I Helped Design The Election Simulation 'Parlor Game' Rebekah Mercer Got, And It's Not What You Think

from the the-strangest-timeline dept

How was your Monday? Mine was odd. Have you ever seen a news story where you know the reports are getting things wrong? This is like that, but on steroids. In fact, this was a story in which not only were the basic points wrong, but the wrongness started to go viral.

Jane Mayer, the New Yorker’s famed reporter, published a short piece talking about how Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of billionaire Robert Mercer, who helped fund Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica and helped get Donald Trump elected President, had “played” a new parlor game, called “Machine Learning President,” in which characters could role play the election:

In March, on a ski vacation at a rented house near Vail, Colorado, she brought a batch of copies of the ?Rules of Play? for an elaborate parlor game called the Machine Learning President. Essentially, it is a race to the Oval Office in three fifteen-minute rounds. It?s a role-playing game, more like Assassin than like Monopoly, although players of this game do start out with an allotment of ?cash? to spend on pushing their agendas, which can include ?algorithmic policing? and ?mass deportation.?

?Tonight, the name of the game is power,? reads the first page of the ?Rules of Play.? Each player, it goes on, ?will assume a new political identity.? Instead of becoming Colonel Mustard or Mrs. Peacock, as in the board game Clue, each player takes on the role of a political candidate or a ?faction,? in the game?s parlance. Among the possible roles are Mike Pence, Elizabeth Warren, Black Lives Matter, Russia, Y Combinator, Tom Steyer, Wall Street, Evangelicals, the Koch Network, and Robert Mercer himself.

There’s more in the New Yorker article, and you can read how Mayer describes the game, but, well, I was a part of the team that developed “Machine Learning President.” We didn’t design it for the Mercers to get to relive their successful electioneering… but that’s certainly the way the internet took the story.

Splinternews had a story entitled simply “What the Fuck???” and its sister publication Jezebel had one entitled “Evil Billionaires Play a Board Game Where They Pretend to Have Total Control Over the American Political System Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha”. Ha ha ha ha ha. Except, um, that’s not the actual story. Kate Conger at Gizmodo wrote up a much better version detailing the actual history of the game, but since I was there, I figured I might as well tell you the real story.

First off, no, this was not a game for rich evil billionaires to relive the election and the joys of playing with the populace. This was actually in response to the 2016 election, and how the role the internet played in that election took a lot of people — especially in Silicon Valley — by surprise. The founders of Scout.ai, Brett Horvath and Berit Anderson, thought it might be useful to do some scenario planning to game out how tech might impact future elections, as a way to think through the potential challenges and pitfalls that might eat away at democracy. The founders of Scout recently spun out Guardians.ai to deal with the problem directly and protect pro-democracy groups around the globe from information warfare and cyber attacks. The idea behind the Machine Learning President was to use the game to get people to think about these issues, and to prepare for potential abuses of the system, while also thinking through ways that technology could be used for good — to protect democracy.

Brett and Berit brought in game designer Randy Lubin of Diegetic Games, whose name you might recognize as our partner in releasing our adaptation of the CIA’s card game. Brett, Berit and Randy worked on the core of the game. Randy helped bring me in, along with science fiction writer Eliot Peper from Scout, to help think though various scenarios of how tech and politics might mix in the future. The five of us helped put together a fun game in which players take on the roles of various campaigns, special interests and factions, and run through a full election cycle. A key part of the game is how money and influence play into getting out a message and how technology and different potential alliances may factor into all of this. Again, the idea was a simulation to help people think through what might happen and how it might impact things. It was not to predict the future or to get people hyped up on destroying democracy.

Indeed, part of the goal of the game was to look for areas of agreement, or where there could be bipartisan or non-partisan approaches to things, where we might be able to uncover productive areas to fix major problems in a world where not everyone is at the throats of people on “the other side.” We had kind of hoped that the game might be useful in starting useful, nuanced conversations, rather than just people screaming at each other on Twitter. Ironically, the game resulted in people going nuts on Twitter.

The game was also designed to be non-partisan, and fairly balanced between the various positions and factions. It really is designed to be educational, and to see what happens. What kinds of technology may impact an election? What unexpected coalitions may form? How might certain candidates leverage technology or groups to achieve their goals?

We ran the game in San Francisco one evening in early February with about 40 attendees. It was a lot of fun, according to every attendee we spoke to. People got quite excited about it and certainly got deeply into the roles they were assigned. It was fascinating to see what kinds of deals people were trying to make, and how different groups decided to make use of their money or influence. It was not designed, nor could it be used, as a way to happily relive past electoral conquests. For what it’s worth, when we played in SF, the end result was Kamala Harris winning the 2020 election over Mike Pence, who defeated Condoleezza Rice in the GOP primary (don’t ask what happened to Trump) – in part because Rice, surprisingly, ended up endorsing Harris over Pence

And here’s the thing: it’s unlikely that Rebekah Mercer and her friends actually played the game, despite what Mayer’s reporting says (and what others are now reporting). From the reporting, it appears that she got her hands on the general rules that all the players got, as well as maybe a few of the character sheets. Each attendee played as a certain character, and each player got a sheet about that character, how much money and influence they had and what sorts of policies they supported as well as what overall goals they sought to achieve in the game. But playing the actual game requires a lot more — including a bunch of facilitators who understand the game, and a backend engine that they most certainly did not have (nor would they have understood it if they had seen it). Only the very small team of folks who were involved in the game have access to that.

Though, if anyone actually wants to set up an event to play this election simulation — feel free to reach out to us or to Scout and it can be set up. It actually is fun and educational.

Still, what was amazing was to watch people react online — almost all of them horrified, believing that the Mercers themselves had made a game that appeared to be mocking the public. The New Yorker itself claimed that it was a way for the Mercers to “relive” the 2016 election:

Max Temkin, the creator of Cards Against Humanity, unfortunately believed the Mercers themselves designed the game, and was pretty upset about it:

Others reported being “slack-jawed and stunned”:

Another popular one was for people to suggest that this all showed that the public was “playthings” and that this was “all a game” to them:

And my favorite may be reporter Ashley Feinberg who described it as “conservative billionaire dungeons and dragons.”

And, look, from Mayer’s initial reporting, I can totally see how people would jump to this conclusion. Lots of people don’t like the Mercers, and they appeared to have a game — and part of that game includes policy goals that many people find despicable, including mass deportation of undocumented individuals. And, of course, there’s a long history of governments, military, intelligence agencies, campaign and more using scenario planning games to anticipate the future. I mean, why do you think the CIA started creating games (that we’re now publishing…)?

But this game wasn’t designed to relive the last election or to celebrate these things. It was designed as a scenario planning tool to think how tech can impact future elections. And, again, the Mercers were most likely unable to play it without facilitators or access to the backend of the game. The game is interesting. But not in the way that people seem to have immediately responded.

Even more ironic: part of the reason for the game was to get people to think through what happens when disinformation and “fake news” about hot topics related to politics spread virally on sites like Twitter. And what happens? Misinformation about the game spread virally on Twitter. Life is weird sometimes.

Still, to some extent, we’re amazed that the Mercers found the rules of the game interesting enough to discuss or even attempt to play. It certainly suggests we created something that touches on important ideas. And the team of folks who created and ran that game are more than willing to host more rounds of the game in the future.

So, uh, anyone want to play?

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Comments on “I Helped Design The Election Simulation 'Parlor Game' Rebekah Mercer Got, And It's Not What You Think”

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JoeCool (profile) says:


But this game wasn’t designed to relive the last election or to celebrate these things. It was designed as a scenario planning tool to think how tech can impact future elections.

Not gonna comment on the Mercers, but as any game developer will tell you, how you designed the game to be played and how your customers ultimately end up playing it often end up on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Ninja (profile) says:

I’d say our educational system (generally speaking) is in need of an emergency upgrade for years now. Maybe with few exceptions or considering some countries are far ahead in this upgrade thing while others are far behind.

I mean, what do schools prepare kids for? I mean, sure chemistry is important, mathematics and language are critical but do we teach critical thinking at school? Taxes, basic survivability skills (heck, how to fry a goddamn egg), politics, sociology. You don’t need to be an expert, you need basic knowledge and more importantly you need to know how to navigate through uncharted waters (ie: stuff you don’t understand), you need tools to be a better person.

I’m afraid a lot of bad will have to happen before we finally dedicate attention to this issue in a sane, nuanced way.

Chick says:

Re: Re:

Well, the best things I learned in school were in courses that were technically optional (for Canada, in my local education system): law and business math (aka. taxes and mortgaging interest lessons, mostly).

If I’d been taught some critical thinking, the closest I got to it was mandatory “Media” classes tacked on to my English courses for a week or two because of some McLuhan famous Canadian guy. 😉

The biggest problem with most schooling is that they’re (as a government institution) probably terrified of telling you what to do with your mind/knowledge. If critical thinking leads you to distrust authority, like Principals and MPs, why teach it at all?

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Thinking back on classes from Elementary up through grad-school at the Uni, I can’t think of any schools that taught critical thinking. One or two individual teachers here and there did, but the schools actually tended to discourage it as it made it harder to “educate” the “masses”. They want programmed cogs for the wheels of society rather than educated individuals.

US Law Professor says:

Machine Learning President


W/r/t the invitation to play the game, I’d love to chat about whether it might be suitable for a two-hour class in a seminar about media, law, and 21st century information technology with 15 students at a US Law School. If I understand the comment formats, you have my email. Drop me a line if you are interested.


John85851 (profile) says:

A game of media click-bait

It sounds to me like you designed a game to test the media and click-bait headlines.
It goes something like this:

The New Yorker reports that the Mercers have a game.
Next, the “Cards Against Humanity” creator sees the click-bait headline but doesn’t read the story and sends out a tweet about how he’s outraged.
Then another media website runs a story about how the “Cards” guy is outraged by the Mercers.

Yet NO ONE actually reads the story that says they didn’t play the game! It’s all media “outrage” and reporting on other people’s stories.
Where’s the in-depth reporting? Okay, maybe the original article has accurate and good information, but that’s not much good if people are only reacting to the headline.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Nobody cares, Masnick. Karma bites you in the ass yet again. You’ll never learn.

Given how many people have contacted us about the game, and the fact that this was the most popular post on the site yesterday… seems like… lots of people care?

And, I’m confused as to what "karma" you think "bit me in the ass" here? I mean on both sides of the equation. What was bad about this for me? What did I do to deserve this?

Look, if you’re going to troll with asinine comments, at least have them make some sort of sense, okay? Is that so much to ask?

bshock says:

I didn’t really understand why the story about this game and the Mercers went viral. For all I know, these creatures play Monopoly every Friday night and cheat each other blind. Big deal.

I do note, however, that Monopoly was originally supposed to be a game that taught people about the evil futility of allowing the rise of monopolies. The vast majority of people either don’t know or don’t care about this fact — they just play Monopoly like it was Chutes & Ladders with toy money, though perhaps they use it as a low-key outlet to greed and aggression. Nothing wrong with that, even if it misses the original point.

For me, it still seems like the natural process where society scrapes off intentions and uses the evil core of whatever it touches.

When “All In The Family” premiered on tv in the 1970s, it was meant to be a satire about a vile, racist jerk. Instead, a whole generation arose to think, “Hey, if Archie Bunker acts like that, so will I.”

When the film “Wall Street” appeared in the 1980s, it was meant to be a satire of vile, greedy business practices. Instead, it spawned endless wannabe-wealthy assholes who think of “Greed is good” as their slogan, rather than a hyperbolic joke.

The Election Simulation game is probably a bit too involved for Joe Sixpack to welcome it onto his game table, but if that ever happened, you can bet that the point of the game would rapidly become how to corrupt elections with as much ruthless efficiency as possible.

Glenn says:

but the head...

Mike – sounds inter… wait… sorry what were you saying? I was distracted by that woman’s gigantic head. She’s really got a head on her shoulders. She could be a head of state. Her looks are a heady blend of well-bred sophisticate and giant fuckin’ head. How much head is too much head? She probably… never mind.

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