Let’s talk: Game Design and Politics, a surprising combination

Recently, in Greece we had snap elections that were caused when the opposition party SYRIZA refused to vote the government’s nominee for the President’s position. Greece has a semi-presidential system (it’s a system where the government is run by the prime minister and the head of state, the President, is more of a ceremonial position).  Parliaments are elected with national elections every 4 years and Presidents, in turn, are elected by the Parliament every 5 years. There are 300 MPs. To promote stability first party gets a 50 seat bonus and the rest 250 seats are distributed based on the number of votes. In  order to form a government you need the majority, at least 151 votes. Every 5 years whoever is in government must elect a new President. You get 3 chances to elect a new President. At the first two ballots you need a supermajority of 200 votes from MPs and in your third shot you need 180. If the government fails to elect it’s nominee the parliament gets disbanded and we get snap elections.  Confused? Let’s have an overview again:

  • Parliaments are elected every 4 years
  • You need 151 votes out of 300 to form a government. You get 50 seats bonus in order to do that.
  • Presidents, a ceremonial position, are elected every 5 years by the parliaments
  • Prime minister names a nominee.
  • You need 180 votes out of 300 to get a president elected.
  • If you fail,  government falls and we get snap elections.
  • First thing the new government must do is name a new nominee for President.
  • Repeat until a president is elected.

What happened in Greece, a few months back, was that the government formed by a coalition of the political parties New Democracy and PASOK and lead by prime minister Antonis Samaras failed to elect their nominee Stavros Dimas as a president. We had snap elections which were overwhelmingly won by the opposition party SYRIZA led by the current prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

The leader of the Opposition Alexis Tsipras won the snap elections he caused over the Presidential election on 2015.

The interesting part was that there a wide criticism towards SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras for toppling the government and causing snap elections and instability over a ceremonial position. Many argued that perhaps it was time for the constitution to change, so that government wouldn’t have to be held “hostage” every 5 years by the opposition ( in Greece, even though the leading party gets a bonus of 50 seats, a majority almost always has less than 180 seats in the parlament , thus the opposition’s consent is required in order to elect the president). They argued that SYRIZA got elected by exploiting an over sighted flaw in the process and it was time for the system to change. The critics included lawyers,judges and constitutional experts.

Is, however, the system really flawed? Let’s have a look from an unusual perspective, that of a game designer.

Let’s examine it a little bit differently…

Game design is, essentially, system design. Our job is to create systems that, generally, provide entertainment. These systems always include rule sets that humans must abide, so in a sense we are also law makers, at least when it comes to the game world. One difference may be that we tend to have a holistic view of the systems since we are interested in the performance of the system as a whole, rather than each rule separately.

So here we have a game with two players, the government and the opposition. Government wants to elect a President, the opposition wants to stop them.Let’s take a step back here and look at the rules a little more carefully.

  • You need 151 votes out of 300 to form a government. You get 50 seats bonus in order to do that.
  • To elect a president you need 180 votes.

Hmmm the requirements are a little bit weird aren’t they?  You need 151 votes to be granted executive and legislative power over a country, however for the president , a ceremonial position with no real power you need 180. For game designers weird rules like that are red flags. Either  the law maker was high on drugs when he was making this system or something else is up.

Have you ever heard of the term “the dictatorship of 51%”. It’s a term used to describe a potential abuse of the Democratic process. If everything is decided by majority then,in theory, half of the population may be ruled by the other half, sine the law of the majority is absolute. It’s a sign that healthy democracy can’t be something as simple as ” let’s decide by a raise of hands”. So what does the presidential election have to do with this? Everything. You see presidential elections are a safeguard against that very “dictatorship of 51%”. Remember that odd 180 vote requirement? Bingo. By demanding 180 votes, the law maker is telling the ruling party that they can’t completely ignore the opposition. They can’t afford to burn all the bridges, because every 5 years they will need their consent to elect someone, in an otherwise useless and completely powerless position.

Democracy is something more complicated than “rule of the majority”

Furthermore, the 180-presidential vote balances out the 50 seat bonus that the first party gets in order to form a government. So, from one hand the law-maker tells you “right, I recognize the need for stability that’s why I will give  50 extra seats to the first party”, but then he comes back and adds “Buuuut this is not exactly fair is it? We are practically rigging the elections with this 50-seat bonus. So, every 5 years I am going to ask you for something more than that”. Essentially, since the 50-seat bonus is adulterating the consistency of the parliament, the presidential elections gets transformed into the real  vote of confidence to the government!  Naturally, the question that pops up in your head right now is “if that 50-seat bonus is causing so many headaches, why not simply reduce it or remove it?”. Right, time for some Game Design.

Rigging one system to achieve a result is something very common when making games. You create a  game mechanic and then you realize that you need to tweak a certain aspect of it. This usually causes a chain reaction as pushing a system beyond its normal means has consequences. However, you can’t just undo the change, since it provides with a very special effect that you want. To counter-balance it you change another game mechanic accordingly, so that the system as a whole becomes balanced again.

Confused? Here is an example with over-clocking.  With over-clocking, one pushes its CPU, beyond the normal parameters. As a result you get extra processing power, but as a consequence you also get extra heating. Simply undoing the over-clocking is not a solution ( you need the power) , so you change another system, ventilation, to counter it instead. Thus, the whole system becomes normal again. Well, not exactly normal since these changes tend to stack, but it’s better than nothing. Now, back to our presidential election. The law-maker couldn’t just remove the 50-seat bonus, because he needed the stability, so he added the presidential election as well. The 50-seat bonus is your over-clocking of the winning party, the 180-votes for the president is your ventilation. Simple!


The counter-argument to all of the above is “Yeah we get all that,  but that doesn’t mean that the system can’t be abused. The opposition can still overthrow the government every 5 years duh…”. No, the opposition will not do that. As a proof this rule has been in place for 40 years before it got used to overthrow a government. How come for 40 years the opposition never used it to cause snap elections? Don’t they won’t to become government? Of course they do, but there is something stopping them. This “something” are a set of special unwritten rules operating in a system. There is no documentation of them and they are not official, but they are just as powerful. Due to their “unofficial” nature lawyers tend to ignore them, but Game Designers have a name for them: Metagaming.

Unwritten Rules

Let’s see what wikipedia has to say about metagaming:

Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.

We will take that definition, because it’s simple,understandable and accurate. Metagaming can take many forms:

  • The evolution of chess openings.
  • Football systems.
  • That adc heroes in League of Legends need someone to support them.
  • All forms of “fair play”. For example in football when a player is injured, any team having the ball will get it out of the game, so that nurses can attend the injured.

Good game designers will always take meta-gaming into account. There are quite a few games that have a good ruleset but bad meta-gaming ( I am looking at you Helldivers )  and vice versa ( my name is Settlers of Catan I have a simple rule-set and a VERY deep meta). Games that involve human multiplayer tend to have a very deep meta-gaming. Politics is such a system. Maybe it’s THE meta-gaming system, since in politics is a system that abounds with unwritten rules. Any attempt, to examine a political system without taking the meta into account is going to lead to false conclusions.

So what’s the meta-gaming in our case of presidential election? Political cost.

Remember, every Government practically needs the Opposition’s vote to elect a president due to 180 votes requirement. However, if the Opposition decides to cause snap elections by refusing to vote for the Government’s candidate, they do technically overthrow a legally elected, even unpopular Government. And that never plays well in public opinion. It’s not written anywhere, it’s not  official, but it is an iron-clad rule. What’s makes it worse is that snap elections are caused over a ceremonial position, so the Opposition can never mask their intentions in any way.Makes more sense now, why this absurd number of votes is required for a position with no real power huh? This way no one can use “political differences” as an excuse. If you cause snap elections over the Presidential elections, you caused snap elections for the sake of it and everybody will know.

This means that any Opposition causing snap elections over the President, must be absolutely certain, that they are going to win, even after receiving the penalty for overthrowing the Government.  If such conditions exist it means there is, truly, a dissonance between people’s will and the elected Government, thus it’s time for elections. Suddenly the reason why no-one has abused the rule for 40 years makes sense: No one could handle the political cost. The meta-gaming was holding them back.

American Congress

Even if you are still not convinced after all the above arguments let’s have a look at a case scenario where the Opposition did try to overthrow the Government, but it ended up blowing in their face.

American democracy is a full-presidential democracy, where the President is also the head of state. President holds the executive power while the legislative power rests with the Congress. The interesting thing about American Democracy is that tge executive branch and the legislative branch have different elections.  It’s a little bit complicated, but to simplify it President’s get elected every 4 years and a big portion of the Congress get elected every 2 years. This difference in elections means that you may have Democrats controlling the executing branch and Republicans controlling the legislative branch and vice verse ( it’s the dreaded Midterm elections that American politicians are scared of) .

Now, imagine those who criticize the concept of the Opposition being able to cause snap elections over a president, to stomach the Government controlling one branch of the government and the Opposition controlling another. No country would ever accomplish anything with a system like that! How can a system like that work?Well, not only it works, but judging by the fact that USA is the strongest country out there, I guess it works pretty well. What makes it work so well? The meta gaming.Yes, in theory, the Government can get stranded by a stubborn Opposition. However, let’s see what happened last time when the Opposition tried to pull a trick like that:

In September 2013, Republican controlled Congress refused to vote for ObamaCare, the Health Care program of Democrat President Obama, using the USA Government lending limit as an excuse. As a result the USA government was shut down.

Republicans believed that they had the public opinion supporting them, and they probably did. However, a strange thing happened: Public opinion turned against them. This whole stunt turned out to be a major PR disaster for the Republic Party. President Obama may not have been a popular president at the time,but he was an elected President and to people’s eyes it looked like the opposition was pulling a coup. A whole lot of Republican Congressmen, tried to exploit the written rules and they fell into a meta-gaming trap that was set up decades ago.

The Republican fiasco as it was depicted in newspapers 

Systems involving humans

So far we’ve see how Politics can benefit from Game Design, but what about the opposite? Designing games involving humans can be tricky. Humans exploit the rules, are always attempting to find loopholes and, sometimes, are really hard to entertain. Furthermore, game designers are struggling to predict their behavior , especially when it comes to interactions between the players such as trade, alliances etc. Sometimes games try to completely ignore that element, by “freezing” the relationship to a certain state, for example “Axis and Allies” or Starcraft 2. Others are applying the same rules for diplomacy that exist between humans and A.I, like Civilization 5, but this approach usually fails to express the complexity of negotiations between human players.

I think that the best approach is neither. Players don’t appreciate it when they are restricted in the ways they can interact or ever worse when they cannot interact at all. In the end finding the best way to deal with human interactions in games can be a hard to solve riddle. Notice that the politicians were faced with a similar problem, having to deal with a system that involved humans , perhaps on of the most complicated ones as well. So, what did they do when it came to rule-making? We haven’t directly  expressed it so far, but I guess you must have figured it out by now:

They didn’t make a single rule :P. They left it completely to meta.

Surprised? Don’t be! Remember: The bonus of seats awarded to the first party and the presidential election are a formally expressed rule. However, the balancing mechanics are all meta-gaming. Same situation with the American Congress. Separation of Powers is a formal rule, but the political cost of abusing them? Meta. And it works precisely because it’s meta. Meta-gaming is not expressed, it’s not written, it just… exists. This means that there is no “official” conditions of where the rules apply and no one is certain of how it works. This, not only serves as a form of protection against exploitation, it also prevents “certain to win” strategies, gives the game depth and makes it last in time.

In other words the best way to incorporate human interactions in your game design is… don’t. Just set up the game setting and let the humans, figure it out themselves.As a final note to convince you, remember one the most famous games that revolves around human interactions, yet it doesn’t have a single rule about them. There is no safe-way to play it but, like in real-life politics, you just have to be ready for the back stab.