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If American Politics Were a Team Sport, Would It Be Any Nicer?

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, April 25 2012

In a country where someone is nearly as likely to play fantasy sports online as they are to follow the national elections, maybe one way to increase participation in elections is to bridge the two.

At least, that's the idea that MTV, Politifact, the Center for Responsive Politics, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and others are pursuing: A $250,000 Knight grant is the principal money behind a project, supposed to go into beta in July, that will turn the elections into a fantasy sports game. Users will arrange candidates into "teams," according to a press release, and individual candidates will be scored based on publicly available data about the truth or mendacity of their public statements (Politifact); their political disclosures (CRP); polling performance (RealClearPolitics); willingness to fill out a candidate questionnaire (Project Vote Smart); their political ads (Wesleyan Media Project); and Facebook and Twitter use. Players, MTV announces, will also rack up points for using Foursquare to check in to town-hall events or political debates. They can also get points by starting the voter registration process through Rock the Vote.

This game is worth noting because it takes the ways in which we've quantified politics and elections and tries to turn the resulting data towards motivating better citizen and candidate behavior — something I've suggested might be a good idea.

If people are obsessed with points, after all, and are going to be coming up with scoreboards of one sort or another anyway, why not make them boards that reward good deeds (like staking out clear policy positions) and calls out bad ones (like lying)?

Especially interesting is the project's input from the Wesleyan Media Project, which studies the volume and tone of ads placed on television. One problem with this is that Romney and Obama have both accepted the affections of outside groups this year — meaning that political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money will be leveling millions of dollars' worth of advertising on their candidate's behalf but, at least officially, without the candidate's direct say-so. While so-called SuperPACs can wait months to disclose their donors, they dish out information on spending within 24 or 48 hours of their expenditures.

If any of this could make politics more accessible to people who do not breathe and eat it for a living, I wrote back in January, then it would be a worthwhile use of time and treasure. Perhaps this particular instance isn't such a stretch. A March report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only 28 percent of all Americans were following the elections; meanwhile the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that nearly the same number of American men — one in five — played fantasy sports between 2010 and 2011.

This might help more people understand basic issues, like the dubious integrity of many candidate and campaign statements; the flood of political advertising, which, studies show, most Americans are likely to see and many Americans will be influenced by; and the relatively small number of people who exert such an outsized influence on politics by the amount of money they spend. But will it motivate anyone to address those issues head-on?

Ian Bogost, a professor, author and game developer I spoke with for my January piece on how we were all tracking the wrong things in politics, pointed me to an article he wrote in 2010 when I asked him about this game. Bogost, in the interests of disclosure, has both been a Knight grantee and worked on a game — Debt Ski — for MTV. While we're disclosing, I also worked on 10 Questions, a citizen engagement project for the 2010 midterms, that was funded by Knight.

"[T]he kind of game rhetoric I've previously written about and practiced builds arguments into the games themselves," he wrote at the time. "[F]or example, nutrition is a complex function of politics and economics; pandemic flus affect a smaller global population than the media frenzy would have you believe; perfect storms of simultaneous unrest and natural disaster drive oil prices to the highest levels. In each case, the argument is in the model."

In this case, the rhetoric is that candidates who seem to tell the truth more often and disclose their donors are better than ones that don't — a little self-evident, perhaps, but the game is more savvy about its own cause and effect than a social media dashboard that exclusively rewards Twitter mentions or Facebook posts.

At the same time, Bogost pointed out to me, the mere act of making a game comes with its own rewards. The headline for the press release that MTV sent to me for this one, for example, began: "MTV TO GAMIFY THE ELECTION." Certainly a nice arrangement of subject, verb — or, anyway, verb-like substance — and object for MTV to have out there in the world, no? Regardless of how this project goes, MTV has gamified American politics.