The US Elections as Bad Game Design

Though this blog often looks at game design through the lens of published games, that’s not the only possible source of great game design ideas. A few years ago I wrote an article about burning freeways here in the East Bay — and the auction that followed — because I thought that it too had some neat ideas that could be applied to gaming.

And that brings me to the current day.

This Tuesday is, of course, the day that the United States will be electing its president. I encourage you to get out and vote as it is (once more) likely to be one of the most important elections of our generation.

However, I also find the presidential election to be an interesting example of game design. Looking at it from the euro point of view, the presidential election is essentially a big majority-control game. There are 51(!!) regions, each of which has a different value. The winner is the player who gains control of the most valuable collection of regions.

More than that, the presidential election is, in my opinion, an example of very bad game design. The game design is so horribly flawed at so many different levels that it’s somewhat surprising that we’ve only had two Constitutional Crises in my lifetime (when the unelected President Ford took office and when the 2000 election ended in an effective tie).

Thus today I’m going to explore some of the bad game design decisions that Reiner Washington and Klaus Jefferson made when they were putting together their now antiquated presidential voting game.

Here’s some of the game’s biggest problems:

1. Many Majority-Control Regions Are Unwinnable

Though the president game is theoretically about winning 51 majority-control regions, perhaps half of those regions are effectively unwinnable by one player or the other. There’s no way that Romney is going to win California or New York and no way Obama is going to win Louisiana or Alabama.

The idea of regions having pre-existing slants toward certain players is kind of cool, but the president game’s implementation of it is over the top. As a result you get an overly complex game that spends attention and effort on these effectively meaningless regions. A better design would have simplified the map to only include regions that mattered.

2. True Gameplay Space is Minimized

Even when you look at the regions that are theoretically winnable, a fairly minimal number of them are truly up for grabs at any time in the president game. For example, assume that a state has to show a difference or 2% or less between the candidates for it to be truly competitive. If that’s true, then both when I originally wrote this article and when I edited it a full week later, there were only three spaces that allowed for meaningful gameplay: Colorado, Florida and Virginia. Those percentages are according to the 538 blog, but use your favorite poll aggregator and/or calculator and you’ll find a similar count, even if the specifics change.

Nate Silver at 538 suggests an even more limited possibility. Based on his statistical analysis, he says that there’s a 50% chance that the state of Ohio will put one candidate or the other over the top for the 270 majority-control points that he needs to win the election.

What kind of majority-control game is that, where all the important gameplay happens in one space!? It makes the inclusion of 50 additional spaces on the board look even more ridiculous!

3. Valuations Are Out of Sync with Investment

In the president game, majority-control points are won through the accumulation of votes. However the ratio of votes to majority control points varies widely, dependent upon the region. In 2004, Wyoming did the best, with every 168,843 votes equalling one majority control point while Texas did the worst with 661,471 votes equalling one majority control point — a stunning ratio of 4:1 between the two.

There’s certainly something to be said for introducing purposeful differences between different regions. Majority-control grandpa El Grande does that with its different region scores. That encourages different players to follow different strategies, which causes them to value different regions in different ways.

Looking at design from the roleplaying side of things, we find a similar concept called “system mastery” where designers have purposefully introduced “traps” into their game designs that more experienced players might avoid:

“For 3rd Edition D&D, we decided that ‘system mastery’ would be a built-in reward. This is the idea that people who play the game longer figure out better choices than a brand new player, and so the old veteran around the table feels rewarded. Some people hate the idea of system mastery, though, so it’s not right for every game. However, one could also observe that it’s simply the other people around the table feeling punished–glass half empty.”

—Monte Cooke, Interview, The Id DM

However, the “system mastery” in the president game is so extensive and requires such minute calculations of the difference between regions that the result is borderline broken rather than interesting.

It feels especially broken if you’re one of those votes in Texas (or California) rather than an omniscient player.

4. Two-Player Only

Voting systems tend to break down whenever you have more than two players. Players who should have fewer votes can end up winning if their opponents split their votes among multiple options. Most often this results in presidential players sticking to two-player games only, which robs the game of a lot of its variety. However, when a third party does insist on playing, it can cause totally chaotic results, as seen in Florida in 2000.

Though much better voting systems are known — most of them variants of ranked choice — it’s the current two players who get to set the rules, and they’d prefer not to let other people play.

Greedy jerks!

5. True Win Conditions Are Non-Intuitive

Though the presidential game is really about majority control, it advertises itself as a pure voting exercise — as if there weren’t majority-control building blocks that stand between the votes and victory.

I’ve seen more than one game that misadvertises itself by offering up cool mechanisms that imply that players should do things that don’t actually lead to victory. However, the presidential game is a particularly egregious example of the problem.

 6. Granularity Can Make True Winner Impossible to Discover

Finally, the presidential game has a core flaw where if a vote is close enough in a region it’s literally impossible to see who the true victor of that region is. Florida in 2000 offered a clear example of this. 6 million votes were cast and the final (accepted) margin of victory was 537. That’s a .01% difference between the candidates. The problem is that the margin of error for actually counting votes is very likely above .01% when using paper ballots. You could keep counting from now until the heat death of the universe and it’s likely that you’d find each candidate the winner about half the time.

In many ways, the majority-control mechanics at the heart of the presidential game make this sort of problem worse. Sure, you could have a result that fell within the margin of counting error at the national level, but as the game currently exists you have no less than 51 opportunities for that problem to occur each time the game is played. If a race is close enough, one or more of those regional ties could make the difference …

The right answer, in my opinion, would be to have provisions for revotes if the results were too close, but sadly the presidential game is pretty strict about its game length not going long, and so one round of play is all you get.


I could go on, but for now I’ll just offer up my conclusion: the presidential game is broken and should be played with care. Fortunately there’s an option to turn the majority-control of the presidential game into pure voting. If the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact ever passes (and stands up to constitutional scrutiny), then I look forward someday to having more of a vote here in Sunny California.

And writing a new article about how a national vote is bad game design …

9 thoughts on “The US Elections as Bad Game Design

  1. I agree with your conclusion, but not the interpretation of that conclusion. Yes, the “Presidential Game” is broken and is nowhere close to a good game. But, I don’t feel that the process of choosing a president *should* be a good game. Who becomes president has a real impact on the lives of millions of people; it is not the right venue to have good game design aspects like “everyone gets a chance to win”, “low down time”, “balance of strategy and tactics”, “fun for all participants”.

    If “Elect the President” were a well-designed game, then I would have just as much
    a chance of becoming president as the current pair of frontrunners. That’s a pretty scary thought. (But it’s okay because, once I win, we can wipe the board and start another game.)

    There are many features that I wish were added to our current electoral system, but “being a good game” is not one of them.

  2. By the way, I don’t agree with some of the finer details of your argument. Two examples:

    * Ohio is the “tipping point state”, which is often simplified to “whichever candidate wins Ohio wins the election”. But that’s an oversimplification, and it’s only true because Ohio is the *median* electoral vote of all the other states on the political spectrum. California isn’t the tipping point state, because if Romney wins California, then it’s reasonable to assume that he’s already won Washington, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania — and therefore doesn’t actually *need* California to win.

    Or, here’s another way of thinking about it. Suppose we went to a straight popular-vote system, as you seem to want. Now, let’s take the entire likely voter population and put them on a giant political spectrum. Let’s say that the guy right in the middle of the spectrum is a Chris Jones, from Reno, Nevada. Now I’m going to claim, via an analogous argument to yours, that “Chris Jones is the tipping-point vote! If any candidate can get Chris Jones to vote for them, they’ll have the election in the
    bag! What a silly system, when it all comes down to who Chris Jones votes for! It renders all the other votes irrelevant! What kind of a stupid voting system is that?” But clearly this argument doesn’t mean that the straight popular-vote system is stupid, it just means that the center is more easily swayed.

    (Incidentally, this is partly inspired by Isaac Asimov’s short story “Franchise”.)

    * Sure, California isn’t in play now, but things were quite different a quarter of a century ago. Don’t forget that Reagan and Nixon, both Republicans, were quite well-loved and never lost a national election in California. The difference is that 40 years ago, the parties were different. Northern California was mostly Democratic because of white landowners and anti-war twentysomethings. South of Fresno there were lots of defense-related industries because of all the focus on Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, and Republicans were more about being hawkish than about being socially conservative. Now California’s more of an east-west divide, as the Cold War is long gone coupled with the rise of Silicon Valley.

    The point is, California isn’t “unwinnable”. It’s just unwinnable with the current set of party platforms and demographics, and those can and do slowly change over time. If you think of this less like “a new game we play every 4 years” and more like “a really long-range game that we started 250 years ago and is still going on”… well, some of your individual game-design-based objections don’t hold as much water.

    • I certainly agree that I simplified what it means to have Ohio be the tipping point — perhaps just a bit for comedic effect. However I do think that there are relatively few regions that can be meaningfully contested, lacking big changes in the overall picture.

      You make an interesting point about things being more rational in a long-term game, but I personally don’t see the presidential election in that way. I think the “game” succeeds or fails based on its individual plays.

      Thanks for the very exhaustive thoughts in any case!

      • Fivethirtyeight just added a new blog post about Ohio. One of the interesting point it makes is that were it not for the auto industry bailout in 2009, Ohio would probably have a Republican lean. Which means that, if all else were equal except for that change, the tipping point state would actually be [does some math…] Iowa.

      • You say: “I think the game succeeds or fails based on its individual plays.”

        I’ve been trying to get a group together for “Presidential Election: Legacy”. Should I cross you off my list, then? 🙂

  3. One thing you omit to mention is the historical aspect – when the system was introduced, there was no mass communication system; heck it was pretty difficult to get the news around within a single state, let alone across a whole continent. The Electoral College idea is a fairly good one for dealing with that problem – assuming, of course, that all the participants are reasonable people: I think that the US Constitution et al is a remarkable construction that unfortunately forgot to take account of the easily observable fact that any political or economic system tends to only survive a generation or two before it is consumed by sociopathic parasites…
    But even allowing for that, I think that it’s certainly plausible to argue that the Electoral College idea stopped working properly as soon as the railways arrived (and certainly as soon as the telegraph arrived.) Once the country became properly connected then national votes needed to be counted nationally, not at the state level.

    The real problem, of course, is that system reform tends only to happen as a result of losing a war or having a revolution, and that hasn’t happened in the US since the original impetus for your current system. Here in the UK we have an equally broken system for much the same reasons and despite some heroic efforts we utterly failed to change it when given the chance because there was no perception of any actual problem – if anything our “hung parliament” of 2010 probably misled people into thinking that the system was working just fine. The lack of any significant third party in the US may actually mean that you get your problem fixed long before we get ours fixed, although I wouldn’t bet on either outcome any time soon. I certainly don’t think a revolution is on the cards, at least not this year.

    • Talking about the historical aspects raises interesting questions. For example, how would the game be different if it was truly Republican as originally intended — which is to say you just were supposed to vote for knowledgeable electors, who would then deal with all that complex deciding-a-president bit for you.

      I actually *do* believe that reform can happen, because smart folks have (maybe) figured out a way to get around the electoral college. That’s through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact I mentioned. We just need another quarter or so of the electoral power in the country to OK it.

      Of course then we have plenty of other problems like inconsistent rules for voting across the country, the ability for small tyrants (be they Secretaries of State or lower-level bosses) to corrupt the vote, use of computer system that aren’t properly verified, voting on a work day, purposefully disenfranchising people, etc.

      But it’d be a start! We just need to start moving forward.

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