the problem with this whole concept of political games is that we have this longstanding assumption that games are just about having fun. They’re not supposed to explore complicated tax reform proposals or take us into the mindset of a totalitarian state. But maybe having fun is the wrong way to think about what we do when we play a game.

ASI BURAK: So I, I have to admit that I always have a bit of uneasiness with the fun aspect, because why, with games, we put the burden with the fun thing? I mean, I, I feel much better, much more comfortable with engagement, because, even looking at the games, OK, we’re, we’re looking here beyond digital games. Chess is not necessarily fun. You know, I was a chess player. I even played in clubs and competitively. Some games were super frustrating and challenging. They were super engaging. I was definitely in it, and even dreaming about chess when I went to sleep at night, and I wanted to go back, I mean it was very attractive, but it wasn’t fun in the fun, positive, you know, happy experience. And I think this is how I want to think about games, because if we think about them not only as fun but engaging, I can see a game that engages you in a way that’s, you know, gets you to emotions that are not only happy, cheerful, they’re also thoughtful, they’re also, even, sad, life-changing, you know? This is how I want to think about games.

MARY PILON: But I think that one of the things that made games appeal, like it still make them appealing today, is that you could teach somebody how something worked with them doing it, as opposed to them just reading about single tax theory, which I think was important at the time, but, especially because she wanted this to be used by children and, of a variety of ages, what better way to learn about single tax theory, which let’s be honest, is a little dry to read about, than to actually play a game where you can actually see how it all works.

STEVEN JOHNSON: I think there’s some something profound in the idea of a game not just as escapist fun, but as a way of widening our experience of the world, whether you’re experiencing what it’s like to be a fictional immigration officer, or whether you’re using a game to make connections to actual voters in a real world election. I think we can all agree that, in this campaign season at least, we could all use a little more playfulness and collaboration and how we decide who we vote for.

JANE MCGONIGAL: That’s something that we’ve been hearing a lot in play testing, is that this game, which is, which is social and has a positive side to it, and some humor in it, it can help people choose a different way to engage. Not anger, not just opposition, but to think about elections as, as something we collaboratively come together to do as a society, and, and that we’re all playing our part in that larger non-zero sum game.



Listen to the previous episode: Airplanes, Zoos, and Infinite Chickens (Or, Why Do Humans Like to Play?)
Listen to the next episode: “
Clever Like a Fox (Or, What Happens Inside Our Brains When We Play?)

The logo for the Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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