By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published November 10, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
For months I’ve been pondering the nature and effects of power. For example, could a superhero with a quantum tunneling ability, like fictional comic book character Kitty Pryde who can pass through walls, penetrate someone else’s force field?
This particular philosopher is also a nerd.
I’ve been writing my own role play game, which is a kind of collaborative storytelling akin to childhood “let’s pretend” or “cops and robbers.” At the request of a 12-year-old nephew, my game has a superhero theme.
Classic role play games require people to talk, roll dice, and imagine choices and outcomes in a fictional world. In a world of electronic distractions and borderline illiteracy, such games are understandably a microscopic niche.
Nonetheless, one advantage old fashioned role play games can have over video games is a stronger sense of agency.
In game theory, the word “agency” refers to the control a game’s player feels he or she has over what happens in the game. Players generally want the power to act as they wish. Yet a maker of a game is unable to foresee every choice a player might want to make. So a game usually tries to create an illusion of agency in which a player doesn’t notice or feel held back by the practical limitations of the game.
The prototype of my role play game enhances the illusion of agency by directly sharing the power to shape the fictional world with the players instead of centering power in the rules or a single game “master.” Whenever players succeed at an in-game task, for example, they decide the consequences.
One could argue that democracies also try to maintain an illusion of agency. We say “every vote counts” and yet that can be a weak consolation after losing in an election.
A Catholic Frenchman later considered the father of political science visited the U.S. in the early 1830s on a royal mission to examine our prison system. While he did submit a report on that topic, Alexis de Tocqueville mostly used his two years of journeys here to explore our nation instead, and published his reflections in his now classic book, “De la démocratie en Amérique” (“Democracy in America”).
While he viewed the U.S. very positively, he did warn of a possible seed of unchecked tyranny within our system itself. Here, he noticed, the will of the majority not only dominates socially but also politically. So if the wishes of the majority were ever to become unjust there would be no escape.
He wrote, “If an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force (that is, law enforcement and military) consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can.”
He called such a hypothetical situation the “tyranny of the majority” and the “omnipotence of the majority.”
For those unhappy with the results of our most recent election, I think it must be pointed out that we do not yet have such a situation that de Tocqueville warned of to contend with. Instead we have, in many cases, a nation of two minds and evenly divided between them.
Moreover, whether we rejoiced in the results of Tuesday’s vote or not, we should be humbled by the reminder of the unreliability of human choice. For if others can seemingly err so strongly in our eyes, we should not forget that so can we, and we do. As De Tocqueville noted, “God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power.” It is not so with us.
So what now? Let those of us who claim to be Christians follow the words of the apostle Paul, who wrote: “I strongly encourage that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men ― for kings, and for all those who hold authority ― that we may lead a quiet and peace-loving life in all godliness and honesty.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).