As I write this, the Iowa Caucuses have ended in an inferno, with no results reported, the fourth-place candidate claiming victory, and the frontrunner’s campaign suggesting the results of an election are invalid. The trial of the president for darn-near-treason will end in an acquittal after no witnesses were called, as potential witnesses literally played recordings of Trump committing crimes against America. The Democrats’ upcoming debate will include Mike Bloomberg, who has not met any donor thresholds because he has absolutely no donors at all. The president prepares for a State of the Union Address tonight where he is emboldened to commit even more crimes, since he knows no consequences await him as long as he can cow the GOP into complete subservience. Everything feels awful.
And so, with all of that bleakness, it’s time to talk about why you feel so terrible. It’s time to talk about Cyberball.
Cyberball is one of the all-time great sports. Maybe you’ve never heard of it. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. It’s not played on athletic fields or in gymnasiums. It’s only played in psychological testing labs in and around Purdue University.
In a game of Cyberball, players stand apart from each other and throw a ball at each other. Most times, an opposing player catches it. Pure, athletic action, all on a computer screen. While you play it, you’re encouraged to think about what the other players are like, where you’re playing, and what the day is like. It’s important to get your brain right. OK, here’s the game.
Now, you’d be forgiven if you think Cyberball is a game for two players. It’s not. See that little hand in the middle of the gif above? THAT’S YOU. You’re ready to catch the ball, right? Except those jerks aren’t throwing it to you. They’re just chucking it back and forth, excluding you from participation. This despite the fact that you want to play. You want to play a lot. It hurts that you’re excluded. It’s devastating, actually. Your opponents must be cruel people to leave someone as great as you out of the fun.
Here’s the big problem, though. You, like everyone else who’s ever played Cyberball, are not playing against real opponents. You’re playing against a computer program. Before you ever sat down, the programmers decided how often you would be thrown the ball, and may have decided that after a certain point, you would never be thrown the ball. They just didn’t tell you.
Cyberball is an experiment on your brain. It’s designed to measure, in a way that’s a little difficult to understand, how love affects the body. As anyone who’s heard the Nazareth cover of the Everly Brothers song knows, love hurts. It wounds and mars. Maybe you know that from experience. But what you may not know is that there’s actual scientific proof that it hurts as much as physical pain. Sometimes much more.
Here’s how Cyberball began. In 1983, Purdue researcher Kipling Williams and his dog Michelob were relaxing in a park when he got bonked by a Frisbee. He threw it back to the two guys playing, and they threw it back to Williams. How jovial! This continued for a minute and was great fun. Then, for no apparent reason, the two original Frisbee-ers just returned to tossing it between themselves. They cut Williams out without saying anything. He was stunned how sad, angry, and embarrassed this made him feel. After Williams slunk back to his faithful Michelob, he resolved to know why.
To understand ostracism, Williams built the Cyberball program. (Actually, I’m sure he had help from several other researchers, and I’m ostracizing them by not bothering to look up their names. That makes me a jerk. I’m sure that since they are interested in the effects of ostracism, they appreciate me giving them more data. See, total jerk.¹ I digress.)
The Cyberball experiment, which was performed more than a thousand times, showed some interesting results. Participants got cranky when they were thrown the ball too often, for example. Having to deal with half the throws was simply too much work. Even the obvious one-third—completely equal inclusion—wasn’t the sweet spot. Players generally felt better when they only got one-sixth of the throws. Then they felt included and supported. But you know who felt the worst? The people who got none of the throws. Completely ostracized participants demonstrated lower levels of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence.
Here’s the fun part. Some players were told the other players didn’t exist, that they were playing against a program, and it didn’t matter. The players still suffered the same loss of self. Researchers could say the other players were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and the players still wanted to be thrown the stupid ball. By the goddamned KKK. This is even true:
(The researchers) asked participants to play Cyberball inside an MRI chamber in which the blood flow in their brains could be monitored. They reported more distress and showed activation of the anterior cingulate cortex — the same region of the brain that registers physical pain — when they were ostracized during Cyberball, even when they thought that their computer was not yet connected to the computers of the other two players.
Whoa. They still felt ostracized even when told the game was not on. This is some serious pain. It’s backed up by further studies where participants were exposed to different levels of hot stimulation on their forearms at the same time they were shown pictures of ex-lovers who’d broken up with them. The two types of pain registered increased activity in the same parts of the brain. Science tells us rejection is hot. Love really hurts.
When ostracism is this intense, it impairs cognitive function. This makes perfect sense to me. As a game designer, I know all about the effects of ostracism. Sure, I know a little bit about it because I was a bit of a dork growing up, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I know about ostracism because I’m expert on player engagement. That’s the term we use to refer to how hooked in a player is to the game we’re playing. What you might not know about that is that the system of the game is far more important than anything the players are doing. It doesn’t matter whether they can effectively play the game or whether others assist them in doing so. It mostly matters whether the system allows players to seize the spotlight.
Have you ever played Cranium? That’s the board game where you might sing a little, solve some word puzzles, do some Play-Doh stuff, and so on. I wouldn’t say it’s a great game at any of those things, though. I’d rather play Sing It!, Boggle, or Claymania, because they specialize in really good implementations of each of those things. Cranium is kind of a mishmash, really. And, oh yeah, it’s one of the most popular board games of all time.
When I asked Cranium’s game developers at Forrest-Pruzan why it was so popular, they gave me a simple answer: “It makes everyone feel like they’re great at something.” It sure does. Cranium moves the spotlight from player to player. Everyone has their moment in the sun, doing the part they like the best. How awesome is that.
Cyberball does the exact opposite. It makes you feel like you’re not just good at anything. You’re not even worth including. Think about the worst you’ve felt when you’ve lost a game. If you got to try your hardest and still lost, you can handle it. The worst is when you hardly got a chance to play.
With all that in mind, let’s look at why politics makes you feel so bad these days. All this assumes you’re a Democrat or independent concerned about rampant corruption, sexism, racism and fascism. If you like those things, maybe you’re feeling pretty good these days. But I’ll assume you’re not.
From the minute the House voted to impeach Trump, you knew it was going to be rough going. There were never going to be 67 votes in the Senate to convict. Heck, if the Democrats controlled the Senate, that’d be hard to find. But even with all that, you thought there might be … more. You got Adam Schiff masterfully standing up for righteousness, but as you looked across the gallery, you knew it was falling on deaf ears. The Republicans didn’t want to be here, and they sure didn’t want you here.
By refusing to allow witness testimony, the GOP made it impossible for the good guys to play. Our team was effectively shut out, and maybe we were never going to win anyway, but we wanted to play. That’s the feeling we’ve gotten from the Senate for years now: there is no progress, no accountability, no professionalism, no hope. But the impeachment trial was worse. In a couple weeks, the Senate proved there were no greater angels under the rotunda, just more crushing disappointment. You wondered, without representation, do we even have a representative government?
But you had the presidential primaries to look forward to. A ratification of the great strides our candidates had made. That’s what you wanted. But first, before anyone could vote in a primary, you had to get through Iowa. The wildly Byzantine and undemocratic caucus system probably didn’t make complete sense—why exactly couldn’t caucus-goers switch away from viable candidates on the second alignment, and what exactly was viability anyway—but at least the overwhelmingly white voters would give their say. Barely one percent of the delegates would be awarded at the caucuses, but with people voting for the first time, the process would feel good.
Then it didn’t. With the assistance of a company called ACRONYM who hired an app maker called Shadow, Inc.—wow, what 1990s Sandra Bullock movie am I in again?—everything ground to a halt. In the words of gun-jumping candidate Pete Buttigieg, “Iowa, you have shocked the nation.” Not by reporting favorable results for Buttigieg, but for reporting no results at all. The word “clusterfuck” never had so real an example.
You could hear the confusion in the words of the Story County precinct captain who couldn’t report his results. Here’s Shawn Sebastian talking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Sebastian: I have been on hold for over an hour with the Iowa Democratic Party. They tried I think to promote an app to report the results. The app by all accounts just like doesn’t work. We’ve been recommended to call into the hotline, and the hotline has not been responsive. I can hear just the music that I’m hearing.
Blitzer: Shawn, have you gotten any explanation at all as to what’s going on?
Sebastian: No, I have not, no. I’m just waiting on hold and doing my best to report my results from my precinct.
Blitzer: What are you hearing? I know you’re listening to a conversation from the Iowa Democratic Party.
DNC worker: This is <name inaudible> with the Iowa Democratic Party. Can I help you?
Sebastian: This is a real concidence, Wolf. I just got off hold. So I’ve got to get off the phone to report the results.
DNC worker: Hello? Hello?
Blitzer: Go ahead. Can we listen in as you report them, Shawn?
Sebastian: Yup. Okay, hi. Hello?
Blitzer: So let’s listen in.
DNC worker: CLICK
Sebastian: They hung up on me. They hung up on me. Okay, I’ve got to get back in line on hold…
That’s just devastating. The disaster robbed the Iowans of their voice. Even if Sanders or Buttigieg or Warren or Biden technically wins the caucuses, the story of Iowa is that the system—literally, the reporting app and telephone system—let the people of America down. The Iowan voters were ostracized from the process. They could not claim any sort of success for their candidates. They could only claim failure for their system. Iowa screwed up the entire nominating process, and if you can’t trust the results of the nominating process, did you even have one?
Now Iowa is done. Everything the state built for five decades is history now. Florida and Michigan will take their place at the front of the line, to say nothing of California, which may blot out the sun. New Hampshire might get to keep its technically-first primary, but the little guys are about meet some angry minority-rich states that are ready for their moment to shine.
The real winner of this week is Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire bought his way onto the debate stage with the DNC’s enthusiastic consent, did not participate in the doomed caucuses, and didn’t have to sit through the frustratingly pointless impeachment trial. He just spent tens of millions more saying “Mike Will Get It Done” to anyone with a television. What “It” is is unclear. But he’s Trump with a good set of policies. It’s not that Bloomberg is a bad candidate. He’s a competent administrator and has put his money where his mouth is. He might have a chance.
But even if you like him, nothing about his campaign makes you feel good, because you can’t engage with it at all. You can’t donate to Bloomberg, because he doesn’t take donations. If you live in New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina, you can’t vote for Bloomberg, because he’s not on the ballot. He’s just waiting to push a stumbling Joe Biden out of the way and muzzle Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He is the living embodiment of “The Party Decides.” You’re just standing on the sidelines watching whatever drama or salvation he brings to the table play out. It’s not you. The ability to not support a candidate is the definition of democracy. If you can’t not support the candidate, do you even have a candidate?
Tonight might top all of this. When Trump strides to the stage today to detail the state of our disunion, he’s not going to inspire you. He’s not a leader. He’s barely a fully formed human, a grifter who aims to be king. Tonight, he may actually crown himself. You can’t engage with him, because nothing he does or says causes him any sort of shame or remorse. For him, norms are for suckers. He won’t agree to debates, he won’t stand up for Americans, and he won’t do anything to get you on his side unless you’re a racist. He doesn’t even want elections, just adulation. He’s just a jerk who won’t play the game you desperately want a president to play. He’s a cyberbullying Cyberball game brought to life. Without a real president, do we even have a democracy?
All of this hurts, because we care so much. We love America, and we want to save it. As the Super Bowl broadcast played Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag,” I was chilled by these lines:
And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land
And she’s getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she’s in good shape for the shape she’s in
And that reminded me: Do you know what’s great?
There are people in America who respond incredibly poorly to being shut out. A bunch of them are Trump supporters. But not the majority of them. You just have to look at the armies of Bernie Sanders supporters, of Elizabeth Warren selfie posters, of Pete Buttigieg field operatives, even of elderly and minority Biden ride-or-diers. These people are coming, and even if they can’t trust their candidates to do the right things, they’re angry as hell. There’s not going to be any “I’m sure our candidate can count on Minnesota” this time around. This is going to be the most active presidential cycle in history.
I don’t know if the good guys are going to win. I know they’re going to fight. They’re going to draw all of us in, and we’re going to get our chance to participate, at least if the party learns its lessons from Iowa and gets the hell out of the way. Even if they don’t, I’ll bet your Sanders/Warren people aren’t going to tolerate being steamrolled. We’re going into our convention with a fighting chance. After this week, woe betide anyone who gets in our way.
This year, if anyone tries to take the Frisbee away from you, walk right up to them and tell them you’re in the game. If you can bring a dog named Michelob with you, so much the better.
¹ Kip Williams’s collaborators at various times were Kristin Sommer, Blair Jarvis, Karen Gonsalkorale, Naomi Eisenberger, Matthew Lieberman, Ilja van Beest, Wayne Warburton, David Cairns, Rick Richardson, Joseph Forgas, Wilma Choi, Christopher Cheung,William von Hippel, and Lisa Zadro. When I said I didn’t know their names, I was lying. I always credit people where I can, because I’m not actually a jerk. Much.
This is the 51st installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, and religion. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.