As a well-to-do, young political junkie from a family of political junkies, I have a few ground rules to keep Thanksgiving dinner from getting too awkward. One of them is if two parties (let’s say my 55-year-old dad who protested at Nixon’s second inauguration, and my 91-year-old Bill O’Reilly acolyte grandfather) are inevitably just not going to agree on anything, we should talk about politics with the same consequence as we do sports.
The approach works particularly well during the primaries as they’re basically the political equivalent of a regular season of baseball. Action is happening, everything is still on the table, but trades are still being made – with all the wonderful technicalities that make objective analysis of sports such interesting small talk. After all, any Red Sox or Yankee fan can agree that trading Babe Ruth was a bad idea regardless of the who, what, when, or why the Red Sox may still suck next season (and that’s from a Sox fan).
The same goes for politics, and it can be fun with some effort. Why get in an ugly debate over Obamacare, when asking my grandfather which Republican presidential candidate he would rather be stuck in a lifeboat with is so much more fulfilling?
It’s with a similar logic that I assume MTV has undertaken their latest public service venture: trying to turn the 2012 elections into a fantasy sports league. Yes, through Fantasy Election ’12 you can get together with all your fav political buds (because there’s a political equivalent to football buddies, I guess?) and pick the government of your dreams.
I know, you’re probably asking, “So what’s the game element here? How exactly are points scored?” Here’s where MTV’s intentions couldn’t be more dignified, much of the whole thing sounds as appealing as pitching Mountain Dew flavored mashed potatoes to make kids eat their vegetables.
Instead of calculating points based on the number of delegates, or how many zingers a candidate can fit into a 90-minute debate, the only way to win Fantasy ’12 is by picking the most honorable candidate. Fantasy candidates score points for being honest and transparent while losing points for mudslinging or concealing the specifics of their likely unpopular, draconian economic policies through paradoxical rhetoric and lies.
In which case, I assume anyone picking Mitt Romney shouldn’t get their hopes up for the $25,000 cash prize after the last debate.
In an interview with ABC during the Republican National Convention, MTV’s Jason Rzepka explained the inspiration for Fantasy ’12 with all the accoutrements of targeted marketing speak: “We’re seeing this trend called the ‘gamification of youth culture,’ where young people increasingly live through a game lens. So we thought, ‘What if we put a game layer to the whole election and use that as a way to engage them?’”
Obviously, there are a few problems with the model. First off, fantasy sports leagues in no way encourage newcomers to get involved in the dry and calculated world of sports statistics. They consist of a terrain of experts and ultra-fanatics that no one would describe as inclusive. While the sense of competition might spur someone with an average knowledge of athletics (you know, someone with at least one major sports team jersey in their possession) to do a bit more homework into second string quarterbacks, MTV’s assumption that politics is in any way a fun-loving community activity could only be described as faulty. They call them awkward Thanksgivings for a reason.
Things didn’t work out so well for the last guy who spent his goodwill talking about gamifying our world. In the midst of his freshman year at Princeton, Seth Priebatsch dropped out to start SCVNGR, a social media app that encouraged users to get out of their houses by turning life into one giant scavenger hunt. He was featured in The New York Times, given a TED Talk, and the last anyone heard from him was a keynote speech at SXSW 2011.
I won’t take away from the fact Priebatsch certainly has a bright future somewhere, but these particular bright ideas clearly drowned underneath his cult of personality; by any current measure, the media and venture capitalists went right along for the ride. Unfortunately, it looks like the story of SCVNGR will go down as a classic case of a CEO being more appealing to investors than his product is to the market, even if there’s still plenty of VC money left to burn through. By the same token, gamification may prove to be a substantive idea with a greater impact than merely infusing the small corners of the social media and online gaming realms, but claiming it is changing how we see the world is grade-A, tech startup hubris.
Admittedly, I shouldn’t be such a curmudgeon, at least not in the case of Fantasy ’12. The toxic atmosphere of the current political cycle is not conducive for rocking any kind of vote, and MTV was at least smart enough to change up their game (no pun intended) by attempting the impossible – connection with a clearly disenfranchised youth bloc. I could go on about how they’ve chosen a pretty backwards form of engagement, but really, what other options are sensible?
To paraphrase Ice-T, it’s hard to love the game when the players are so easy to hate.