Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

Steven Poole on Trump, pol­i­tics, and treat­ing kids like id­iots

Any­one can be­come a game de­vel­oper th­ese days. Take for­mer Supreme Court Jus­tice San­dra Day O’Con­nor. As you’ll re­call, she made up the notorious 5-4 ma­jor­ity who stopped the Florida re­count and so gave the pres­i­dency to Ge­orge W Bush in 2000. So who bet­ter to teach the chil­dren of Amer­ica how their elec­toral sys­tem re­ally works? In 2009 O’Con­nor founded a non­profit ed­u­ca­tion com­pany called iCivics, which has pro­duced an ed­u­ca­tional game called Win The White

House, newly up­dated for the 2016 cam­paign sea­son. So how ac­cu­rate a guide is it to the facts of Amer­i­can democ­racy?

Alas, re­al­ity has al­ready over­taken the car­toon­ishly sober sim­u­la­tion. You may not be sur­prised to learn that I im­me­di­ately named my can­di­date ‘Don­ald Trump’ and chose as the slo­gan for my tour­ing bus ‘Vic­tory is cer­tain!’ – the best, I felt, out of the avail­able al­ter­na­tives, with its faint hint of Na­tional So­cial­ism. But the game wouldn’t ac­tu­ally let me be Trump. Things be­gan to go wrong from the very start, when I was de­sign­ing my pol­icy plat­form in the pri­maries. I chose ‘Fis­cal Re­spon­si­bil­ity’ as one of my key is­sues, and was given three skele­ton speeches to sup­port it. One can eas­ily imag­ine Don­ald Trump say­ing “We can grow our mil­i­tary strength by adding way more ro­bots. Ro­bots are the fu­ture,” but this is the ob­vi­ous wrong an­swer be­cause it is com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant to the topic. Fair enough. But you also get marked wrong for say­ing: “Bail­ing out a sink­ing busi­ness is a lot of work. So many buck­ets!” This is a per­fectly Trump­ish thing to say, with its ir­rev­er­ent im­agery, and its won­der­ing use of ‘so’ to make every­thing sound mag­nif­i­cently bad, or (in the case of his own prom­ises) mag­nif­i­cently good. (“You’re go­ing to be so happy,” he con­stantly tells his sup­port­ers.)

When I am try­ing to ex­plain my sup­port for ‘Se­cure Borders’, mean­while, I am not even of­fered an op­tion as cre­ative as Trump’s cel­e­brated plan to build an enor­mous wall be­tween the US and Mex­ico, one with a “big, beau­ti­ful door” in it. Like­wise, when speak­ing of the threat of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, it is con­sid­ered in­cor­rect by the fine minds of the iCivics game to say “We should blow up as much as pos­si­ble to send a mes­sage that we aren’t play­ing around.” And yet in Novem­ber 2015, when asked what he would do about Isis, Don­ald Trump lit­er­ally said: “I would bomb the shit out of ’em. I would just bomb those suck­ers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the re­finer­ies, I’d blow up ev­ery sin­gle inch. There would be noth­ing left.” Peo­ple loved it.

Trag­i­cally, then, Win The White House sim­ply fails as a model of how Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is ac­tu­ally work­ing this elec­tion cy­cle, and I have enough faith in Amer­i­can chil­dren to think they’ll see through it too. But the prob­lem goes deeper. This game is ac­tu­ally anti-democ­racy. It teaches play­ers to pan­der to voter prej­u­dices rather than try to ex­plain things. Take, for ex­am­ple, busi­ness reg­u­la­tion. A Repub­li­can can­di­date in this game is marked wrong for say­ing “Com­pa­nies need lots of rules and reg­u­la­tions if they want to suc­ceed,” even though that is un­con­tro­ver­sially true. ( The most ar­dent cham­pi­ons of free mar­kets still want trade and con­tract rules to be strictly en­forced.) In­stead the poor child is guided to­wards choos­ing the cor­rect tawdry me­taphor by ar­gu­ing: “Com­pa­nies should be al­lowed to grow and blos­som, and the govern­ment shouldn’t stop them.” Grow and blos­som, like lit­tle pixel flow­ers in a walk­ing sim­u­la­tor.

Now, there is noth­ing wrong with try­ing to teach chil­dren pol­i­tics, and games might even be one way to do it. With a bril­liant teacher over­see­ing things and lead­ing dis­cus­sions, Win The White House might be only slightly worse than hav­ing the class read The Onion. But young peo­ple are likely to learn harsher and more re­al­is­tic lessons about the world – and even bet­ter skills of “crit­i­cal think­ing,” as San­dra Day O’Con­nor hopes – from games that aren’t ex­plic­itly de­signed for school­room use at all. Like the

MGS fan from South Amer­ica who posted to a mes­sage­board about how he was elec­tri­fied by the fact that Peace Walker “was all about help­ing to lib­er­ate banana re­publics”. Or like any­one who plays Pa­pers, Please. Even The

Divi­sion drama­tises the fragility of civil­i­sa­tion in some thought­ful ways. It’s not merely a mat­ter of sweet­en­ing the bit­ter pill of phi­los­o­phy with some faceshoot­ing; it’s a mat­ter of not treat­ing the young like id­iots. One day, af­ter all, they will be vot­ers too.

Young peo­ple are likely to learn more re­al­is­tic lessons from games not de­signed for school­room use at all

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