Over-specialized skills that don’t translate well

Moe Lane with a funny/apt analogy from video games.  If you are (were) into that sort of thing.

To sum it up for the gaming geeks who are reading this: Barack Obama is a munchkin mini-maxer who has put all of his points into “winning elections” because he found an exploit that made him President early.  And now he’s trying to solve everything else via The Gun Is My Skill List and/or button-mashing, with predictable results.

…No, seriously: if you have a very specific background that entire paragraph makes crystalline sense.  But I will happily translate.

To begin with: a munchkin (or power gamer, or mini-maxer, or a bunch of terms that cannot be repeated here) is a type of gamer (roleplaying, computer, roleplaying-computer) who looks for loopholes in the rules – because games have rules, and there isn’t a ruleset in the world that cannot be manipulated by somebody with enough motivation/obsession.  And it turns out that the American Democratic primary system was full of such loopholes, which is why Barack Obama won the nomination in 2008 despite losing almost all the big Democratic primary states (and arguably the popular vote, depending on how you score Michigan).  And it also turns out that the intersection of our electoral system with our rapidly-expanding online culture can produce what computer gamers call “exploits:” which is to say, a glitch in the system that gives someone an unintended benefit (if it just crashes the system, it’s a bug).  Strictly speaking, the system is not designed to elevate a state Senator to the Presidency in five years – for what turned out to be very good reasons – but it can be done.

The problem, though, is that Barack Obama (and I should note that I am lumping his election team in with him here, as Obama largely does not really have much of an independent personality himself) has what the gaming community calls “mini-maxed” himself.  Let me explain that one a bit more: lots of video games allow for the player to control a character that gets better at the game as he or she goes through the various game ‘boards.’  Special abilities, improved combat techniques, cool-looking items: if you’re playing a game that is something else besides a straight combat game, you can usually improve how you interact with computer-generated characters (“NPCs”) in the game, or learn how to make your own cool items, or whatever else the game designers thought that you’d like to do.  Since gamers like to have unique characters (this is very much the young adult male equivalent to playing dress-up with dolls) there’s usually a way to customize your character, which is to say: people get to choose how and where the character improves.

Mini-maxing is when a player designs a character that is fantastically good at one thing, at the expense of everything elseSo you could end up with a character who is, say, obscenely good at hitting things with a sword – but can’t convince a bunch of sailors to drink free beer.  The mini-maxer doesn’t mind; he’ll just go around the game trying to resolve as many problems as he can by hitting them with a sword (tabletop gamers – err, “D&D players” – often call this The Gun is My Skill List, although obviously substitute a sword for a gun in the name).  The problems that the mini-maxer can’t resolve that way he’ll either ignore until later, or else flail about on the screen while hitting the buttons quickly and/or at random (“button-mashing”), in the hopes that eventually the laws of probability will allow him to bull on through anyway.

And that’s where we are now.  Barack Obama knows how to do one thing: elect Barack Obama to public office.  And that’s not ‘elect Democrats.’  Or ‘elect liberals.’  Or even ‘elect people that Barack Obama likes.’  It’s just him: his team is trying pretty hard right now to figure out how to use their over-specialized skill more generally, but they don’t have much time to figure it out and the system is actually rigged against them in this case.  Barack Obama certainly doesn’t know how to govern effectively; take away a Congress that will rubber-stamp the Democratic agenda and he flails about.  He’s so bad at this, in fact, that when confronted with a situation where all he had to do was do nothing to fulfill a campaign promise (the tax cuts) we somehow ended up with a situation where Obama gave in on 98% of those tax cuts and voluntarily signed up to take the blame for the AMT fix.  In short: Obama was woefully unprepared for the Presidency, and he hasn’t really spent the last four years trying to catch up.  Instead, he goes from situation to situation either trying to recast the problem in ways that he does have some skill in (permanent campaigning for office), or else… flail about on the scene while hitting people’s buttons quickly and/or at random, in the hopes that eventually the laws of probability will allow him to bull on through anyway.

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