Making a game of disruption politics

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2010

More from John Robb: rewiring agitprop and non-violent protest movements as open-source games.

… in modern western societies, this elite group and their specialists are able to dissociate themselves from jobs when it comes to their private lives.  They live unencumbered within our impersonal society.  This window of vulnerability creates a yawning opportunity for innovative forms of disruptive non-violent protest.  One that pierces the organizational and societal veil of anonymity for these individuals by turning them into systempunkts (vulnerable nodes within the targeted organization’s network that would cause the most damage if disrupted).

Essentially, if you can successfully deter/coerce individual decision makers in this decision making group, you will win (and quickly).Early work on this type of protest can be seen in the work of 4Chan’s Anonymous and China’s human flesh search engine. Both of these open source movements have shown to be surprisingly powerful at targeting single individuals (and poor at disrupting organizations).

An aside: I find Anonymous fascinating, because (whether deliberately or not) they’ve created a fluid non-identity that can be picked up by anyone anywhere for any purpose. It’ll be one of those names that haunts the sidebars of news sites for decades, if not longer… and there’s always the possibility of a schism or interfactional split, which should be fascinating (and doubtless horrific and hilarious) to watch from the sidelines.

But back to Robb:

… any online group of sufficient size could launch an effort like this.  However, to really zoom the effort and turn it into a coercive tool, one modification should be made.  It should operate as an online game.

Well, pretty much everything else operates as an online game, even democracy itself. [/snark] More seriously, though, using the reward structures of games to entice people toward certain real-world behaviours has been proposed (and put in to action) by others, and has a certain resonance not only with the times we find ourselves in, but also our nature as homo ludens. Indeed, Robb himself proposed a kind of real-life Farmville to spread permaculture farming, but I suspect the amount of real physical work needed to achieve those sorts of goals will deter all but the most tenacious.

That said, science fiction writers got there first: Stross’ Halting State, and Walter John Williams’ This Is Not A Game, for instance. Maybe human society was always a game, and we’re only now waking up to a fact that politicians and uber-entrepreneurs have always understood instinctively?

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2 Responses to “Making a game of disruption politics”

  1. Summerspeaker says:

    Yes, human society can humorously and accurately be described as a game in the sense of having arbitrary and invented rules. The economic system, for example, especially lends itself to this comparison. Your bank account might as well be your current score. Better go collect those green pieces of paper for more points!

    This begs the question origins, however. Perhaps games resemble civilized behavior rather than the other way around. Or it’s a mutually reinforcing relationship.

  2. Stephen J. says:

    The defining condition of a game is that it’s something you can afford to lose — when the consequences of losing are grave enough, anything stops being fun. One could also say — same sentiment, different phrasing — that the defining condition of a game is anything where playing it for its own sake is more interesting than whether you win or lose it.

    This is why gambling addicts have to learn not to think of their vices as games, why sociopaths can afford to treat relationships as tokens and pieces, and why, to some extent, even the better politicians and tycoons develop the habit of treating their work as exercise or experiments in “game theory” — they themselves seldom directly, personally suffer profound loss from even their worse mistakes, and become more interested in what they do for its own sake rather than in why they do it. (It’s not even limited to politicians and tycoons; go to any major street protest, and there are always a small minority who go to any and every protest they can just to be protesting; it doesn’t matter about what.)

    The paradox that I suspect trying to capitalize on this sentiment may run into is simply that the more you care about what you’re actually trying to accomplish, the less interest you’ll have in treating it as a game, in having the fun with it that encourages the time and effort investment, and vice versa. Which means it could only really work if someone designed the rules so well that the game itself would accomplish the designer’s goals without requiring the players to care about what those were…. and I wonder if I’m the only one who finds that idea worrisome.