The systems people game

Summer is finally here – a time of year when even deskbound grown-ups can think of having some "playtime" after work, before it gets too dark. In the evening, memories of the summer freedom of childhood are never far from thought: "Please, Mom! Just one more game before we have to come in!"

But another kind of "game" has been popping up on my radar screen recently: game as a verb, as in the phrase "gaming the system." It means exploiting the system, getting away with doing whatever "the system" was set up to prevent.

My Google News search of "gaming the system" turned up 52 hits – remarkable not so much for their number but for the consistency of meaning with which the phrase was used across a number of contexts.

I found references to "gaming" such disparate "systems" as the quality controls of the No Child Left Behind Act (aka the "No State Wants to Look Bad Act," as one wag put it); the legal provisions that allow people to have dual citizenship in, for instance, the United States and Mexico; and the arrangements by which so-called "buzz marketers" compensate their volunteer "agents."

Buzz marketers recruit these agents – typically hip-and-happening young people known to have a lot of pull with their peers – to talk up the products that the marketers are trying to push and that the agents are already using themselves. The agents are compensated for this labor (of love?) in points or products but supposedly not hard cash. That would be so 20th century. So 19th, even.

But the Boston Herald reported a few days ago that BzzAgent was looking to lose 10,000 agents who were allegedly creating multiple identities and trying to get "paid" multiple times for the same "work."

What does all this gaming of systems tell us? For one thing, it tells us we have a lot of systems to "game." We don't have computers; we have computer systems. The Pentagon buys not missiles but missile systems. David faced down Goliath with a slingshot; today would he have a slingshot system?

"System" came into English from Greek. That interior "y" – what the French call "the Greek 'i' " is a tip-off. It started out meaning a set of elements connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex unity: "The yeare is a systeme of foure seasons," as one 17th-century writer put it.

"The system" in the sense of not-always-benign prevailing order developed later on, but not that much later. It sounds like a 20th-century phrase. That's why it was such an effective bit of anachronistic humor in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," in the scene where King Arthur tussles with a peasant named Dennis, who has challenged his authority.

DENNIS (calling)
Come and see the violence inherent in the system.
Help, help, I'm being repressed!

But the Oxford English Dictionary cites examples of this modern-sounding usage of "the system" going back all the way to 1806, when it referred to the institution of slavery.

Nowadays we have testing "systems" allegedly to ensure that high school graduates can actually read and write, and inspection "systems" intended to prevent people from smuggling bombs aboard aircraft or into harbors.

These systems are the doings of hopeful progressive types, in a very broad sense, who think human conditions can be bettered. They are often opposed by temperamental conservatives – conservatives by temperament, I mean, rather than by ideology – who believe that the laws of human nature are difficult to change and that systems intended to change them will be gamed.

Are you game?

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