A month before the 2036 US elections, a scandal erupted: the Republican Presidential nominee, Jorge Alvarez, was discovered to have illegally employed contractors without providing healthcare benefits. The database of real-time tracking results I have here shows an instant five-point loss in the polls for the Alvarez campaign compared to the Democrats’ Megan Lee.
Six hours later, those five points had been regained in the key swing states of Texas and Florida, thanks to an astonishingly fast response by Alvarez, whose campaign fired out everything from videos and interactives casting doubt on the evidence to counterpoint agents pointing out similar 'oversights' by senior staffers in the Lee campaign. All of the responses were sent out within 30 minutes of the original breaking news, and all of them resonated uncannily well with the public.
Records now show that Alvarez's defence and counterattack had been drawn from his campaign's 'Gaming Unit 14', a loose network of individuals who had been presented with similar hypothetical scenarios within political simulation games. Most had been unwitting participants in a free online game designed to harvest their biases and preferences; a few were expert forecasters sitting a level above, concocting virtual campaigns for virtual candidates and predicting the responses of the wider public.
The entire edifice of the Gaming Units had been designed by Alexander Whitaker, the 58-year-old former Director of Gaming Policy at the Brookings Institution. Once an alternate reality game (ARG) designer, Whitaker was one of the ‘Empiricists’, a group of policy experts in the 20s and 30s who believed that the distressingly subjective and ad-hoc nature of political campaigns could be refined and perfected with massively multiplayer online games. In these games, millions of players would enter dozens of micro-simulations every day, amounting to literally billions of political scenarios tested in just a few months.
"Voters are fundamentally predictable, if you look at them closely enough," Whitaker once said.
In the 2030 midterm elections, Whitaker tested some of his gaming ideas for the Republicans. Some of the messaging he developed helped improve the outcome of a few close races, but the end result of Democrats regaining overall control of the House led most analysts to conclude the experiment was a failure. Whitaker himself believed that the problem was one of scale — he simply hadn't had the budget to conduct enough simulations.
It wasn't until six years later, when Whitaker had gained the ear of Representative Jorge Alvarez, that he was able to gain the resources for his full strategy, partly by promising that he could also use the games to provide real-time sentiment analysis. After Alvarez had become the presumptive Republican nominee in March, Whitaker began hiring as many ARG designers, writers, mimic scripters, and political consultants as he could to develop suitable scenarios with realistic in-game content.
Whitaker's free-to-play games began rolling out in April, released by the supposedly non-partisan ‘Future Freedom’ UltraPAC. The games ranged from 30-second long casual timewasters to months-long ambient experiences that injected scenarios into players' media on a continuous basis. Players who were able to accurately predict the behaviour of others were invited to become volunteer designers, with the very best hired as paid staff.
Within weeks, the Alvarez campaign had gathered a vast hoard of information that not only revealed voter feelings and beliefs about thousands of known and hypothetical issues, but also came with tested strategies on how to address controversies that might harm or stress the candidate. Practically every conceivable contingency was covered: a potential rupture of the Magic XL oil pipeline, an investment scandal by an Alvarez staffer, a terrorist attack on US orbital assets — all these events had been simulated and war-gamed.
In November, Jorge Alvarez was elected President with a respectable 3 percent margin. Much of the credit went to Alexander Whitaker, although subsequent research has shown that his efforts produced a 1.4 percent swing at best, mostly because Lee's campaign had long suffered from a general lack of enthusiasm surrounding her candidacy.
On a broader level, it's important to place Whitaker's later lionisation into historical context. The 2036 election was the first true 'post-millennial' election. ‘Pre-millennial’ elections were exemplified by the ability of campaigns to spend billions of dollars to completely blanket the media environment with adverts and toxic ‘news’ programmes. Post-millennial elections, on the other hand, had to cope with the highly fragmented landscape of the late 20s and beyond: countless shifting AR layers, video boards, and gaming shards. If a campaign tried to issue passive adverts, they'd either get lost in an ocean of noise or be automatically detected and filtered away by agents. As such, it’s impressive that Whitaker generated even a 1.4 percent swing.
The media environment wasn't the only thing that was putting pressure on 'business as usual' when it came to US elections. The spreading popularity of delegated democracy systems across Europe and Southeast Asia, along with a desire for more proportional and delegated representation in Congress, gradually shifted the axis of American politics. This shift was to the detriment of the two main parties, who found it increasingly difficult to herd supporters behind a monolithic platform when voters instead wanted to pick a suite of delegates who represented their views more closely — not that they would gain that ability any time soon, thanks to the discovery of an underground market to buy delegated votes in 2030.
And what became of Alexander Whitaker? In 2041, Whitaker open-sourced his Gaming Units software and moved to Denver to set up a new games studio. "I've had enough of serious games," he declared. "I'd rather just make fun games."