Gaming for Change

The generalissimo seemed weaker than the briefing had led us to believe. Our resistance movement had already sapped the loyalty of the radio station and the national courts. Maybe one big demonstration would be enough to turn them completely and put the tyrant on the run. So, we scheduled a rock concert in the park and distributed fliers around the capital.

Big mistake. The army acted quickly, rounding up the leadership of the resistance and shooting them. Our once promising movement was reduced to an old man and a student, neither of whom had any useful organizational skills. The dictator would remain in power.

This is one of the big lessons of A Force More Powerful, the non-violent conflict simulation developed by BreakAway Games in partnership with The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. “Many activist groups have a tendency to want to do something to get attention,” Hardy Merriman, the Director of Programs and Research at ICNC, explains. “A Force More Powerful disincentivizes constant action because movements can get quashed before they have the capacity to effectively resist.” For gamers programmed to push for constant action, it’s a notable change in philosophy.

One could argue that the entire idea of A Force More Powerful is a change in philosophy from most games. Though all of us are familiar with the setup – unsavory leadership oppresses the people and must be humbled – AFMP forces you to confront the challenge through entirely non-violent means. “The game is still confrontational,” says BreakAway’s lead designer, Ananda Gupta. “You have to stand up to the r

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Most gamers will recognize the BreakAway Games name from its hit retail titles. Founded by MicroProse veteran Douglas Whatley in 1998, the company developed such critically acclaimed games like city-builder Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the Conquests expansion for Civilization III. In 2002, BreakAway opened BreakAway Federal Systems, a concept-based development house devoted to serious games. It has developed such varied simulations as a virtual flight deck for pilots and a convoy escort simulator that is being used to train drivers heading for the Middle East. BreakAway has not turned its back on recreational games, but the Maryland-based company has taken advantage of its proximity to Washington, D.C. to expand its skill set and markets.

Yet in spite of its “serious” purpose, A Force More Powerful doesn’t stray too far from what may be familiar to most gamers. It is divided into planning and execution phases, requires upgrading of skills and recruiting of workers, and has cut scenes to dramatize major events in the game. It even has a scenario editor, a particularly important tool for a game whose relevance is highly dependent on the portrayal of historical events. And, like many strategy games, it draws its strength from a foundation of academic research and historical interpretation.

The theoretical basis of the non-violent game is founded on two major texts in the movement. First is DuVall and Ackerman’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict, the companion book to the PBS series. It examines the evolution of non-violent movements from Tsarist Russia to the post-Cold War world. Second is Robert Helvey’s On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals, an essential primer on how these resistance movements choose and reach their goals. “We didn’t incorporate all the variables from all the models,” Merriman says, but this research foundation was crucial in keeping the project on track.

Gupta says, “The ICNC had a panel of academic advisors who proved to be useful as ‘reality checkers.'” Since this was intended as a teaching tool, this panel insisted that the game let the player do the initial strategic analysis. The player picks which of many goals to prioritize and how quickly they should be met. It also discourages thinking of crisis situations as “us vs. them” scenarios. Both the government and the resisters are many-headed beasts; not everyone is as committed to the cause as black and white thinking would lead you to believe.

“People in these groups have such lofty goals,” says Merriman. “But they don’t always do the concrete analytical work that they need.” A Force More Powerful is, in his opinion, an important tool in reminding these groups that basic research is the foundation of any strong movement.

The nature of the audience also determined the technical limits of the game. A Force More Powerful is a day planner, organized by dates and assignments. The images are relatively low resolution and animations are repeated ad nauseum. This looks nothing like a modern strategy game. “If we are targeting internationally,” Gupta explains, “we need to keep the minimum specs low. This could be running on machines in the Third World.” But Gupta is convinced that the low technical requirements improved the final product by forcing the team to concentrate on what was most important. “We were convinced that we wanted to keep the 3-D world for cities. This meant that we needed to find other ways to reflect the national map.” The result was a stylized map and an interface that needed little explanation. “These aren’t necessarily gamers.”

The technical limitations notwithstanding, Tillett doesn’t think that the parameters of the project constrained her team in any way. “My folks became just as passionate about the subject as the non-profit guys. I couldn’t tell who was on whose team some days.” The long development time for the game also meant both sides had a chance to fine tune the project. “The typical cycle for game design is 18 months,” says Tillett. A Force More Powerful was in development almost three years, from conception to release. “We did a prototype, and then the ICNC would use it for further fundraising.” The non-profit focus group tested the game to make sure that they were hitting all the important points.

Is it working? Merriman says he can’t be sure. “We haven’t done the empirical research to see if people are getting the messages we are trying to teach.” The game has only been out for a year, and the “unofficial” distribution channels make it difficult to know how widely the game is being spread. “Promotional copies were sent out to NGOs, some of the press and conferences, and these activist groups will get information any way they can. A Force More Powerful is probably being burned and distributed further than we know.” The game is currently used in university courses on non-violence, and ICNC is confident that its exposure will only increase as the word-of-mouth in the activist community grows.

There are already plans for an updated version. A Force More Powerful isolates crises to a national political context, missing a lot of the global and economic factors that can be critical to a movement’s success or failure. ICNC wants to include this international dimension in future editions of the game to give players that “world is watching” feeling that gave the Orange Revolution and the fight against apartheid such energy. The world will certainly be watching them.

Troy S. Goodfellow is a freelance writer based in Maryland. He reviews strategy and wargames for a number of outlets and maintains a blog at

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