For the past seven years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States and its allies have fought irregular enemies who eschew traditional military confrontation in favor of asymmetric tactics. These wars have been costly, painful and, consequently, highly controversial, both within the military and among the public at large. More than most other areas of popular culture, videogames have demonstrated awareness of their historical moment, as the plethora of military shooters and dystopian plotlines can attest. But thus far, games have avoided engaging the real-life issues to which they are responding.

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The wars we read about in newspapers are counterinsurgency and stabilization operations. The U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual devotes its first chapter to laying out the complexities of this type of warfare, and explaining why one U.S. Special Forces soldier said, “Counterinsurgency is not just the thinking man’s warfare – it is the graduate level of war.” The enemy forces are fragmented and unpredictable, the host countries are riven by ethnic, sectarian and tribal divisions, and military objectives are inseparable from political circumstances.

Videogames portray wars of a simpler nature. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, to use one prominent example, evokes today’s conflicts but shies from their substance. Enemy soldiers fight conventional battles, dying by the thousands as they come out of hiding to the waiting guns of the American and British militaries. Little has changed between this game its World War II predecessors, save its style and production values. War games are even more conspicuous in their avoidance of unconventional conflict, both contemporary and historical. The genre almost exclusively portrays combat between state-sponsored armies on battlefields where civilians are irrelevant or absent. The videogame battlefield is increasingly antique and simplistic compared to its real-life counterpart, which has only grown more complex and challenging in the last half-century.

That’s a disappointing silence coming from a medium that could so effectively illuminate issues that often generate far more polemic and posturing than useful discussion. A good, thoughtful game can lend understanding and coherence to conflicts both past and present in ways that other media cannot.

In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost explains that videogames can raise and discuss truths and concepts that are too easily obscured in more traditional communication. He writes, “Political videogames use procedural rhetorics to expose how political structures operate, or how they fail to operate, or how they could or should operate. … By playing these games and unpacking the claims their procedural rhetorics make about political situations, we can gain an unusually detached perspective on the ideologies that drive them.” In this way, gaming can provide a respite from the shrillness that characterizes so much of political life, and it can be a place where policy issues once again become challenges to discuss and puzzles to solve, rather than ideological cudgels.

This is one of gaming’s great attributes: It is a generally constructive activity, especially among friends and acquaintances. Games excel at stimulating thought and discussion. In a post on Defense Department war gaming at the Small Wars Journal, Colonel Eric Walters writes, “The best games focus on human interaction between players and insights gained from that experience. Participants walk away from the experience with more questions, better questions and better ideas of where to look for the answers than they did before the game.” Games provide space for analysis and conversation in a way that other activities cannot match.

While gaming could deepen our knowledge of unconventional conflict, it’s unclear that games covering irregular warfare would be compelling for many gamers. Many experts see difficulties in turning the models into something that people will actually want to play.

Brant Guillory, war game designer for BayonetGames and a military analyst with defense contractor CC Intelligent Solutions, points out that waging a successful counterinsurgency, for example, may involve very little actual combat. In one archetypal scenario he describes, “the firepower your unit has may pale in comparison to the personal diplomacy of the commander, or their ability to repair bridges around town. … Eventually, you end up with a military-themed game about bridge building and religious tolerance. That might accurately model the events on the ground, but isn’t as appealing as a game as, say, D-Day.”

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Conveying the problems of irregular warfare, especially in the information age, would require that players consider questions of national morale and public opinion, further reducing the appeal of a game. Joseph Miranda, a war game designer and an expert on unconventional conflict, sees some recurring problems with the genre. He explains that “too often UW [unconventional warfare] games are number juggling exercises. … UW situations tend to lack dramatic moments. They are, in a way, wars of attrition, though the attrition may be of morale.”

As a case in point, Neil Garra, a retired Army intelligence officer and now a game designer at his own S2 Company, cites A Force More Powerful (see Troy Goodfellow’s profile for The Escapist). The game puts the player in charge of a nonviolent movement aimed at regime change or reform, and accurately simulates a lot of the political and social maneuvering that occurs in unconventional conflict. It also simulates the glacial pace, frustration and tedium of waging a battle for public opinion. The game’s strengths are entwined with its weaknesses, according to Garra.

“I think AFMP is a work of genius. I recommend it to military intelligence professionals, and I give it free advertising at my lectures. A great way for soldiers to see what the enemy might be doing to negate their efforts,” Garra says. “AFMP also bores me to tears. It’s a far better way to learn the subject matter than passive classroom absorption of lecture material, but it’s not the kind of thing I want to play for entertainment.”

A Force More Powerful may not succeed at entertaining players, but it is the only computer game of its kind. It proves that at least some of the important factors in unconventional warfare can be modeled in a game, and provides a foundation on which other, better games might someday build.

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While many aspects of unconventional warfare can be modeled, however, it still poses some unique design challenges. Unlike conventional battles where victory is readily definable (destruction of the enemy, control of key locations, etc.), the criteria for success in irregular warfare are far more nebulous. Irregular wars occur over a wide variety of issues, and combatants adopt very different tactics to suit their particular circumstances. This means that a game system has to be constructed around a conflict. Guillory explains the problem: “You have to establish the victory conditions for each side before you start writing rules. That’s completely bass-ackwards to most games, but is absolutely vital in a game about asymmetric warfare. You have to understand what each side wants to accomplish, because that will allow you to scope the tools with which they pursue those objectives, as well as the tools they have to prevent/inhibit the opponent from meeting his.”

The tools and objectives of irregular warfare are also very different from what gamers are used to. This demands a different system than that of most war games, where mobility, lethality and defensive strength are the primary variables. In a conventional war game, the player crunches some numbers, assesses the odds and then makes a decision based on those straightforward calculations. That’s adequate for conventional battles, but unconventional conflict is not so easily reduced.

Faced with this challenge when designing his own Battle for Baghdad board game, Joseph Miranda uses card game mechanics to illustrate some of the less tangible aspects of asymmetric warfare. “The idea behind card play is to present players a chaotic situation where they cannot simply enter the right numbers into the ‘black box’ and come out on the other side with the solution. … In Battle for Baghdad, the cards give players capabilities. But they also interact in different ways. Certain card combinations give geometric increases in powers, while others can be used to counter enemy actions. The critical thing, though, is how the players interact with each other. The cards also are a way to quantify things like intentions and doctrine. And they do so without having to add in a ton of numbers and special rules.”

There is one other element of unconventional warfare that is problematic for game designers: its cruelty. Irregular warfare involves violence by and against civilian populations in a way that conventional warfare does not. In a conventional war, civilians suffer, but their suffering is rarely a material factor in the outcome of a battle or war. Unconventional warfare, on the other hand, is often precisely about winning the allegiance or submission of the populace. A game covering the subject cannot ignore many of the issues that make unconventional wars so controversial and unpopular. These issues haunt our politics, and even historical cases can evoke some of the bitterness surrounding Iraq, Afghanistan and, still to this day, Vietnam.

During most insurgencies, both sides employ tactics that would not sit well with gamers. In putting down the revolt in the Philippines, the United States established concentration camps to prevent Filipino guerrillas from moving at will among the populace. The British did the same during the Boer War. Irregular warfare often draws both sides down a path of “eye for an eye” atrocities, during which civilian populations routinely suffer the most. A game that portrays the cruelty of irregular warfare, especially if it makes players participants in that cruelty, might be accused of cheap exploitation or tacit endorsement.

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Guillory thinks the challenge can be met through good, efficient design. He explains, “Game designers cannot be truly politically neutral, but we do need to portray both sides in all their ugliness. However, the distasteful and brutish actions that occur during a war only need to be incorporated if they have an actual game effect. …The Chechen War is a great example. There were reports of both sides using prisoners as human shields. That’s a serious morale hit, if you have to shoot through your buddies to hit the enemy. But if your game doesn’t model morale, or allow for taking prisoners, then how would you incorporate that?” The trick for the designer, then, is to identify what actions actually impact the course of an unconventional war, build them into the model and screen out what is strategically irrelevant.

With that kind of approach to the subject, games could change our relationship with the frequently awful events we hear about every day on the news. War exacts a great price from the nations that engage in it, and as such it demands responsible citizens’ full attention. Compelling, thoughtful games addressing today’s conflicts, or relevant historical cases, could do much more civic good than a year’s worth of The Weekly Standard or The New York Times’ editorial pages. When you’re living in a democracy that’s facing as many challenges as ours, it’s both dangerous and irresponsible to disengage from the issues. Games may never be able to provide the answers we need, but they can at least help us try to find them.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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