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The Voting Problem

Grains of Sand

A recent twitter-conversation with Tommy Rousse about “Rawlsian game design” evolved into a broader discussion of the illusion of choice, situations where I think my actions are affecting the system, but they aren’t really. Many (most?) gambling games have this problem. Game Designer Michael Brough snarkishly added that another system with an illusion of choice problem is voting. Michael’s point is actually a valid and important one, and I think it’s worth a closer look.

It’s hard to criticize voting because it has a sacred status as an essential component of democracy, that klugy system that Churchill famously described as “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I honestly do believe it would be a catastrophe if there was a total loss of faith in the sacred status of voting, however there are plenty of people maintaining that status and that’s not our job. Our job, as game designers, is to think deeply about systems, choices, actions, motivations, and outcomes, and from this perspective voting is terribly flawed.

There is a lot of fascinating thinking about the knotty formal problems of group decision making, for example Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which suggests that there is no consistent and fair way to express the preferences of a group of individuals. But what I have in mind is a problem that is far simpler and perhaps more difficult.

What I see as the essential problem of voting is that it doesn’t scale. I think voting is a great way to pick lunch places and (ahem) department chairs, but as it scales up to the size of cities, counties, states, countries (and planets?) its failure to scale becomes more and more problematic.

The essential problem is that, in a group of a million or more people my individual vote doesn’t have a meaningful impact on the outcome. I know we want it to, I know we’d like to be able to claim that it does, we want to believe that there is some magical property that our tiny grain of sand contributes to the sunny tropical beach of group preference. But it doesn’t. If you were struck by lightning on the way to the polling booth it wouldn’t affect the outcome of any election you ever voted in. Worse – if I went back in time and took every vote you ever cast in every election you voted in and switched it with a vote for the opposite candidate it wouldn’t matter one bit. The impact of your individual vote is so small compared to the scale of the overall election that it is utterly insignificant. This is basically the public choice version of the Sorites paradox.

This should trigger your game designer alarm system, because one of our important jobs is making systems where choices and actions do matter. Meaningful actions and meaningful choices are the bread and butter of good game design, so when we see a choice that doesn’t matter we should want to take a closer look.

What are the consequences of the voting problem? Well, here’s one story that I find pretty convincing: because my individual vote has essentially no impact on the outcome, both the benefits of voting wisely and the penalties of voting foolishly are essentially non-existent. As a result, there’s no incentive for me to think deeply about how I should vote. I am free to vote for other reasons, and because voting does take some effort and I want to get some value from it, I end up just voting in a way that makes me feel good about myself, that expresses my values, or that impresses other people. I end up using my vote as an instrument on which to perform my values, instead of as a tool with which to achieve my values by actually affecting the world. I can vote Republican to signal my respect for tradition, I can vote Democrat to signal my compassion for others, and I never have to worry about what the actual results of my vote will be. Instead of a process for solving group decision problems, voting becomes a theater for expressing idealized versions of our values (most of which we have inherited unconsciously from our parents and peer groups) in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves without having to think too hard. (This description of the consequences of the voting problem is taken pretty much directly from economist Bryan Caplan’s terrific book The Myth of the Rational Voter.)

Actually solving real-world problems is a challenging process involving hard research into complex systems that have lots of uncertainty and plenty of unintended consequences. Even when we all have the same preferences it’s a process of trade-offs, compromises, and negotiations. Add into the mix that we have different preferences, and it becomes a nightmare. That we manage to do it all is a miracle, and make no mistake – voting-based democracy is miraculous. But could we do it better? We should at least think about it.

I would say that most people who play gambling games realize that what they are doing is a sick pleasure and a dangerous vice, most of us understand that when we blow on the dice and beseech the gods of luck we are indulging in a pleasant but foolish form of primal superstition. But when we vote we are fooling ourselves about what we are doing and why. And compared to gambling, the stakes here are exponentially greater.

That’s why I don’t think its unreasonable to claim that voting is worse than gambling.

One way I think game design could contribute to this discussion is through more research into the design of large-scale games where the actions and choices of each player continue to matter, not just symbolically but in a direct, concrete way, on the behavior of the system. Most existing large-scale games are really just social settings for small-scale games where our actions do matter. Could there be a million-player game where each player’s actions have an important, significant impact on the outcome? Where, as a result, each player is incentivized to think deeply about the consequences of their own actions and those of other players? Some MMOs, like EVE Online and Tale in the Desert, hint at possible directions, but most MMO design doesn’t seem to care much about this question.


  1. The problem with the game analogy of “making decisions matter” is that you’re confusing who the players are in democracy. It’s not a millions-of-players game – it’s an 8-10 player game (and if you take the USA meta into account, it’s a two player game). It’s the candidates who are playing the game, not the voters. The voters constitute the score, and player actions affect their scores greatly. Read public opinion and appeal to them as best you can. Perform well while in office and avoid scandal. Stay in the public’s good graces. These are all score affecting actions that need to be carefully considered.

    And in actuality voters have a lot of power in the game of democracy as well. True, a single person voting is not a meaningful decision, but that doesn’t mean there are no meaningful decisions to be made in the context of a democratic election. You can found a candidacy support organization. You can go on talk radio. You can discuss with your friends the best course of action for the country on objective terms. In short you can influence the election to some degree by altering the score. The method that you use, the platform that you endorse, your outreach efforts are all meaningful decisions with very real consequences.

    In short, just because you choose not to play a game or do not currently play it well, don’t assume there’s no game to play.

    Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Wait just a minute here. How is it that we don’t seem to understand that a single person voting is part of a larger group voting? And that voting does affect the process? Perhaps not directly, but our actions or inactions move us in social directions. Imagining that your vote doesn’t count is a misunderstanding of your role in the social commons. It leads to a form of the tragedy of the commons.

    Are we so convinced that every specific action we take have some direct and immediate response that we can personally feel? What ever happened to the concept of civics or of the polis?

    There are a variety of historical precedents: people who have gathered others in their momentum and changed the political landscape. The political voting game you refer to above is part of a series of larger systems/games and we’re all players in them whether or not we realize our roles.

    Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Klinkenbecker wrote:

    There are a number of problems with this very naive view of the voting process.

    Yes, there are certainly falliblities in voting, but the author has not really highlighted any of them properly.

    Whereas it is true that, >for sufficient group size, if everyone else votes reasonablyreasonedrational< voting decision. That is, reason is only one part of rational. In this sense the author is right – even though a voter may reason about their vote, their vote may not be rational since to be rational, the reasoning must also have an effect on the outcome.

    So, my point; a reasoned vote is not wasted, but expecting a vote to be rational may be ambitious depending on the circumstances.

    Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Frank Lantz wrote:


    Good point, it’s clear that many people in our political system (politicians, donors, activists, political operators at all levels) are faced with interesting choices that can directly affect the outcome of elections.

    However, I think it’s widely agreed that our system could do a better job of aligning politician’s success and failure with the outcomes of their policies. I think our inability to do this is related to the noise and lag built into large-scale voting itself.


    Tragedy of the Commons situations are actual dilemmas, we can’t solve them by not mentioning them. I would hazard a guess that you don’t think our political system is perfect as is, why not entertain the thought that the disconnect between choice and outcome in large-scale voting might be part of the problem?

    I am not spreading a “don’t vote” message. And you’ll just have to trust me that my critique is driven by a deep respect for the profound importance of collective action, which I see as the sacred miracle at the heart of civilization.


    Sorry dude, it’s not at all clear what you are getting at here.

    Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  5. First, great post.

    Second, I think some MMOs do, at least partially, contain some of the game elements you’ve mentioned here.

    In WoW, for example, there are larger-scale (although not massive) battles that take place at key points of contention around the world. The players who show up get to fight for it when it becomes available.

    In this setting, one guy with really good gear, good positioning and a little strategy can really make a difference. Or, a squad of experienced players on Ventrilo can dominate the fight.

    Now, every player can’t be present at every battle, forcing each player to choose where to fight and how to organize.

    I haven’t thought about this enough to really remark on how this could be applied to a voting system, but it’s certainly interesting to speculate how a different system could reward the individual.

    Again, stumbled on your blog by total accident and found it was a great read. Thanks for the great post. :)

    Monday, July 22, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Evilagram wrote:

    Second Pass Voting Systems. And Parliamentary governmental systems. These are the solution.

    The big issues with current voting practices are rooted in first past the post voting. First past the post encourages 2 party systems of nearly identical platforms practically, even if they are diametrically opposed in what they say.

    First past the post increases the chances of gerrymandering, and makes a great number of votes worthless, such as all the ones for the opposing side, and all the ones beyond the number necessary to outweigh the opposing side.

    In parliamentary systems, a greater number of parties are encouraged because representation of all parties is proportional to all votes. Every vote literally counts and there is no chance of a vote being wasted.

    In Second Pass voting systems, instead of voting directly for one entry, every participant writes down a numbered list of the order they prefer for candidates, and if a candidate is defeated on the first pass, the votes of the people comprising that candidate are passed to the next one on every person’s list. Through this system the person with the greatest number of first pass votes doesn’t necessarily win, because up front solidarity isn’t as valuable as in the first past the post voting system. In first past the post, you may have one smaller party with complete solidarity, and another, larger party, that has divided opinions on where they would like their votes to go, but are certain they don’t want it going to the smaller more solid party. In a first past the post system, the smaller party would win out due to complete solidarity, despite their candidate being less popular overall, simple because the greater group of people are too divided to unite against the party with solidarity.

    If you want to win a first past the post vote though, the best option as an individual is not to vote yourself, it is to get a ton of other people to do it for you. Campaign drives don’t exist to sway undecided voters, they exist to rally the masses that already support you.

    A local club held a write-in vote for what game they wanted played at an upcoming tournament, encouraging people to name whatever their favorite most-wanted game was. There was no means of people seeing each other’s votes, it was open to the entire college, and from what I know about voting dynamics in that situation, the likely outcome would be a ton of games across the board with extremely weak representation, and any game that showed any type of solidarity would win easily, even if the vast majority of the voters didn’t want it. I assumed there would be maybe 100-200 people voting in, so I knew I could get the game I wanted if I could just get about 20 people to vote for the game I wanted. So I asked a few of my friends who were unaffiliated with the club to provide their student IDs to vote in for Super Smash Bros Melee, got about 15 of them, versus roughly 170 votes total. Sure enough, it was announced that Super Smash Bros Melee was the next tournament game and I even made it to grand finals when the time came.

    And that’s how I solved the voting problem.

    Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

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