Donald Trump Won Because Of Bad Game Design

The 2016 presidential election has produced scores and scores of articles about how Donald Trump went from a novelty candidate to the White House. Most of these articles will overreach in their conclusions because they will focus on his election instead of his nomination, which now seems inevitable in hindsight. However, a very small percentage of Americans decided that Trump would be one of the two candidates for Presidents; he received 14 million votes in the primaries, from only 5.6% of America’s 251 million eligible voters. Only 1 in 20 Americans are responsible for Trump’s nomination. Indeed, only 800,000 more Americans voted for Trump in the Republican primaries than for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic ones (and 2.9 million more voted for Clinton than for Trump).

This percentage needs to be remembered when contextualizing Trump’s success — it is far from clear than even a significant minority of Americans ever wanted him to become President, and many, if not most, Republicans were essentially stuck with him after he clinched the nomination. Trump only won a plurality of votes in the primaries as more Republicans (55%) voted against him than voted for him. In fact, Trump won because of bad game design.

State-by-state, the Republican primaries have widely different rules, but they generally follow a winner-takes-all philosophy. By securing at least a plurality of votes, Trump won all 99 delegates in Florida, all 58 in Arizona, all 57 in Illinois, and all 172 in California. Other states with hybrid rules still gave Trump the vast majority of the delegates – for example, 89 of 95 delegates in New York and 70 of 71 in Pennsylvania – just for finishing first. The intention behind this rule is to shorten the primary process, to keep Republican candidates from damaging each other with friendly fire during an overlong race. However, like many rules intending to fix one issue, this one created a new one — that the nominee did not need a majority of votes to win a majority of the overall delegates. Trump won with an exploit.

In contrast, the Democratic primaries largely divide up delegates proportionally, so each candidate earns delegates proportional to his or her performance. Sometimes, these results can be quite close; in Illinois, for example, Clinton earned 79 pledged delegates while Sanders earned 77. This system has the downside of potentially extending the race much longer than perhaps the party desires, but a candidate without a majority of voters is also unlikely to ever earn a majority of pledged delegates. Under the Democratic system, Trump would have gone into the convention with roughly 45% of the delegates (estimating from his national primary vote percentage), and his nomination would be far from assured, especially considering how many Republicans would have preferred anyone but Trump. The Republican Convention would have been a messy affair, but at least the party would have had a chance to avoid the worst presidential nominee of our lifetimes.

Let me repeat for emphasis: If the Republican party had used the ruleset of the Democratic party, Trump would not have been guaranteed the nomination. Although rules are written to favor certain outcomes, they must be judged not just by what they fix in the best-case (shortening the primaries) but also by what they enable in the worst-case (Donald Trump).

How should the GOP patch this exploit? One obvious suggestion would be to adopt the superdelegate system of the Democrats, which gives the party establishment extra votes to prevent an undesirable candidate like Trump. However, superdelegates are also an example of bad game design because they create a much more extreme version of the problem that the Republican’s winner-take-all primaries were supposed to fix — extending the primary race longer than desired, possibly even until the convention when the superdelegates actually vote. When Clinton did clinch the nomination on June 6th, with only six states left to vote, the ridiculous but technically possible scenario still existed that Sanders could win if enough superdelegates switched from Clinton to Sanders. Indeed, Sanders made a fairly remarkable transformation from decrying the superdelegate system as undemocratic early on to asking for their help near the end to take the win away from Clinton, a nakedly undemocratic move. The real question Democrats need to ask themselves is whether they would ever actually be willing to use the superdelegates to override a majority of primary voters as doing so would clearly be a betrayal of the process. If the party is not willing to use them in such a way, then superdelegates are surely more trouble than they are worth.

The answer – for both Republicans and Democrats – is a simple state-by-state proportional distribution of delegates, with no superdelegates, and the nomination should only be guaranteed to a candidate able to earn a majority of delegates (and, most likely, votes as well). This scenario does increase the likelihood of a contested convention (where no one candidate controls a majority), which could be a problem in the mass media era. However, as we have seen in 2016, the alternative is much, much worse.

Speaking of bad design, we could certainly spend time talking about how the Electoral College is hurting democracy, but instead, I would encourage everyone to write your state legislator about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is a clever community-built patch for some legacy code with which we’re all currently stuck.

US vs. Germany: The Ideal Draw

The World Cup teams of the US and Germany are in an odd position for their upcoming match on Thursday. If the game is a draw, then both teams advance to the round of 16, which means that the ideal strategy – as pointed out by Mark Heggen on Twitter – is for the two teams to agree to just sit on the ground and let the clock run out. Considering that the US coach Jürgen Klinsmann is from Germany and that West Germany infamously took part in the fixed Anschluss game, it’s hard not to wonder if there will be a little funny business during the match. At the very least, the match threatens to be a defensive snoozefest.

As a game designer, of course, this situation is appalling. Anytime a game’s rules rewards players for boring themselves (not to mention us, the viewers), the problem is with the game designer, not with the players. A similar match-throwing problem haunted the round-robin badminton tournament at the last Olympics, and game designer David Sirlin wrote a great article which placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the tournament organizers. In the case of the US-Germany game, the problem is not quite so egregious – especially since the loser will have to play Belgium in the next round – but obviously the system could be improved.

I am a game designer, after all, so what would I do? The core of the problem is that whenever a game has more than two teams (and the World Cup is basically a game with 32 teams), diplomacy automatically becomes an important tool, regardless of the intentions of the game designer. Therefore, if winning is not required to advance, diplomacy can override the usual incentive for victory. The problem is that diplomacy is considered totally verboten (and a little unmanly) in competitive sports, even though it is considered totally normal in tabletop gaming. (As they love to play in Germany, of course!)

The solution is to focus the two teams on the one incentive left for them in the tournament – the seeding for the next round. The tournament’s rules should dictate that if two teams can advance with a draw, then the group’s other two teams are eliminated immediately. (The phenomenal card game Battle Line – by the German Reiner Knizia! – has a similar rule that allows capturing a flag early if a player can prove that no cards left in the deck could beat the ones on his or her own side.) However, instead of just cancelling the match between the US and Germany, which is problematic for many reasons, the tournament should let them play the game solely to determine who gets the top seed out of the group. Therefore, the two teams are rewarded for playing the game at full effort and have no incentive to make a mockery of the competition.

Now, context is important here as every rule always has a complexity cost. Adding this type of special casing to a video game or, especially, to a tabletop game might not be worth the extra overhead for the player to keep track of it. However, because the stakes for the World Cup are so high and because avoiding diplomacy is a design aesthetic for the tournament, this rule could be useful. Indeed, after the Anschluss game, FIFA changed the World Cup rules so that the final games of the round-robin phase would be played simultaneously to reduce the incentive for diplomacy. The situation the US and Germany face may not but common, but it’s also likely to happen again – all that is required is for a final game to be played between teams which both have one win and one draw. Better game design always beats the alternative.

Calling All Dawns

Christopher Tin’s new album, Calling All Dawns, came out a couple weeks ago. Have a listen:

Besides being able to record new pieces in Abbey Road with the Royal Philharmonic (not to mention Anonymous 4 and von Stade and Dulce Pontes), Chris also got to redo Baba Yetu with the Soweto Gospel Choir. As you can hear above, they did an incredible job finding the piece’s exuberance and abundance of joy. I especially enjoy the (new?) solo voice that rises above the bridge. In fact, Chris did change a few things for this version (via Steinar Kristoffersen):

    Steinar: ‘The last time we wrote you mentioned that […] the audio guys over at Firaxis decided to remove your percussion and replace it with their own. I must confess I’m curious [about] why the decision to replace your percussion was necessary or even desirable. I’ll also admit, however, that – alas – I do like both versions of the track, and I probably have a particular fondness for the Civ 4 version, if only because I heard and fell in love with that versionfirst. Which is, from a composer’s point of view (a point of view I can relate to and understand), unfortunate since that’s not how you intended the track to go, but, well, there it is. It’s still a wonderful track either way, and I’m happy to have both versions on my playlist.’

    Chris: ‘Yeah, it’s unfortunate that most people heard the Firaxis version first; and now that I’m creating yet a THIRD version, I have to figure out how to add something new, yet appeal to those who already fell in love with the first two versions. Nuts. :)’

    This album has been Chris’s labor of love for quite some time. If you appreciate his music, go buy it now.

This Will Surely End Badly

So, I have finally joined the pseudo-masses and am now on Twitter. I’m not sure how this will all play out – perhaps my blog will someday report that I lasted twittered 283 days ago – but it’s worth a try. I’ll be twittering my GDC thoughts this week (assuming I can make it work from my BlackBerry). Come to think of it, this might actually allow me to record the GDC notes I’ve always wanted to take but never did (or misplaced). Also, by twittering, I’ll get to skip writing my annual, three-months-late GDC summary! So, there’s that…

I’d Like to Apologize in Advance…

…to all the people I’ll meet at GDC this year. Due to a mix-up, I have no business cards! Thus, forgive me if I can’t take part in the traditional card exchange. If you need it, my e-mail address is on the About page.


Continuing the trip down memory lane, I added a section to my sidebar chronicling various articles or presentations I have done over the years. I will expand it further as I find new links. (Unfortunately, the link to my 2004 GDC slides appears to be now dead. I’ll provide my own source for this talk when I get a chance.)

Update: GDC 2004 link is now fixed thanks to Apolyton!

Interviews Page

One of the nice features of WordPress is a managed system for adding Pages, which are like permanent entries always available in my sidebar (or elsewhere if I change my theme). Besides my About Page, I’ve added one compiling all my interviews and chats over the years. It’s mostly for my own nostalgia, but if you want to relive the heady days of the Civ3 1.21 patch, it’s the place to be!

Read Me

Borrowing an idea from Damion Schubert’s ZenLexicon, I’ve added a Read Me section in the sidebar to highlight the posts which come closest to describing my design philosophy. If you are new to the site, you might want to peruse those articles.