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What "gaming a system" means


I saw the phrase "gaming a system" today and found it fascinating. I had a suspicion about what it means, and basically it means doing something sneaky within a system which isn't technically wrong, it's just kinda nasty and underhanded. I'll see if I can explain.

The best example I can give is when the winner of a contest is determined by the reaction of the audience, and the audience has a lot of people place in it who have an interest in seeing one particular contestant win - so the cheering is really mostly fake. And it could be cheering from people who are friends, it could be cheering from people who were given some money to cheer, it's anything other than the genuine spontaneous applause from an audience that is just reacting to what it sees.

If you follow me here, it's all a matter of degrees. When my parents cheered for me in high school sports, it may have had an influence on the final score. To that extent, they were "gaming the system". Of course if they offered a bribe to the other team to throw the game, that would be really "gaming the system". See what I mean about degrees?

As an old marketing guy, I know that people can be influenced by many things, mostly presentation. If you go to any mall you'll see how much presentation can mean. The same sunglasses presented on a card table in a bare room somewhere won't be able to get as much money as the exact same sunglasses presented by cheerful and vivacious salesperson, surrounded by elaborate displays. And so presentation is something that a lot of people frown on. It's what's often called "smoke and mirrors", and it's really "gaming the retail system".

Speaking for myself, I like a little bit of presentation. But a little bit goes a long way with me. If you're trying to attract my attention to buy a car from you, and you fill it with supermodels waving at me, it makes me a bit suspicious. Yes, you can tell me that they just happened to stop by at that time and wanted to sit in the car, but really, I know that you're trying to game me. That is, you're being less than completely honest with me, and I wonder what you're trying to pull? No, I'm not offended that you just washed and waxed the car, there's that matter of degree again, if you follow me.

Interestingly enough, gaming a system is often done by people who are really innocent that they're doing it. They may encourage their friends to like their posts on their Facebook page, they may tell someone that they'll like their business page if they return the favor. Today I learned how "pledge for pledge" on Patreon is frowned on - that is, pledging to an artist friend of yours exactly how much they pledge for you. It gives both of you another patron to show off, but it really is a fake.

To me the most honest person in all of this is what I call the "grumpy artist". I've known a lot of people like that - their motto is "take it or leave, I don't care one way or another". The last thing that they would do would be to ask a bunch of friends to their next gallery showing to ooh and ahh in front of prospective buyers. That would be gaming the system. And really, they wouldn't have a gallery show, either. Nor would they put frames on their paintings. There's that degree thing again. A true grumpy artist doesn't even show anyone their work. Once they take that first step towards promoting themselves, it can be a slippery slope to gaming the system.