A blog that sometimes exists and sometimes doesn't, by Mike Selinker.

6th October 2013

Post with 554 notes

An Open Letter to Speaker Boehner from a Game Designer

Hello, Speaker Boehner. Thanks for reading this.

We haven’t met, so let me introduce myself. I’m Mike Selinker, a game designer from Seattle. I’ve worked on lots of games, mostly board and card games. It’s my job to entertain people, and it’s a far less important one than you have. But every now and then, my job can be useful for someone who has one like yours. I hope today is one of those occasions.

I’d like to talk to you about something you said on Friday, October 4. You said, referring to the government shutdown, “This isn’t some damn game!”

I would like to commend you for that statement, because as a game designer, I can tell you that it’s absolutely true. But I think you’ve only scratched the surface of why.

That’s because the shutdown your party caused isn’t a game. It’s a puzzle.

As someone who designs both puzzles and games professionally, I often get asked to define the difference between a game and a puzzle. There are many possible answers to this question, but the one I’ve settled upon is this:

A game is an activity where, if fairly constructed, two sides given the same advantages will have a roughly equal chance to win. A puzzle is an activity where, if fairly constructed, one side will have all the advantages, except that the disadvantaged side is expected to win.

So, if you don’t mind, let me break that down a bit.


In a game (say, chess or basketball or Hungry Hungry Hippos), both sides face each other on a more or less even playing field. They may or may not have the same tools, and they may or may not be able to access them at the same time (such as the 11 players on either side of the football having very different roles). But if both sides show up with equal knowledge, skill, and preparation, there should be a reasonable question as to which will win.

One critical aspect of creating a fair game is acceptance of a set of rules. We can’t be expected to play hockey if my team brings hockey sticks and your team brings machine guns. Thankfully, the rules of hockey are rather strict on what equipment we can use. If someone breaks those rules, they’re not “negotiating,” they’re cheating.

If the shutdown were a game, your side would have broken the rules. The rules of the American government are that if the Congress passes a law, and the President signs a law, and the Supreme Court upholds a law, the law should be enacted. As of last count, your side had decided 40+ times to stop playing by the rules. Which, if this were a game, would be cheating.

But as I said, this is not a game, it’s a puzzle.

In a puzzle, the field of play is horribly imbalanced. The puzzlemaker has as much time as desired to prepare, a totally different set of skills, and knowledge of the answer. The puzzle solver has none of these things. She is expected to solve on the spot with no understanding of how the puzzle came together or what its solution is. The puzzlemaker would, in a game situation, be favored to triumph every single time.

So to put this in context, the GOP has placed this puzzle in front of the Democrats: We have all agreed to fund the Affordable Care Act. However, the House has hidden the government’s funding. What is the set of actions that will get the government funded? Is it to capitulate? To threaten? To do nothing?

It’s a tough puzzle. But this gets me to the final piece of my definition, which is that, if the puzzle is properly constructed, the puzzle’s disadvantaged side is expected to win. 

In a puzzle, the puzzlemaker isn’t looking to beat the solver. Instead, the puzzlemaker gives the solver all the tools to beat him. If the solver attacks the puzzle in the right way, she will defeat the challenge. So the puzzlemaker must be comfortable with losing every single time.

That’s why you’re losing. The Democrats are figuring out the puzzle. When the House unanimously promised back pay to furloughed workers, you paid 800,000 government workers to do nothing. That’s counter to your side’s principle of crusading against wasteful government. The more the Democrats encourage you to abandon your principles, the better off they are.

And – I hope this doesn’t come across as too judgmental – I don’t think you know how to solve your own puzzle. In fact, I’m pretty sure that a fringe group of maybe 50 Tea Party Congressmen designed it for you, and encouraged you to give it to the President. I would never present a puzzle I didn’t design and didn’t know how to solve.

So here’s what I would suggest: Take your puzzle back and redesign it. Test it on some of your more rabid party members, threatening to block all of their proposals until they adhere to the rule of law. Or maybe just shoot it into the heart of the sun. Either way, realize that you’re not playing a damn game either.

Thanks for listening, and I hope this is useful.

Mike Selinker

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  10. streetrage86 reblogged this from selinker and added:
    Well said :)
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    I’m tad late seeing this but still a remarkably good read.
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