Breaking the Game

Watching this year’s presidential debates is a painful experience for anyone looking for substance. Sadly, we can’t expect things to get better. Today’s politicians — and their consultants, pollsters, media experts, and focus groups — have broken the game, to borrow a phrase my college roommate termed while playing Nintendo baseball against me.

While nothing could compare to the thrill of my 17-7 win over my roommate Bob in the championship of our Tecmo Super Bowl season (Pepper Johnson, in the game of his life, shut down Bo Jackson, the greatest digital athlete of all time), and nobody could ever match Bob’s dominance in Dr. Mario (Bob’s got the trophy to prove it), my thorough mastery of Bad News Baseball was something unique.

Bad News Baseball was a game for the original Nintendo in which the players were children, with only first names, playing on Astroturf. And, oh yeah, the umpires were rabbits. Higher end baseball games, such as RBI Baseball or Baseball Stars, were more expensive and harder to find, and so my roommates—Bob and Mark—and I settled for Bad News Baseball.

After a month of playing this game as the Mets, I gained a key insight. As long as one of my two ace pitchers (Frank or Keith) was throwing, if I threw only outside fastballs, I would induce weak groundouts or easy pop-ups every time.

Bob and Mark caught onto my strategy, and after objecting that it was unsporting of me to never challenge them with a breaking ball or even a change in location, they adopted the only sensible counter-strategy: wear out my pitchers by taking two strikes on the outside corner before grounding out on the third pitch. This high pitch-count forced me to pull Frank after four innings, and bring in Keith for four more innings of outside-fastball monotony.

Then finally, in the ninth inning, I would need to go to my second-tier pitchers, none of whom were reliable. Basically, if my roommates were able to take the boredom of taking two strikes every at bat for eight innings, they would be rewarded with one inning with a real chance to score. If they lost their patience and started first-pitch swinging in the early innings, they lost.

One day Mark, frustrated, exclaimed, “Carney, I hope you’re happy. You broke the game.” What he meant was this: my strategy had made it so that playing to win meant playing a boring game. I could spice things up by trying to mix up my pitches, but then I wouldn’t really be trying to win. Once those two goals—having fun in a game and winning a game—diverge, then the illusion is shattered, and the game is broken.

Bad News Baseball is not the only breakable game. Ultimate Fighting Championship in the early days appeared to be in the same boat. The best UFCer ever was Royce Gracie, who pioneered a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school of grappling. Watching a Brazilian grappler win a match was not too different from watching a Boa Constrictor swallow a rat. Gracie matches were very long ordeals in which Gracie would end up on top of his opponent within the first few minutes, and about 20 minutes later, the victim would tap out. It was much more fun to watch strikers like Tank Abbott, but they could never beat the good grapplers.

Today, we see that politics are a broken game — with the debates and the conventions as the prime displays of this fact. As voters, we would much prefer an exchange of ideas, in which candidates argued points of fact and principles. As a democracy, we would be well served by sincere, engaging debates. But the candidates are not out there to stimulate our intellect or to serve well the Democracy — they are out there to win.

The best way to increase your likelihood of winning is to “stay on message.” The best politicians always stay on message. Those who wander — those who delve into nuances or actually (gasp) answer questions — usually suffer.

Watch the Republican or Democratic “debates” and ask yourself if you think they really deserve that title. I’m not old enough to know if they ever did, but today they are merely opportunities for politicians to try and present the image their consultants have told them to project, knowing that image is everything.

Worse politicians would make for more stimulating debates and campaigns, just as worse pitching strategy for me would have made for more fun Bad News Baseball.

If a game is broken, the contestants can agree to change to rules. In politics, the “rules” are set by the media, the donors, and the entire voting public—the ones who reward certain behavior with positive coverage, with campaign contributions, and ultimately with votes. Every four years, we all complain about the way the game is played, but the prospect is slim of the rules changing—and the game unbreaking—any time soon.

Until then, we can console ourselves with the fact that there are a few players who aren’t really trying to win. While the game plays on in its super-rehearsed, substance-free monotony, let’s thank God for Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and most of all, Ron Paul, for throwing in a healthy mix of curveballs.

Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.

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