Thursday, November 23, 2006

Ack! So horribly behind on blogging, I offer my latest ATO column:


One of the unfortunate aspects of gaming culture in the last few decades is the impenetrable and apparently immovable wall between counter-based military simulation games and German-style strategy boardgames: These seem to be two different worlds that never intersect. German-style boardgames, where they touch upon combat at all, simulate it in only very broad and shallow ways, while counter-based military boardgames have tunnel vision for the battlefield and tend to ignore the world beyond it. There haven’t been any true “mixed” boardgames that feature both counters for combat simulation and separate mechanics for non-military strategies, in a long time.

This is unfortunate because there are so many aspects of 21st century warfare—and yes, I know this is blasphemy--that can’t be expressed through the movement of counters. Modern asymmetrical warfare—a.k.a. “Fourth Generation” warfare—has economic, social, political, and public-relations dimensions as well as strictly military ones. I would argue that a boardgame doesn’t realistically simulate Fourth-Generation warfare—and here I quote Wikipedia--

Fourth Generation wars are characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian, peace and conflict, battlefield and safety.

without extensive card draws and Catan-style resource allocation to simulate the world beyond the battlefield.

The recent Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon was pure Fourth Generation: It was conducted at least as much in the media and on the world political stage as on the battlefield, and this arguably influenced the course of combat at least as much as the placement of Hezbollah strongholds.

Of particular importance is the information war. Each day in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict would bring new heavily-choreographed civilian bombing aftermath stories and crudely-Photoshopped “news photos” breathlessly disseminated by Hezbollah-sympathizing AP and Reuters news bureaus, followed by furious debunkings from sources sympathetic to Israel. Of course we’ve seen propaganda wars before, but never to this extent. The primary Hezbollah tactic—firing Iranian-made rockets in the general direction of Israeli towns which were more or less completely evacuated at the beginning of the fighting—had only the vaguest military efficacy, but…

…the strategy of distributing rockets throughout the population is very effective for publicity. Though the rockets themselves cause relatively little damage and have little effective military use, they are easy to use, hard to stop and are sensational (in the sense that they bring attention). (Daniel Drezner)

The rocket attacks with their high visibility enabled Hezbollah to claim victory with apparent plausibility, in spite of their heavy losses in fighters. (“One dreads to imagine what Hezbollah might recognize as a military loss,” wrote Michael Young of the Lebanon Daily Star.) I guess you can compare the Hezbollah attacks to Hitler’s V1 and V2 rocket attacks on Britain during World War II—in both instances the missiles were launched more from spite than from military reasons—but at least London had people in it.

Similarly, there was a fascinating recent article in the New York Times (September 30, 2006) on Al Qaeda’s internet infrastructure. “In recent years,” we are told, “Al Qaeda has formed a special media production division called Al Sahab (“the cloud”) to produce videos about leaders like Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri.”
One result, terrorism analysts say, is a militant group in transition, seeking to push ideology over direct action, franchising its name and principles to smaller groups acting more independently….“Al Qaeda has been turning itself from an active organization into a propaganda organization.”

The problem, in gaming terms, is that conflicts where the primary goal is propaganda victories rather than military ones don’t really make sense as a simulation. In running the summer 2006 Lebanon war, for example, no gamer playing Hezbollah would ever accumulate a huge arsenal of rockets and then expend it in militarily-pointless over-the-border launches at empty Israeli border towns while his own fighters are taking heavy losses. In pure military terms, it’s lunacy.

One can argue, in defense of the jihadists, that their view is a longer-term one than that of the West; that, living as they do in the seventh century A.D., they think in terms of centuries and millennia rather than years or decades; that propaganda victories, even if unaccompanied by real victories, set up the eventual overthrow of the West by the worldwide forces of Islam. And they may be right, though I doubt it.

For our purposes, however, that scenario—a centuries-long clash of civilizations—is a bit too “macro” for any gaming simulation. If there were such a thing as a jihadist gamer, he would certainly consider the Crusades, Poitiers, the siege and fall of Constantinople, the Spanish reconquista, the siege of Vienna, the Balkan wars, Omdurman, the Riff rebellion in Morocco, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, etc., etc., not as separate engagements but as part one one vast and ceaseless campaign. I think you could simulate, say, the Cold War as an interesting mega-game with “micro” military components in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, and “macro” political and economic components—an enormously-expanded game of Supremacy, if you will—but this is probably at the upper limits of the possible scope of a game simulation: Gaming the clash of civilizations is possible—in small pieces—but like the real thing it presents many, many challenges to the designer.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?