Sunday, April 16, 2006

Latest ATO column:

Counter-Intuitive: Urban Mythology in Game Design

I remember over a decade ago when Command Magazine did an Iraq-war game where the Americans were so superior on paper to the Iraqis that, to make it interesting, the designer included “bonus” counters for the Iraqis including a WW2 German Panzer division, a mad-scientist death ray, and Godzilla. Most gamers of my acquaintance got a kick out of the brief departure from reality, while a few purists were not amused, but were, to say the least, quite happy that it didn’t start a trend.

What interests me more is not so much when simulation departs from reality, but rather when belief departs from reality.

I’ve always been fascinated by war rumors because they reveal a lot about wartime psychology and perceptions. Typically, the most outlandish and absurd rumors take place among populations sensing imminent defeat. The best example I can think of is the quasi-religious belief in secret super-weapons among loyal Nazis at the end of World War Two, weapons that would magically turn the tide of the war. (This was in contrast to Allied rumors about harmless “foo fighters” that flitted around the sky and didn’t really do anything). Among less technologically advanced societies, the phenomenon isn’t quasi-religious, it’s wholly religious. Shortly before American forces retook Fallujah in 2004, supporters of the insurgency circulated many stories of divine intervention that had protected the city up to that point. Most notorious were the “Fallujah spiders,” as reported by an Iraqi sheikh in an interview with Syrian television:

The first miracle that occurred in Falluja took the form of spiders that appeared in the city, each spider larger than this chair, or about the size of this chair. This spider also had thin black hair. If this hair touches the human body, within a short period of time the body becomes black or blue, and then there is an explosion in the blood cells in the human body - and the person dies.

The spiders, the sheikh assured us, could run 40 km/hr. Other stories reported “phantom white-robed knights on white horses sent by Allah” that killed U.S. Marines in battle. So many Marines died that huge transport planes scooped up the bodies and dumped the bodies in mass graves in the deep desert.

It makes sense that people facing overwhelming odds look forward to the fantastic, because reason and logic are not on their side. (I would also note in passing that these ludicrous stories from Iraq are generally ignored by most Western media, which on the other hand are eager to report American atrocity stories from the exact same sources.) This is one of a piece with the stories of pretechnological warriors becoming convinced that a certain magical shirt/charm/potion/incantation (the Maji-Maji of Tanganyika drank “magic water” with millet seeds and castor oil) made them impervious to the white man’s bullets—always with unsurprising results. A Maji-Maji game, featuring an Imperial German regiment against guys drinking magic water, would not be especially interesting.

I thought of all this during recent Iranian announcements of their amazing new weapons, just as international pressure mounted against the Iranian government.

"Today we have successfully tested a new-generation missile capable of hitting different targets at the same time," the commander of the Revolutionary Guards air force, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, told state television. The locally developed missile, tested on the first day of week-long military exercises in the Gulf, can also "hide from radars and evade anti-missile missiles," he said, without disclosing the range. "The missile’s design and production was done by the scientists in the Iranian defense ministry. It has unique capabilities which are unmatched in the world’s advanced armies, since it was built based on our defense needs," Salami said. "It uses multiple warhead technology, which (means) after the detachment of its warhead it becomes divergent, enabling it to hit different targets at the same time accurately, therefore fooling the enemy’s anti-missile systems."

The biggest red flag here is not of the missile’s capabilities, which are unlike those of any other current-production missile in the world—a stealth MIRV basically—but the claim that it is “locally developed.” International defense experts believe that the missile is almost certainly the Russian Iskander-E, which has absolutely no MIRV capability. The contention that the Iranian defense industry came up with this magical missile on its own puts it in the realm of the urban legend/Fallujah spider/Godzilla category. Fantasies have a logic of their own, and the likely truth—“We paid the Russians zillions of petrodollars and they sold us their best missile just to cheese off the Americans”—doesn’t sound as noble as the religious fantasy requires.

Similarly, the Iranians insist that their new 200 mph “Hoot” torpedo is indigenous, though it seems to have the exact design specifications of the Russian supercavitating “Shkval” torpedo, except for the Iranian claim that the Hoot “evades sonar technology under the water,” a feat impossible for the noisy Shkval. This, again, puts it in the Fallujah spider class of weapons.

All of which, I think, would make modern-game design more problematic these days. I would think that a game designer risks falling into Godzilla-land if he takes the wrong information seriously. On the other hand, the Russo-Iranian weapons are very real, and have to be taken seriously.

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