Brexit, the U.S. presidential race, & what they have in common with XBox

This is the script of a talk I gave today at my wife’s church, the ERUCC in Frederick.

Thank you for having me here today. Thank you, Barbara, for inviting me in a way that gently expressed I had no other option. What I’ve been asked to talk about is the U.S. presidential election and Brexit. So, you know, no biggie. I hope you’ll forgive me a little indulgence, and forgive me if I lapse into a little philosophy and perhaps talk a bit about what I see behind these two phenomena, rather than boring you with the sausage-making of the political process, which you probably already know.

But first: These are worrying times, aren’t they? These are uncertain times.

But first, I’m going to apologize. I’d like to say I’m some kind of expert on politics. Certainly, after more than 13 years covering politics in Frederick County from the ground up, which is to say, from the small cities and towns that make up where we live, then Frederick City Hall, then the marbled halls of Annapolis, you’d think I’d have some experience, some notions of how to frame this for you in a way that encapsulates the state of play, that tells you, well, yes, this because of this and so on.

It’d be fair to ask me, pointedly, weren’t you an opinion journalist? Isn’t it your business to be able to communicate to us, the readers and watchers of politics, some predictions about how this whole insidious business will pan out? After all, to whom do we turn in times when we need assistance formulating our thoughts; people in the media are supposed to sound the warning bell, right? Why? You asked us. How can this be? How did this happen?

The short answer is: We don’t know. Sorry.

The media, of which not to short a time ago I was a member, have tried to afflict the comfortable, as Finley Peter Dunne once wrote. Oh yes, we’ve tried, Thousands of words have been written about the candidates — one in particular, and I believe you know who — and yet, these words have been like drops of rain running off a Rain-X coated windshield. In fact, I think theses thousands of words have only helped.

The media is part of the “establishment,” a word I purposely have put in quotes; and Mr. Trump (in case you had any question who I was talking about) has made an art of engendering, representing and encouraging this idea that somehow he is outside of that establishment and, as such, is best placed to “do something” about it. And yes, I put “do something” in quotes also. The “do something” has so far lacked any specifics, other than whatever it is, it will be “great” or, possibly, “huge.” Whatever that means. It’s that anti-establishment posture I’ll be getting to in a minute when I attempt to illustrate a theory behind his success.

Perhaps part of me talking to you here today should be to “comfort the afflicted,” which is to say all of us here. Well, again, sorry. I really wish I could offer some comfort, truly. We’re all grown ups; I am deeply aware of how intelligent and educated the people in this room are, so I won’t sugar coat. I don’t want to insult you with trite predictions. Things are bad. Really bad. The ancient Chinese passive-aggressive curse is, “May you live in interesting times.” “Interesting” seems inadequate.

If the Trump vs. Clinton race here in the U.S. weren’t awful enough, then there was the Brexit vote in the U.K. to leave the European Union, which passed, leaving supporters about as stunned as those who opposed it, causing great uncertainty and not a small amount of swearing at my parents apartment in Naples, Florida, on June 23.

Politics is in chaos. Not just here, in this once marvelous boiling experiment of democracy, but in established, centuries-old systems of governance, such as Her Majesty’s Parliament.

All I can tell you is that we’re at a precipitous point in global history: Either collapse or a transformative revolution. Change is something we may all have to accept, and change, when it comes to the historical interplay and evolution of countries, is painful. Things may get worse before they get better. We’re not just divided, as some pundits may try to make us believe. We are fractured. Shootings of LGBT club-goers, shootings of people by police, simply because of the color of their skin; shootings of police, simply because of their profession. Race, gender, sexuality, religion, politics. These fault lines, exacerbated by the abundance of ubiquitous, 24/7 information, are tearing holes in us. People are angry, so angry, and I honestly cannot tell you why. I personally look around and am quite content, selfishly, with my personal lot.

Now, to ease my mind, I play a lot of Xbox. Don’t laugh. I’m getting to my point. Game design is a very expensive, very complex business.

Complex situations emerge in video games, board games, or table top role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.

This is phenomena known as “emergent gameplay.” In a nutshell, that’s where players in particular games emerge and innovate, and do so entirely within the rules of the game by creating new, unthought of rules that conform to the game, but within its gray areas. Those individuals, often not governed by the common ethical rules that define society, are hated. (It should be pointed out that some of them should be.)

Survivor was the example most given, and you may remember Richard Hatch, season 1’s Survivor winner, and how he created the unforeseen alliance system that became so commonplace in later episodes. In fact, if you’ll indulge me in a theological moment, it is those rule benders, seemingly unfettered from societal rules, we see in numerous historical archetypes: Lucifer, Loki in the Norse pantheon, Set in the Egyptian, etc., etc. So, while I may be using modern language to describe the phenomenon, it’s actually an very old concept indeed.

But indulgences aside. Back to the point.

What the notion of “emergent gameplay” outlines is, I think, true for any system. Only, the bigger and more complex the system, the longer and more difficult it is for innovative gameplayers to emerge, so the innovations they adapt within the game structure tend to scale up. And when that happens, the system can thrown into chaos. And it is at this inflection point the system can fail, if its parameters are not flexible enough to accommodate the new styles of play. Other players follow suit, mimicking the original innovator. Finally, the system once again reaches some equilibrium, but the game is changed forever, radically, until a new emergent stream of gameplay evolves.

I’m sure you realize what I’m getting at here, and where I’m drawing a link between Brexit and Mr. Trump. Both are emergent gameplayers, Trump, I believe, more intentionally than Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders, too, in a way.

I may not have been entirely accurate when I told you at the beginning of this talk that I could offer you no hope. I can offer you some hope, although whether you take as such is up to you. (I hope you do.) Sometimes those gamesplayers, as innovative as they are, as original as they are, whether wittingly or not, can change the system but lose the game. That loss comes with a price. Just look at the buyers’ remorse following the Brexit vote as an example. Those who were central to the Leave campaign’s leadership are finding their careers tattered: London Mayor Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions were assassinated by his friend and colleague Michael Gove, who decided he would make a better candidate for the premier, only to be failing in his campaign to take over the Tories. Nigel Farage, the outrageous, racist and toxic leader of the UK Independence Party, has resigned his post saying he wants his life back.

Caveat emptor.

These players may leave us with a system that is chaotic or in crisis. However, the upside is that emergent gamers may break the system, and I’m saying that forcefully with positive connotations because it can subsequently cause an awakening, or an epiphany, to those of us who have, until the revolution began, been lethargic, and have failed to nurture the system adequately. The loopholes, so to speak, that allowed the rules to be flexed or ignored, may end up being closed. The paradigm will be reasserted, our complacency eradicated, and the whole made more robust that it was before. That’s democracy working.

Emergent gameplayers can shock the system enough to bring it back to life and propel it out of apathy. While Brexit and Mr. Trump may be causing enormous uncertainty, huge and great uncertainty, I’d submit to you that there’s hope in that. Chaos may not be the most comforting thought, but it’s what we aspire to be as Americans following that crisis that counts.

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