from the russians in a dimly lit shipping container dept
You may recall that, back in June, I wrote about a bizarre situation in which an election simulation game, that I helped co-design, called “Machine Learning President,” somehow had some of the rules sheets leaked to Rebekah Mercer, from which they were leaked once again to Jane Mayer at the New Yorker, who wrote up an article there, not knowing the provenance of the game. This caused many, many people to assume that the Mercers had somehow made up this game to “relive” the success of the 2016 election. This resulted in a ton of angry headlines and tweets — including the host of NPR’s comedic news-based “game show” Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Peter Sagal, who alerted his friend, Cards Against Humanity designer, Max Temkin, who tweeted angrily about the game.
The next day, when I wrote up my post explaining what the game really was about — we had a lot of people reach out to ask if they, too, could play the game. Unfortunately, it’s a ton of work to put on, and the crew who designed the game — lead by Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath from Scout.ai and Guardians.ai, who initially conceived of the game, along with Randy Lubin (who is our partner in our CIA game project), and science fiction writer, Eliot Peper — are all super busy. However, by far the most aggressive in getting us to play the game were Max Temkin and Peter Sagal.
It finally happened two weeks ago in Chicago, and Charlie Hall at Polygon has a brilliant write-up about how the game went:
Inside a warehouse on Chicago’s North Side, within the thin strip of industrial property between Bucktown and Lincoln Park, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is pandering to a small group of powerful evangelicals. Just a few feet away, near a bowl brimming with 20-sided dice, Vice President Mike Pence is honing his next batch of TV and radio ads. Meanwhile, within a dimly lit shipping container, Russian oligarchs are desperately trying to funnel money to Sen. Kamala Harris through Black Lives Matter.
No, it’s not the fever dream of some political wonk stranded here along the nation’s third coast. It’s a 40-person live-action role-play of the 2020 presidential election. Formally, it’s called a “scenario planning game.” In motion, it’s a vehicle for some of the most engaging political theater that I’ve ever seen.
This was really only the second time we’ve run the full game (there have been a few playtests of part of the game). The first time was back in San Francisco in February and then this time in Chicago. The San Francisco game was incredible, but the crew that Max and Peter brought out to play in Chicago took it to the next level in terms of truly inhabiting their roles… and learning from the experience:
For Sagal, who every week tells jokes about political figures set against the backdrop of real NPR News stories, Machine Learning President was an educational experience.
“I make my living reading the news,” Sagal said. “All that shit is real, but it’s not important. The important shit we never find out about, and I honestly think this game illustrates that.
“Look at it this way: All of the candidates tonight got to make speeches, and these speeches were important. […] But what was also interesting was that there was no attempt on anybody’s part to use those speeches to convince anybody of anything. That all happened during the 15-minute rounds. The speech was just about signaling. The speech was not making the deal or convincing anybody to do anything. It was just about delivering on something and positioning yourself to confirm a deal you’ve already made. There was no persuasive aspect to any of the things that any of us said, because the persuading had already been done. Or, as in our case with the Evangelicals, not done.
“What the game teaches you,” Sagal continued, “is that the shit that we get to see, as citizens who watch the speeches and get the emails […] is nonsense and not important. The stuff that’s really important is happening behind the scenes.”
That may be the best endorsement we’ve seen of the game yet — and the article only barely touches on some of the crazy alliances, use of technology, dealmaking, events, and backstabbing that played out over the course of a truly frantic evening. As the article notes, a big part of the point of the game is to get people to better understand how politics and tech and money intersect, and we heard from multiple people who played in Chicago saying they couldn’t stop thinking about it after playing (we also had a few veterans of actual political campaigns note that it hit a little too close to home). Chicago has a reputation in politics, and I will say that the folks who showed up to play demonstrated that quite effectively.
Either way, we’re still hoping to set up additional events for the game, even though it’s quite a bit of work to run, and all of us are pretty swamped with other stuff. However, since people keep asking for it, we’re trying to figure out ways to run it perhaps a bit more often.