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The Game: How Campaigns' New Obsession With Social Media is Hurting America

BY Nick Judd | Monday, January 9 2012

Watch every 2012 campaign work online and you'll see this in action. Newt Gingrich's Newt Hampshire uses NationBuilder's leaderboard function, giving activists "points" each time they take a vaguely useful action on Gingrich's behalf. MyMitt, Mitt Romney's national action platform, tracks points in much the same way. Barack Obama's re-election effort is surely tracking every phone call made, tweet sent, Facebook post created and door knocked upon, and will use those numbers to set supporters in competition with one another. It's already happening; earlier this year, the campaign held a "competition" to see which of its state-level Twitter accounts could accumulate the most followers in a set amount of time.

As Patrick Ruffini of the D.C. firm Engage reminded me a few months ago, this has become a science. It's not just about what kind of competition the campaign sets before its supporters; polish matters, too.

"If you're smart, you pay attention to the color of the button, you pay attention to the coloring of the text, you pay attention to how your splash page is laid out," Ruffini told me. "And I think this can be powerful as well in delivering the same, if not more, increases in the level of action that people may take."

In September I began talking with Bogost about how games were or weren't being used in politics. He's uniquely qualified to have that conversation: He created the "Dean for Iowa" game for Howard Dean's 2004 run at the Democratic presidential nomination, has consulted for other political campaigns through his company, Persuasive Games, and is the author of a book on games in politics. Dean for Iowa is still online, although some features have been removed.

"So many of the efforts that we see, whether it's games or social networks or whatever, they're really about campaigning," Bogost told me then. "Facilitating support, or gaining new support, and that's what's really come to replace political discourse in politics. We talk about campaigning and the game of political support and attention. And we don't talk about platforms or policy during elections, right, we only do so when forced to."

Bogost was talking about the games that supporters are currently playing — namely, the ones that reward them for retweeting or giving money. But the same is becoming true for politicians themselves — it seems that they, too, or the hard-up insurgents among them anyhow, are starting to click on cows. Instead of getting the politicians to earn our support by demonstrating their value as problem-solvers, or their ability to build coalitions, or their capacity to generate valuable new ideas, the builders of leaderboards and definers of the political conversation are using this fabulous network we've got to reward candidates for ... getting more likes, retweets, or followers.

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