Framing Competition Literally and Figuratively

In her study “Visualizing the game frame: constructing political competition through television images in referendum coverage”, Marina Dekavalla adds an interesting point to our thinking on framing and its interaction with competition. Her thesis is that, in the media (specifically television), viewers are guided to frame politics as if it were a game-like strategic competition not only with language (e.g. with words like winning/losing), but also visually in how the media constructs the set, how politicians act, the movement of the camera, and the use of props. Like Berg, she emphasizes the importance of framing in how we interpret unnecessarily competitive events to be competitive. In her conclusion, she highlights the negative implications of this sort of framing: The framing of politics as a strategic game “…emphasizes political strategy and competition over deliberation and citizen participation, it has often been accused of compromising democracy, of placing citizens as spectators of the political process, encouraging cynicism and distrust of politicians, and contributing to ill-informed, disengaged audiences (Cappella and Jamieson, 1997; Lawrence, 2000).”

My instinct while reading this article was to wonder why politics are framed as a strategic game. Firstly, I believe first past the post voting to be a generous contributor to the problem. Secondly, and more importantly, framing politics as a game is part of how media competes for the attention of its audience. This comes down to somewhat primal ways of thinking (i.e. tribalism) and a simplistic fix for trying to understanding a system that is becoming increasingly complex. Thirdly, it is about entertainment and a competition for ratings. I’ll consider these three points in the following three paragraphs.

First past the post voting, for the most part, leads to two party systems that mobilize and polarize citizens which forces you to choose a side, as @montylussow mentioned. With the elimination of strategic voting that FPTP encourages, elections would be less about making sure the person you don’t want to ‘win’ loses and that anyone else wins. Elections would be more about finding your values and learning who shares those values in the political system and giving them the ability to voice those problems for you in a deliberative process.

Alright, so now we’ve considered why there’s a 1 vs. 1 tendency in FPTP democratic politics, but why the ‘game-frame’? I think a lot of people who don’t have time to understand the complexities of modern politics like the simplicity of choosing between two candidates one of which will align with more of your values than the other. Once a side has been chosen, our tribalistic instincts kick in and we become strongly identified with people on ‘our team’ and against those on the other team. This instinct was very useful in are primate past for forming coalitions of apes. The strongest coalition would win power over the group and for that theirs needed to be strong support and loyalty.

I think this is part of the reason so many people love sports and other sorts of competition. They act as an outlet for this instinct. Games and Reality TV are exciting to many people and it draws in a larger audience, which increases ratings. The more a station pulls in an audience the better they’ll do. Therefore, media is incentivized to produce an exciting game show for the crowd. They do this by the mechanisms Dekavalla explored in her paper. To mitigate media’s tendency to game-frame, we first have to 1. mitigate how politics are actually turned into a competition through the structure of our system, 2. understand our psychological tendencies towards tribalism, and 3. reduce incentive to game-frame.

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  1. Interesting post!

    I liked your analysis of the media’s role in political competition. I am confused about the incentives for game-framing politics. I don’t see any reasons why a media outlet would choose not to boost their ratings. Were there any specific solutions in the paper?


  2. Hey Andrea, just to be clear, the three points after explaining Dekavalla’s thesis were my own thoughts and they were more descriptive than prescriptive. I don’t think that there are any reasons why a media outlet would choose not to boost their ratings, however, I think we can be more careful about how we structure incentives in media or rules regarding form, but it is a tough problem and I certainly don’t have a solution. Just pointing it out. Thanks for your comment! I hope that helped?


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