Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Winning, Voter Fraud, and the Ethics of Lawyering the Game

Back in 1993 when Magic: The Gathering first launched, it was a unique game. In some ways, it reminded me of those games that we used to make up using collectable sports trading cards when I was a kid -- taking your collection of trading cards and making up a game that you could 'play' using your team versus your friends. Because everyone had a different collection of cards, you never knew exactly how the game would work, but you set up a loosely structured set of rules in order to make the game work -- sort of a manifestation of Calvinball. These types of games work well until you get into nuanced situations where the scope of the rules don't provide a clear way to resolve an issue.

"I tap this card in order to do something bad to you..."
"Okay, so I tap this card."
"You can't tap that, because I tap this card to block it"
"You can't prevent it, because this is an interrupt and your's is an instant"

And so it would go. Arguing back and forth about the nuances of the rules, where victory became a combination of variable permutations that play to the narrow exceptions in the rules. Among my gaming friends, this aspect of gaming was referred to as "rules lawyering".

Winning on a Technicality Isn't a True Win
You can see one of those great moments in the mythology of competition during some of these cooking shows. In the rush to produce some dish, one competitor ruins an ingredient or some accident causes them a problem. Then, in a symbol of competitive solidarity, their opponent will help them -- providing the missing ingredient or assistance in finishing before the time requirement. Most will say something like, "I want to win based on my food" or something to that effect.

These are the winners that we revere, the heroes. These are the stories that we look for, that we want to see. It's part of the reason that coverage of the Olympics here in the states looks like it does -- because the stories are framed that way, regardless of what happened outside of the view of the lens.

Rules Lawyering in Real Life: The Win Justifies the Means
When established processes and players are disrupted, it's not uncommon for them to look for -- or attempt to create -- favorable rules that block the disruption. From patent infringements to banning alcohol purchases at self-checkout stations, aggressively using legal challenges to squelch competitive disruption is an important check and balance against more harmful business practices like copying. These new rules are seldom driven with a goal of fairness; instead, they are the desperate grasps of the failing.

One of the worst examples of this behavior is embodied in the 'Voter Fraud' and 'Voter ID' initiatives that have been increasingly pushed through during the past ten years. While supporters dance around their justification, their basic goal is to create disincentives to vote and disenfranchise a set of people.

This is not about the better ideas winning on a equal playing field, this is about reshaping the playing field in order to create an advantage. It's creating a system that can enable their ideas to win on a technicality.

Recently, there was a story about a court ruling in Ohio that blocked Republican attempts to shut down early voting on the weekend before election day. Throughout the media, the story was characterized as 'a win for Obama'. But this wasn't a win for Obama. It was a win for the democratic process, for equality, for fairness. It was a win for the game. It's too bad that the media couldn't see that story, but perhaps their part of the game has already been twisted and tweaked by artificial framework of technicalities. 

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