Nov. 7th, 2016

What does it mean for America to be "Great"? From a game design perspective, this is a question of scoring systems. In life, you get to think about which scoring system results in the world you want to live in. Each of us is our own game designer. You get to decide what it means to you.

If America were a game, the scoring system would involve two scores. There is the Well-Being Score of each individual player. Most of the systems use those to get the second score, which is the Greatness Score. But we don't use Well-Being at all for the first one:

1. Greatness is serving your instinct. Feel ennobled. Don't feel dirty.

In Virtue ethics, an act is moral if it's consistent with your brain's moral instincts, even if it results in reducing everyone's Well-Being. Talking to many third-party voters, I have heard them implicitly use Virtue ethics and reject Utilitarian ethics. The act of voting is not about what outcome it will get; it is about whether your brain's most basic instincts give you an ennobled feeling, or a dirty feeling.

Most Clinton voters use Utilitarian ethics, in which an act is moral based on its outcome-- the Well-Being scores. That takes the form of one of the many systems described below. So, morality is a strategy game to maximize all values, not just your self-image. To a Utilitarian, holding your nose in the voting booth looks like delayed gratification. But to Virtue Ethics, it looks like evil. They are concerned entirely with how they feel about themselves in each individual moment. They will sacrifice every other value they have to preserve one value: increasing the sensation of ennoblement, and avoiding the sensation of contamination.

I know this feeling is one of the factors of Well-Being. I'm just saying, be curious about other factors.

2. Greatness is scoring a higher Well-Being Score than all other players.

This is like most traditional sports and board games. There is only Greatness if others receive a lower Well-Being Score than yours. If you hold others back, you win. Donald Trump's show "The Apprentice" designates "winner" or "loser" in this simplistic way.

3. Each person's Greatness Score is the sum of everyone's Well-Being Score.

This is the simplistic version of Utilitarian ethics, in which it is ethical to ruthlessly destroy an individual for the sake of the collective.

I suggest we not stop listing alternatives.

4. Each player's Greatness Score is the opposite of their own Well-Being score.

You are proud of how much you endure, so you keep your problems alive in order to stay proud of overcoming them. Surprisingly, I see this all the time. I live in Detroit and see t-shirts that read "DETROIT: WHERE THE WEAK ARE KILLED AND EATEN". I see Navy Seals on YouTube boasting about an enormous litany of things they refuse to complain about, and how holding a candle to the palm of their hand proves their machismo. I have been in many workplaces where we could make the process easier on everyone, but instead my colleagues have boasted about how awesome they are because it proves they care about the company.

5. Each player's Greatness Score is equal to the highest Well-Being Score.

Even if most people are sick, poor, and lonely, their Greatness consists of basking in the glow of happiness of their group's representative. Many North Koreans feel their success is reflected in the success of Kim Jong Il. Most of the time it's the exemplar of one's own religion.

It's human nature to use this scoring system. But we can rise above this too. Jesus is a better game designer than Kim Jon Il, because in Matthew 25:40 he leap-frogged off of this scoring system to switch elegantly to a better scoring system:

6. All players' Greatness Scores are equal to the Well-Being Score of the player who is lowest.

See that person begging on the side of the road? Jesus kind of said that's your score. In this form of Utilitarianism, America is only as Great as the condition of the least among us.

This conversation will go better if we admit this still needs some work. In this version of the game, all 250 million Americans are guaranteed to have a Greatness close to zero, no matter what we do. We might want to live in that world, but there have never been very many willing players for that game. A game designer's task is to motivate players. Most of these simplistic systems are game design failures because they don't motivate enough players.

7. If any player falls below a minimum Well-Being, all players have zero Greatness. Otherwise, Greatness is the median Well-Being score of all players.

This is the favorite game design I have encountered so far. Your score will never rise by sacrificing one person to utter destitution for the good of the many. There is an absolute floor of Well-Being. If any player falls beneath it, everyone's Greatness Score is zero.

The floor is however much it takes to motivate most people. Which social science finds out is pretty sustainable-- food, shelter, and some time off of work to nurture social bonds.

We can continue to refine our scoring systems, but you get the idea. What makes us choose one game design over another? Whether it motivates the players to participate. If too many players flip the table, the design has not met its goal. And like I said near the top, for a Utilitarian, it's all about the outcome, not about feeling good about myself in the voting booth.

Keeping people in the group, contributing, is the only thing that affects the outcome we get. There is no point to an ethical system in which the participants constantly flip over the table and leave. At the same time, if five people sit around a game table, and one of them is completely unskilled, and that ruins it for everyone, that's also a bad game design. Why? Because they won't participate any more. You have to make the scoring system OK for one person to be terrible at the game, which someone always will.

Not everyone has to reach spectacular heights, but everyone has to be minimally OK in order for there to be any point in continuing what we are doing together. And that's an intro to how you design an ethical system.

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