The Gamefication of Politics - Mara Naile-Akim

Recently, we heard of the tendency to reduce politics to a soap opera, the all-important detail becoming secondary to the emotive narrative of conflict between high-profile individuals in the political arena. There is a different, separate tendency for it to be reduced to a game, to a team sport ‘played’ on the said political arena by superstar ‘players’ and cheered on by hordes of adoring ‘fans’.

Think of the unconditional love of a football supporter for their team, the bitter and yet very simple passion of a sports rivalry. To a hardcore Spurs fan, Arsenal supporters are sc*m just for being Arsenal supporters. The reverse is equally true. The dislike is deeply personal: supporters of rival teams rejoice at seeing the other side upset, beaten, gutted, they are terrified of the boot being on the other foot, they are motivated by the need to have the bragging rights over them. They will turn up to the stadium and cheer on their team, wanting it to win at all costs and being always ready to jeer a referee or linesman who might get in the way of that.

Unfortunately, this is all too easy to transplant into politics. Like football, the democratic process involves a lot of winning and a lot of losing: the main difference of course being that a lot more than bragging rights rides on the result. Sporting language & terminology is already ubiquitous in society (from baseball alone we have: ballpark figure, covering bases, curveball, big hitter and big league before we even get to the letter ‘d’ in the alphabet) and that, perhaps, facilitates the process. Once this mindset is adopted, all nuance is lost: who cares about detail when beating ‘those other guys’ is all that matters? Neutral, middle-ground positions become much harder to justify (you can’t be half Arsenal, half Spurs, you are one or the other, or totally apathetic to either). It is no wonder that a certain type of politician would seek to ‘gamify’ politics, make it more like a sporting contest, like a sporting rivalry.

Nowhere do the political rally attendees resemble a crowd at a sporting event more than in the US. Politicians over there love speaking against the background of supporters wielding the kind of paraphernalia one would expect to see in a baseball game. Like an adoring crowd at a League 2 ground cheering their team’s every pass against a Premiership giant in the FA Cup, they cheer on the speaker’s every sentence. Whilst they tend to approve of the content, it is secondary: the twin ideas of loyalty to the cause and ‘beating the other guys’ are at the forefront. The contest plays itself out on election nights: parties are organised by both Republican and Democrat activists to watch the results roll in and support ‘their teams’ in action — taking advantage of the commodification of the election process itself.

Elections, of course, are not necessary for the gamefication to occur. Dictatorships often sought to emphasise their sporting prowess — the 1936 Olympics being the archetypal example. There are ones far less extreme and more recent: enthusiastically supporting one’s country in every sporting contest, and even in Eurovision, has become popular in Putin’s Russia. Actual sport is used to present international relations as a kind of sport as well. But here the ‘tribe’ is almost invariably taken to mean the whole nation, the rivals being foreign (with a handful of fifth columnists thrown in): in a democratic system the rivalry is internal, against your own kind. In the football analogy, the former is rivalry between supporters of national teams and the latter between supporters of club teams: the latter all the more bitter because of the physical proximity between the two groups.

I will however dwell on Russia for a bit longer because of the WADA investigation and subsequent ban of the Russian Olympic team. Just like football supporters would claim ‘we woz robbed’ and abuse the referee who gave even the most blatant of penalties to their rivals, many Russians claim the investigation was politically motivated and the bans unfair. In other words, they alleged a great big conspiracy against ‘their boys (and girls)’. Sport itself became to them part of ‘the great political game’ that they thought they were observing - as well as a prototype for it. The investigation was merely a below-the-belt move by their team’s opponent aided and abetted by the crooked ref.

In this country, the gamefication can be seen most clearly among those clamouring the hardest for a no deal Brexit. The mistrust of neutral arbiters is there. The constant complaints about being hard done by are there. The unquestioning loyalty to the cause is there. The gloating is certainly there. They paint themselves as ‘the winners’ and brand the other side as ‘the losers’ who need to ‘get over it’— much like football supporters would after narrowly winning a local derby. They won — it does not matter how, because the result is all-important. The referee was favouring the other side — ‘like they always are’. They feel they are the top dogs, the opposition are ‘moaners who cannot get over it’.

Fantasies about one’s opponents being ‘gutted’, ‘upset’, ‘angry’ are, to me, the biggest sign of gamefication. Michael Gove’s recent comments about Macron are a classic example: the fact ‘a member of the other team’ is allegedly ‘speechless with rage’ has become a political argument he felt worth making. Normally, we could be expected to think of the French (and the rest of the EU) as allies, partners, someone we want to part with amicably, but that notion does not exist in the Brexiter vocabulary: they are rivals and we can only rest easy while they are not resting easy. A deal they are happy with is a bad deal by that fact alone, just like a good result for Arsenal in the north London derby must also be a bad result for Spurs. In their eyes this is a zero sum game.

Their football team has gained a slender lead and must win at all costs. It is no longer about the good of the country: it is a cause they are personally invested in and, no matter how ridiculous a cause it might have become, they will back it to the very end, much like a loyal fan will back their team even if they drop out of the Football League.

With football fans, that is an admirable quality. Here, with the future of the country at stake, it really is not.

Gerry McCann