Thursday, April 30, 2015

Problematic Political Games

Game designer Brian Train is a guy I have a lot of time for.  I’ve mentioned his epic board game on the contemporary war in Afghanistan, A Distant Plain (ADP), here previously.    Another of his titles, Fire in the Lake, on Vietnam, is on my shelf waiting for a chance to get into it.  Both titles were designed by Train and Volko Ruhnke, and the two bring a ton of real-world and gaming knowledge and experience to the table.

On his blog recently, Train points to an article in the UK newspaper The Guardian which includes ADP within the subject of political games.  Unfortunately the article gives about as much coverage to a complicated subject as one could expect from a mainstream media piece - too little.  The Guardian reporter, Matt Thrower, has an angle he wants to take on the subject, and it’s clear from his first paragraph, where he talks about playing a terrorist faction in another Ruhnke title, Labyrinth, the War on Terror (GMT 2010).  Thrower describes playing a card, “Martyrdom Operation”, and then realizing that the card’s “clinical euphemism” simulated the killing of “dozens of innocent people.  I felt so sick I had to walk away.  A physical reaction from a mind game”.  

It doesn’t help that the article begins with a stock photo of a game of Risk and a caption describing Risk as a game that “gives players a chance to affect world politics”.   The article goes on to shoehorn in another “game” designer, Brenda Romero, whose “Train”, about the logistics of transporting people to Auschwitz, is to my mind more a piece of performance art than it is a conflict simulation.  As Brian Train notes in his post, the Guardian article shows the limits of media in a soundbite culture, where the focus (and I find this especially maddening listening to radio interviews by BBC journalists especially) is on the reporter’s own gut reactions to something.

Interestingly, Richard Clarke of Too Fat Lardies posts some related observations on his blog after debuting his new Afghan miniatures rules, Fighting Season, at Salute.  As Clarke notes, one punter felt that Afghanistan was not a suitable subject for wargaming, whereas a senior British Army officer felt that the rules would be useful for training platoon leaders.   “Square that circle if you can”, Clarke says.  I recommend Clarke’s post as a thoughtful defence of why someone might want to game this aspect of modern warfare.   

Personally I find the idea absurd that gaming modern warfare is any more ethically questionable than gaming wars of past centuries.  I don’t see how simulating a roadside IED going off is any more horrific than simulating the effects of canister on formed infantry.   If the argument is that gaming modern warfare might offend living veterans (and I have yet to hear of a veteran being offended by an Afghan game), I think it’s odd that we don’t mind simulating the experience of dead veterans.  We don’t worry about the sensibilities of Roman legionnaires, since they aren’t around to register their offence.   It seems more than a little hypocritical to me.  For my own tastes, I would rather play Train’s A Distant Plain, since I find it has more to teach me about contemporary warfare than a skirmish game like Fighting Season where ISAF is dodging RPGs and hunting insurgents.   The former is interesting to me, the latter, not so much, but that’s just my mental wiring.   Horses for courses and all that.  For folks who want to play games like FS or Skirmish Sangin, like my friend Rabbitman, more power to their arms as long as they do it thoughtfully.

It seems to me that as war gamers, whatever the medium of gaming we favour, we have an opportunity to go deeper into our subjects and think about them from a variety of levels - tactics, strategy, history, politics, ethics.   All of those learning opportunities are there if we want to pursue them.  It’s a pity that the Guardian article missed this complexity.



  1. I think that there is an issue in how much emotionally invested people can be when playing. People playing SS and singing Nazi theme songs are the issue, not the game.
    If we start to be politically correct to ease the mind of some, then no horse can be harmed, and History rewritten to avoid saddening any side/group/ethnic.

    1. Thanks for your comment Cedric. I've addressed the question of representing Nazis in wargames in some previous posts on Weird War Two as a gaming sub-genre. I agree with you that there's a difference between representation and glorification. If someone wanted to sing the Horst Wessel song during a war-game, that would be a problem to be sure.

  2. Well I hope you'll give Fighting Season a try once I get my stuff ready!
    My hesitations disappeared when I discovered that the chap beside me in last fall's Afghan game was a vet of said conflict.

    1. I'm quite looking forward to putting your kit and FS together when it comes out. I'm curious to see how TFL is going to handle asymmetrical combat, and how to make it both a tactical challenge and an enjoyable game.

  3. An excellent piece Padre, for the record I'm a big fan of the COIN series of games and also like to play skirmish games set in modern conflicts.

    I agree with your view that to game one war but not another is an illogical desicion to make if the only reason is it too soon.

    As for the Guardian I used to be a regular reader but some years ago I stopped reading it completely, make of that what you will.



    1. Thanks for the comment, Pete. I don't regularly read the Guardian so I can't comment on all of it. However, I listen to BBC News a lot via Sirius radio while driving and I often find the interviewers to be irritating. There's a style where the interviewer seems to want to occupy as big a footprint of the interview as possible while airing their own views and opinions that sometimes make me want to drive off the road. I think there's a role for journalists in showing many sides of an issue but it would have been interesting to hear more of what Ruhnke and Train actually had to say and the article didn't want to go there.

  4. I am not interested in gaming the wars I fought in. I find Viet Nam too close, though I was only a child when it ended. I find them to be too gut churningly close to enjoy a game. I can game anything before that. There's more personal distance to it. I had no problem with ADP, it was just too much like work for me. I do not have any problem with other people playing the games. It's just my personal closeness to these recent wars that makes a game of them painful for me.

    1. I don't blame you at all for that reaction, my friend. I recall my own father's complete lack of interest when I as a young teenager tried to interest him in Avalon Hill's Panzerblitz or Squad Leader. As a veteran of that war he had no interest in revisiting it. I didn't understand that at the time, but now I do. I think we game the periods we want for complex reasons, but all of them come down to doing what pleases us.

  5. I totally agree with you Michael. I think it's the attitude with which one plays a game that matters not the game itself. While personally I'd never play SS in a WW2 game I wouldn't mind if someone else did as long as he isn't disrespectful to the people who suffered from their hands or makes a show of using their uniforms and insignia and such things.
    Same goes for more recent conflichts. As long as people remind they're just playing a game and try not to offend anyone I think it's a pastime like any other.

    Only the Train game I'm a bit ambivalent about. I looked up the game as I've never heard of it before and read the designers notes and I'm getting what message she intended to deliver with that game. But still I feel uncomfortable to use a mass murder without precedence for a game.

    1. Thank you Nick.
      I have some SS in my collection for two reasons. 1) I am interested in the Canadian role in Normandy and it's hard to model that without doing their opponents in the first two days of the campaign, 12th SS Div. 2) For my Weird War Two collection, I wanted some SS figures as the bad guys. I've blogged about this before, and don't feel too conflicted about these figures. I see Weird War Two as a parable about good and evil, pure and simple.
      I wouldn't call "Train" a game. Performance art, thought experiment, those descriptions seem fair. Calling it a game seems wrong to me.

  6. Interesting article Michael. I think about those things a lot, as me and my gaming partner are a bit… squeamish might be the word. We feel uncomfortable gaming certain things, but this does not necessarily have to do with historical distance. E.g. I wouldn't want to play a medieval scenario where I had to massacre all the villagers. Closeness also might depend on the culture, e.g. me being an Austrian I find it quite difficult to game WW2 and would not like to play the Nazis.

    I totally agree that respect is the key to the issue, so if the gaming group treats the conflicts with respect and is prepared to discuss and reflect on what they are doing, I wouldn't mind playing many things, even things I feel uncomfortable about if I feel they can teach me something about the past (or about the present, for that matter). However, I agree with Moiterei about the Train game.

  7. P.S.: I didn't find the Guardian article that bad - at least it draws attention to those kind of games, and it's not condemning them but saying that we can learn something from them. That some facts and the images are wrong, well, that's journalism for you :-)

    1. Thanks for these two comments. I think Brian Train's comments below address them better than I could and it seems in light of them that I was being unkind to the Guardian article's author. I agree with you that the last sentence was perfectly agreeable, who wouldn't prefer thinking a problem through over a game rather than fighting over it:?

  8. Very relevant disucssion Mike.
    I feel nonetheless ambivalent about modern wargaming.
    However, knowing Richard Clarke now for years, I'm sure that Fighting Season will treat will due respect not only vets but also the terrible impact on the civilian population (incidentally, can anything be nmore unrespectable that the term "collateral damage"?)
    Recently I'm taking a lot of interest in ubnderstanding the spread of Muslim-based movements across Africa and the Midlle East (may be because I live in Spain and feel them dangerously near home...?) Over the past weeks I've been reading on Fighting Season and following the disucssion in the TFL Yahoo Group and now your post... my thoughts are evolving and now I see this game as an opportunity to think abnout the military side of the picture, understanding the limitations and restrictions of the conventional armies in this type of conflicts

    1. Thanks Benito, and thanks for mentioning me in your own blog post. The reading list you put up to support those interested in Fighting Season is very helpful.

  9. A very thoughtful post. It doesn't bother me playing any period of warfare. At the end of the day its a game. Providing the objectives aren't massively distasteful don't really care. Perhaps playing a lot more horror themed games zombie apocalypse etc where people get eaten and infected makes me think about things differently.

  10. Very good topic, and mature discussion!
    I have used my wargamming background on deployment. Part of our rehearsals are "sand tables" where we practice our movements and objectives on scaled terrain. The more you rehearse, the less you bleed. Combining that with the superstions of my 1st Nation blood, I do have a hard time divorcing myself from the tabletop. I'll skip the modern gaming unless zombies, aliens, or both are involved! ;)
    There is a lot of political correctness involved as well as the " child like" need to address sides. My eyes were opened wide by my oldest daughters who are studying the French and Indian War. They really wanted to know if the British or French were the " good guys" ! I told them that both had different ways of dealing with our ancestors, both sides did bad things, and both sides did noble things. Good and bad really depends on if you are French, British, or 1st Nation.
    There is a movement to destroy nose art from WW2.
    with three daughters I do fully understand the reasoning, as I want my girls to be more than just an object of desire. I also don't want to see history whitewashed or rewrote to remove the icky from it. Plus those were real men and boys, miles from home, in a bad place that crafted those images.
    *sigh* i'd much rather have people figure out a way to get me an affordable copy of "Politiboro";)

    1. Hi David:
      When I served at British Army Training Unit Suffield I saw how complex the training for deployments to Helmand could be, in terms of involving Afghan "extras" to play civilians and or civilian/bad guys? during exercises where a platoon commander might have to react to the aftermath of a mass casualty IED event while securing his perimeter and managing contact. Very complex situations to negotiate. Any game that wants to simulate contemporary combat in Afghanistan would have to respect that complexity, I think.
      Didn't know that about the nose art. It seems an unfortunate attempt to judge the past by our own standards.

  11. Another comment to follow my first, since it was cut for length.

    Back when ADP was announced for P500 on BGG, there was an immediate thread that petered out at around 150 posts where any number of people registered opinions that they thought it would be a regurgitation of neoliberal talking points and dissimulation, others thought it would be a limp condemnation of American imperialism, others... ahh, everyone had an opinion, and sometimes two or three.
    Bear in mind that this was at the point where it had just become known that there was going to be a COIN system game on Afghanistan.
    It had just been put up on P500: no one had any idea what it would look like, what was in it, what mechanics it would have, what position it would take on any point about the war, etc. there wasn't even a BGG entry for the game yet...
    But that didn't stop people from having strongly held opinions about it, with nothing but their own imaginations to back them up.
    (Except for the one guy who posted, five pages in, specifically and only to tell us that he had no interest in Afghanistan.)
    We did have a couple of comments, on that thread and elsewhere, that they would not play the game just because it was too recent or too raw for them to feel like they could enjoy.
    Fair enough; but later we also got requests to send copies to US military units about to go to Afghanistan, and more recently the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish said at a conference on professional wargaming that ADP contained "more insights into Afghanistan than all the reading material we were given".
    I think on the whole people were more supportive of us designing ADP than weren't; at least, there were few who spoke up to condemn the enterprise.
    As for charges that this game advances the propaganda agenda of the Right or the Left, I haven't heard any.
    Where people have expressed dissatisfaction with the game, it has been on aspects of its mechanics, not on its ideology.
    I think we tried to be objective and honest as possible in presenting this very abstracted model of a very complex conflict.
    We certainly didn't want to be any less than that, at least in our own eyes.

    As for playing the "bad guys" in games, specifically in current-era games, I suppose it would have been easy to turn the Taliban in ADP into a straw-man opponent, a faceless pop-up target hampered by "idiocy rules" and simplistic assumptions who is always defeated.
    This does a disservice to anyone, in or out of the military, who has an interest in the conflict.
    Why is it a betrayal of Our Side to try to understand how The Other Side thinks and fights (even at the gross level of abstraction we had to go to in designing this game)?
    I've never understood this - it seems to me the prudent thing to want to do, if you want to win.


    1. Although it appears that the first part of my reply never appeared at all, and is now lost to the ages.
      Too bad, it was brilliant.

      Anyway, without retyping it, the gist is that I thanked the Mad Padre, defended the author of the article as he is a gamer and wrote a very good review of A Distant Plain on "Shut Up and Sit Down, and that his story was very heavily edited by a tin-eared ignorant editor.


    2. Hi Brian:
      Many thanks for chiming in and sharing your perspective. It is curious that anyone would object to more knowledge about The Other Side. I recall that when we Canadians were first shipping over to Afghanistan in the early 2000s, most intelligent and thoughtful soldiers tried to get their hands on Jalali and Grau's The Other Side of the Mountain.
      Thanks also for setting me straight on the author of that article, I guess I missed your original point that the editor was the one who should be critiqued. I have enough experience with the media that I should know this myself. :(

    3. reply below, Michael. Thanks for popping by my blog to comment, too.

  12. I can understand someone's personal discomfort about taking a role in a game that they perceive as evil, but personally it still seems like magical thinking to me - that agreeing to play that role in a game somehow connotes acceptance of, or confers strength upon, that evil.

    I don't want to overstate it, but it seemed to me that something like that thinking was going on when Konami was going to publish "Six Days in Fallujah", which was to be the first video game to focus directly on the Iraq War.
    It was developed with extensive input from US Marines who were in the battle, but in the end was held from release after negative public pressure on the publisher.
    The online version of the 2010 release of "Medal of Honor" was to have allowed players the option of assuming the role of the Afghan Taliban, but was later changed to the generic "Opposing Force" title when public groups, the media and senior officials of several NATO governments condemned even the possibility of someone playing that enemy role.

    This also prompts the larger question of not why someone would or would not choose to play the "evil" side in a wargame - because a wargame takes reality as its model, why would someone fight on the side of "evil" in real life?
    Or what we Over Here are pleased to characterize as evil... because meanwhile, of course, amateur designers in certain Middle Eastern countries have taken it upon themselves to make modded versions of video war games where you can play the insurgents, or parody games that do not follow the "Western" narrative.
    But they are no deeper in their analysis of the situation, they're just different.
    Lots of people are content with their history and current affairs staying at a comic-book level of comprehension.

    Which kind of brings me back to that awful editor, and the hack-job he did of Matt's article.

    1. Brian,
      I stated in my post that I found the game too much like work. You should probably take that as a compliment as I was a Marine in Helmand. I believe you have found a good balance of high level operational art and the imperatives that drive each faction. For me, it did much too good a job of capturing the frustration and futility I felt there. While I couldn't enjoy it as a game, I think it is a great training aid for anyone trying to understand, at a very high level, what drives decisions in that country. As for anyone talking about the Taliban as good or evil, that just proves they have no understanding at all of what is actually happening there.

    2. Thank you, I will take that as a compliment, one of the best I've had!
      Other, civilian players have remarked that the game is "not fun", and that they couldn't figure out what they were supposed to be doing so they quit trying.
      I'd like to think the direct lesson they learned here was that wars are not meant to be fun, nor are they susceptible to solution by just an hour or two of thought.
      The indirect lesson they may have learned is that they have the option of walking away from trying to solve that puzzle, something the real participants don't have.

      Thank you for your service, and I am glad you are out of there (and experiencing less daily frustration and futility, I hope).

  13. A fabulous and thought provoking piece. This is my favorite read in a long time.

    I'm entirely human and thus, not always logical. As a young gamer, I loved to play the Germans in WW II gaming. When I got older, I did a 180 and always pick the other side. I suppose my German heritage doesn't help. It's another example of how we bring odd notions and perceptions to the gaming table.

  14. For a long, long time I drew the line at 1945 for my war games, and was inclined to leave off the SS in my WW2 German army as well. These days I have relaxed that boundary. The fact is that I've tended to find modern warfare too hard to game well in the restricted spaces I've had available, the 'asymmetrical' types of warfare uninteresting (I don't do colonial either), and I've experienced a vague sense of distaste whenever I've thought about (war)gaming these modern conflicts. Possibly this has to do with where my sympathies strongly lie.

    To some extent I have modified my attitudes of mind. I have a friend who has spoken of designing conflict scenarios, possibly involving military, paramilitary, terrorist and other subversive forces; often involving more than two 'sides'; and in which the recourse to 'shooting' (if it is an option at all) might indicate a conflict already lost... One has to admit to a sense of intrigue faced with those kinds of problems. I daresay that such games set in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Chechnya - or even the Ukraine - could be as instructive as entertaining.

  15. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for blogging such a great thoughtful post. And thanks to everyone for the various comments, I enjoyed reading all of them. For me, one of the most difficult things in play-testing “Fighting Season” (to refer back to the game you mentioned and we're play-testing now), and recreating a conflict such as modern Afghanistan on the tabletop, is to try and recreate the tactical elements of the historical engagements while remaining respectful to all the combatants and non-combatants, their motivations and objectives.

    What starts out as a game of fire and movement quickly evolves into consideration of the hugely complex aspects of Afghan warfare – rules of engagement, minimizing casualties, the tenacity and skill of insurgent fighters, the terrain, tribal politics, the intractable difficulties of coalition warfare, the central (but sometimes forgotten) place of civilians in conflict simulations, the context and history of the location of the fighting, and many others.

    Thinking about, and working on, the evolution of a game or simulation (and watching the evolution and progress of other games, like Brian and Volkho’s excellent “ADP”) has always taught me a huge amount about the conflict I have tried to recreate on the table. At the end of that process, I’ve usually realised that what I thought at the outset of the journey was (at best) way short of the mark, and usually demonstrably wrong. That reason, if for no other reason, is why I’ve found it personally interesting and worthwhile to try and recreate modern conflicts.

    Thanks Mike!


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