You Sunk My Strawman

First: I would like to applaud Foreign Policy for recognizing the merit of games as simulations and metaphors for conflict, as I think there are valuable lessons to find in such comparisons.

That said, it’s really important to understand the limitations of the medium. A game like chess can teach you about evolving strategic choice, but because there isn’t chance in it, it can’t tell you about how random events beyond the control of either player can alter the outcome of a conflict. For a more complicated example, last May I took a look at the limits of an empire building game in modeling civil unrest. The game does a great job simulating guns/butter allocation problems & imperial conflict, but it does a much more limited job simulating unrest, and barely covers nonstate actors at all. Worth noting: this was a blockbuster game, the fifth iteration of its engine, and was able to model conflict using about as much computing power as a home PC had in 2009.

John Arquilla’s piece, instead, examines a game much further down on the complexity scale: Battleship. Simple isn’t inherently bad – a simple game can cover one subject very well. Chess  offers perfect information about unit capabilities and position, and forces better thinking in wielding them. Playing “War” with playing cards teaches people how actions entirely beyond the players control can still have a psychological impact (at which point the game often becomes “disgruntled 52 pickup”). Angry Birds is how to use limited firepower and angles of attack to dismantle fortifications that can’t fire back. Stratego and Kriegspiel, which Arquilla discusses favorably, both introduce combat with fog of war, and make imperfect information available to the player as an obstacle to be planned around.*

This brings us back to Battleship. As a game, Battleship is great at teaching people how to use coordinate planes. Aaand that’s about it. But let’s take a look at the lessons Arquilla pulls from it:

“Of course this is ‘Battleship.’ That’s why I want a lot of smaller, but still well-armed vessels for the U.S. Navy, not just a handful of extremely expensive, highly vulnerable aircraft carriers and a few dozen submarines. China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats. We need more small, swift ships of our own that pack a real punch.”

Before pointing out that this is the wrong when describing for actual naval combat, let me clarify out that this is the wrong point for the game. In the game, if you’re playing normal rules, a carrier is the most durable unit in the game. Sure, it is a big target, but it also take five correct shots to sink. With default one-shot-a-turn rules, that’s at least 5 turns of survival, with the possibility of a near-miss when figuring out its orientation prolonging the ships’ life. If you’re playing the Salvo version, where you get a shot for every ship you still have floating, the longevity of an aircraft carrier is less, but it is still greater than that of any other ship available. Those “small, swift ships with a real punch?” They are dead in one or two hits, tops. Given the rules of the game, they are the easiest firepower to disable once found.**

This is the inherent limitation of the game: Battleship, after all, is not an modern naval combat simulator, but is instead designed for an age in which we used actual battleships. Battleships were always of disputed naval utility and have had a long fall out of favor. The last US battleship was built in 1944 and the last in service were decommissioned in the early 1990s. The vulnerability of battleships to smaller attack craft has been long known: it’s why the United States maintained a fleet of hundreds of PT Boats to harry & disable larger vessels.

It’s not battleships that are the particular object of Arqullia’s attack. Instead, he focuses on aircraft carriers as “the game’s largest and most vulnerable ship — just as it is in the real world today, as the array of smart, high-speed weapons that have emerged in recent years pose mortal threats to these behemoths.” I’ve already addressed their in-game durability, so now I’ll just point out that carriers are significantly more capable than battleship allows them to be. Since battleship is players landing shots on a grid, an aircraft carrier can only serve as target and (if using salvo rules), a single additional shot. While games can have value for abstracting the world, here the rules alter the units nature so much it seems to have obscured the author’s perception of how the ship actually works. In the hider/finder game that Arquilla discusses, modern carriers deploy most of the craft that do the finding, and are capable of launching an attack when well beyond the horizon, leaving them capable of hiding as well. There are limits to this, but if Arquilla’s central argument is that the US should stop deploying carriers in because “China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats,” then at least note that China is using missile and torpedo boats because they are a reaction to carriers.

A strategy focused on harassment of larger vessels by swarms of cheaper vessels is pursued not because it’s fundamentally better, but because they cannot otherwise contest the open sea. Presently, we use Anti-Access/Area Denial to refer to this approach, but as The Diplomat reminds us, Japan used it in WWII and in antiquity Syracuse considered using it against the Athenian Empire:

Heck, Alfred Thayer Mahan reproached ancient Syracuse for its neglect of anti-access measures. During the Peloponnesian War, classical Athens dispatched its expeditionary fleet and army to Sicily, hoping to wrest away a breadbasket for that decades-long struggle while outflanking rival Sparta. The invasion pitted the Athenian armada against that of Syracuse, a naval power on the rise. Mahan praised Syracusan strategist Hermocrates, whom he deemed a natural genius of strategy, for urging the Syracusan assembly to forward-deploy the city’s capable but inferior fleet to Tarentum—a city in the heel of the Italian boot—to harry the superior Athenian fleet along its journey from Greece to Sicily.

Distant defense would have opened up a wealth of operational and tactical options while imposing strategic dilemmas on the Athenians. Syracusan commanders could have threatened to cut the Athenians off from their source of supplies back home. They could have compelled Athenian commanders to leave behind slow-moving transports and supply vessels that would have made easy pickings for the Syracusan navy in combat.

The tools Arquilla suggests we rebuild our fleet around, the new shiny China has that the United States doesn’t, are not ships one can use to project power. While they pack a punch in ship-to-ship confrontation, they are also vulnerable to aircraft and cannot control the sea so much as contest it. They also, and this goes unmentioned, lack the larger power projection capabilities an aircraft carrier has that a torpedo boat fundamentally cannot match. As true as this is in Battleship, it is doubly so in real life.

A model is only as useful as it’s limitations, and as a model for strategic naval planning and combat, Battleship is able to say very little. Fortunately, there are other models out there. For evolution of naval combat over time (and for use of guns/butter tradeoffs), I recommend Empire Earth. As for a game to evaluate current fleet makeup and combat situations? Put away the box, power up the PC, and dive into Naval Warfare: Arctic Circle.

*For the record: I have very few problems with the non-Battleship games Arquilla uses in his piece. Both Stratego and Kriegspiel favor armed reconnaissance, which used to be a much bigger part of war and should still be taught at least as a concept. Lu Zhan Jun Qi, with which I am unfamiliar, seems to add problems of transport, logistics, and ranged attacks to the Stratego forumla, making it more like a computer strategy game than I imagine many a boardgamer is comfortable with. 

**If it turns out Arquilla has been playing with awesome house rules that let you replace big ships for smaller ships equal to the number of hits they can take (so a 5-hit aircraft carrier could be swapped out for a 3-hit cruiser & a 2-hit destroyer, or 5  1-hit submarines), and he’s using salvo rules, then I retract this statement. Those sound like awesome house rules, and add an element of fleet selection in addition to placement & targeting that ultimately reinforce his point. I don’t think he’s playing it that way, however, and so I’m forced to evaluate it as though it’s the  default.

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Cyber Hurricane Katrina

The Foreign Policy Research Institute recently held a webinar on Why “Cyber Pearl Harbor” Won’t Be Like Pearl Harbor At All…
I listened in.
[What follows is extracted from this storify post]

First: I expressed some skepticism at the flashy premise of the webinar, as WWII metaphors are a tad overdone in security circles



The webinar opened with a lecture/powerpoint by Edward Turzanksi, whose name I finally got right on the 10th try. He started describing in some detail the different direct impacts of Pearl Harbor & 9/11, and of US immediate response…

…then immediately broke from the flashy title to point out that cyber is very different from conventional war.

The answer to why Cyber isn’t just signals intelligence? Cyber can directly attack infrastructure, not just communications.

a bit unfair of me here.^ Cyber attacks, as described for this presentation, have a political goal. Criminal networks don’t; disruptive though they may be, they are less about attacking states and instead focus on being left alone by them.

Using carpet bombing to describe cyber will always be a stretch, but the actual point of infrastructure being targeted at war holds.

the book described above? Unrestricted Warfare, published in 1999 but featuring a very misleading cover depicting the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, STUXNET itself played with gradual disruption, but the way this was described reminded me of nothing so much as this.


that clip? Children stomping bugs from Starship Troopers. Turzanski actually recommended stomping unknown flash drives as a way to stop them creating/exploiting vulnerabilities. I recommend we term this “boot-gapping.”

Shamoon was targeted specifically at Aramco, and was apparently the work of amateurs.

Husick addressed this later, noting that the invisible hand is really bad at addressing vulnerabilities present in the commons.

The actual problem here was not Windows software itself, which can update and be corrected, but that pirated/unlicensed Windows systems are paygapped from those updates despite those unauthorized copies being, according to Turzanski, 40% of operating systems. Here is a direct example of private sector poorly correcting a vulnerability opened up in the commons.

That above link is to a piece written for CTOVision, about how old-fashioned detective work, human intelligence, and boots on the ground caught a hacker who hid himself well online. Boots & detectives aren’t a quality we usually think of for countering cyber, but they absolutely should be.


The possibility of Estonia invoking NATO Article V for a cyber attack was brought up. Estonia has a stronger claim to this than most – incredibly tech-dependent and was clearly under a coordinated cyber attack. But incredibly unlikely anyone will start a shooting war over it, which calls into the question of cyberwar as a concept itself.

as a post-K New Orleans resident for four years, this metaphor seemed to match what I learned of people’s experience: misplaced investment, clear vulnerabilities shoved just a bit too hard, and then a long slow rebuilding in the directly-damaged area with unclear revision to response capability or actual resilience. A clear failure, but a contained failure.

That was not the actual answer. I paraphrased for space constraints, but the gist was the same.

Here an example was given of a 2003 rail failure, as one freight company linked it’s operational control computers to the internet proper and subsequently suffered a malware attack that left them blind, stranding all trains east of the Rockies for I believe he said 13 hours.

Redteaming: it works.

Maybe bootgapping is a viable strategy?Next we went to the Q & A, which was surprisingly infomative, despite it being a Q & A session.

Also mentioned in the response above was a modified nuke designed to EMP. Either would destroy solid-state drives, making it a destructive attack for which kinetics are a perfectly appropriate response, but also outside the realm of cyber security proper. This seems like the fundamental problem with terming Cyber things cyberwar – when they clearly cause war-like damage, that’s just war. When they don’t, they are crime or covert action. “Cyberwar” seems to be so thin a line that it is nonexistent.

Besides responding with overwhelming force, Farraday cages are a way to protect something from an EMP. Here’s instructions on a DIY version.

As a category, dark web is just what can’t be found conventionally online. In the above context, it refers to internet channels that won’t be effected if something like Google goes down.

The tragedy of the cyber commons was alluded to earlier – it makes little economic sense for anyone using the commons to devote resources to securing it from cyber attacks, and is especially unlikely for everyone to do so at once. (The second part of that tweet? Academia tangent: Mark Vail was a former professor of mine, whose work focused a lot on how European welfare states sought to solve the problems of the commons)


This lack of motivation to fix the problem is perhaps the best reason to start using “Cyber Hurricane Katrina” instead of “Cyber Pearl Harbor.”

It’s really, really hard to negotiate an arms treaty (of sorts) or a rule of battlefield ethics (which is what this would be) when the arms are rapidly evolving, can be designed and wielded by nonstate actors, and the actual battlespace is as broadly defined as any computer that could potentially be exposed to an attack. Compounding this are nations justifiably wanting to develop weapons in secret. My guess for a Cyber Geneva Convention? Only after a major problem reveals them to be both deadlier and less useful than anyone wants, like post-WWI chemical weapons.

Husick specifically mentioned that Saudi would label Pat Robertson’s website itself a work of cyber war. Layer that on top of the problems already expounded above, and Cyber Geneva Convention seems nigh-impossible.

Here we should be looking at cyber as covert action/spycraft/crime, where the channels of communication are important to maintain. The follow-up to this was that the US might expect cyber attacks on our allies, as China is less worried about severing economic ties with them. And, yes, the continued ability to steal US intellectual property was given as a reason for why China would not cyber-attack the US.

This led really well into the next point – STUXNET was able to disrupt Iranian centrifuges in a way that made Iran question it’s own equipment until they figured out, months and months and months later and after actually sitting around watching the centrifuges, that it was a virus at work.

Point referenced here is one from Gartenstein-Ross’s book Bin Laden’s Legacy, and very subtly illustrated by the burning dollar bill on the cover. An attack that yields a massively disproportionate expenditure in response is one that has succeeded in causing economic harm, whatever else it’s objective.

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Unmanned not Autonomous

Two weeks ago, I storified a short piece about Adam Elkus’ decision to stop referring to unmanned aerial vehicles/remotely piloted vehicles as “drones.” In it, Adam acknowledges that while it is better to use common language instead of jargon, “drones” is such an inaccurate term and so weirdly distorted from the reality of these machines.

[View the story “Drones, UAVs, and Terms d’art” on Storify]

This was highlighted especially well by a tweet from Teju Cole which read, simply, “Drones are guns too.” If this is where the common language takes us, it has become so over broad as to be useless. Certainly, there are some drones that deliver payloads, in much the same way that guns deliver bullets, but saying that “these are both weapons” is not a terribly useful point. At the very least, it misses the defining point of drones, which is not that they are weapons (and plenty aren’t, as they perform surveillance tasks), but that they are unmanned.

This does not mean, not yet, that because the machines are unmanned that they are undirected. The “p” in “RPV” is for “piloted,” and when drones aren’t assumed to be the apocalypse, this slips into the discourse, but often with an aside about piloting drones being like the a video game, as though that is enough to rule it out as an actual, deliberate, human activity.

Take, for example, this cartoon by Matt Bors from early June:

Hyperbolic Drone Fears

Hyperbolic Drone Fears

The drones being portrayed here are clearly a caricature of what people think drones can do, but look how autonomous they are. The drone is free from what makes humans expensive, like union membership and pensions, and as an independent actor it has no accountability. Drones freely roam the skies, acting with impunity and reporting back only to their cold mechanical programming. Drone as portrayed may as well be a Terminator or Cylon, for all the control humans have over it.

Drones may some day get to that point. But right now the robots we refer to as drones are piloted. There’s a pension for that pilot, and while there is some ambiguity over accountability when the pilot is a civilian, when they’re a uniformed soldier they fall under the Geneva conventions. And despite critics deriding those pilots as desensitized, video-game killers, those assumptions are increasingly being proven wrong, drone centers are adapting to the same psychological challenges that are encountered in the field.

Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.

Autonomous killing machines don’t need chaplains, but people tasked with watching and occasionally firing into compounds certainly do. By treating the machine as new and independent, we downplay the very real experiences of the pilots.* The robot discourse, much like the video game discourse, distracts from the unchanged nature of war. It obscures the humans actually executing policy. Most tellingly, it makes US warfighting seem detached from the reality in which it takes place.  Sarah Wanenchuk, at Cyborglogy, highlights this quite well:

I think that Scarry and Bourke actually have it pretty much correct: the subtle dehumanizing effects of increasingly augmented warfare are not in the practice of the war-fighting itself but in the collection of official discourses that we construct around that warfare. We like to think of more highly technical warfare as cleaner, more controlled, less messy, less human – at least on our end. This kind of discourse is classically digital dualist; it assumes that the relationship between physical and digital – or between human and technological – is zero-sum in nature, and that less of one is necessarily more of the other. It rejects the notion that humanity and technology have been, are, and will be enmeshed, that the relationship between the two is complex and constantly evolving.

If we assume our weapons act of their own will, we’re free from thinking about the goal which that violence is supposed to serve. This is a debate we’ve been meaning to have for a long time, but so long as we’re distracted by the newness of the tech and we let science fiction stand in place of genuine understanding, we’ll continue to see wars fought without aims by weapons without controllers.

*Incidentally, this is something that has been done with air power for a long time:

Aerial bombardment of urban centers is credited with being a milestone in the history of direct civilian targeting. The guilt and psychological fallout that pilots in bombers feel has been correlated to the height at which they were flying at the point that they let their payload drop.

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Long War and Infinite Respawns: Games, American Culture, and a Narrative that just won’t Die.

The first video game I connected with on a gut level was Call of Duty. I was playing at a friends house, and he had me start on the first mission in the Soviet campaign. I took control, and for one tense minute could only turn my head and listen as the commissar told us how we were to be Stalingrad’s salvation. Then the Luftwaffe strafed our boats, and I had to reload the mission. I sat through the same speech a second time, knowing I could just as easily and arbitrarily die again. Several of my AI compatriots couldn’t handle the pressure, and jumped overboard only to have their backs filled with lead from the commissar’s PPsh-41. I looked the other way, and then rushed out of the landing craft, where I received only a five-round clip for the entirety of the mission. Unarmed, I sprinted between cover to draw fire so that a sniper could silence several MG-42s.  It was an immersion into one of the hardest moments in any war, the darkest night before the long, grinding conflict would lead to victory.

The first Call of Duty game came out in 2003, and like much popular content of its era, it was set in WWII. In Cinema, the WWII revival started with Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and the juxtaposition of war’s absurdity with WWII’s noble purpose, continued that trend through 2001’s Band of Brothers and by now has found itself with meta-commentary and alternate history in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and the science fictional backdrop for 2011’s Captain America. As popular as WWII was in film, it was an all-conquering genre in gaming, where even Halo’s now-cliched space marine stood out against an environment composed entirely of GIs.

Yet at their core, Halo and Call of Duty (released only two years apart) fit into the same overarching theme: unequivocally good guys fighting evil in a faraway land, and sometimes getting messy doing it. Gamers spend so much time re-fighting WWII because it has the clearest-cut villains in recent history: strong, bent on conquest, with skulls on their uniforms and horrors systematically perpetrated within their borders. As such, fighting Nazis has gone from comforting to cliche to self-parody; the later Call of Duty games feature “Nazi Zombie” modes, combining the most ubiquitous of gaming enemies over the last decade into a survival shoot-’em-up.  It’s natural, then, that games would look elsewhere for inspiration, and modern wars have given at least the context, if not the substance, for many recent games.

Game makers have certainly tried to tackle our modern wars realistically, but they’ve run into problems, almost all of them political. Six Days in Fallujah, a shooter based on the direct experience of Third Battalion, First Marines in the Battle of Fallujah has been held back by publishers fearful of controversy.  Medal of Honor, a WWII first person shooter series started in 1999 and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, was relaunched in 2010 with a game set in contemporary Afghanistan. Almost immediately, a controversy erupted over the multiplayer mode, where one side would play as the American forces and one side would play as the Taliban. After a summer of public outcry, Medal of Honor backed down & replaced every instance of “Taliban” with “Opposing Force” in multiplayer, abstracting a portrayal of war to “cops and robbers” level absurdity.

Call of Duty also moved from WWII into modernity, and in Modern Warfare 2 the series featured a notoriously upsetting level. While Call of Duty from it’s inception had featured special forces missions, the Modern Warfare series highlights the blurred lines between intelligence operations, counter-terrorism, and the wars on the ground that have dominated this century of American conflict so far. The Airport Mission has the player in the role of an undercover CIA agent accompany a group of Russian ultra-nationalists as they massacre the innocents and, later, police in an airport. While the level was skippable and the player didn’t have to fire on civilians, the existence of the level alone was controversial enough to lead for calls to ban the game.

The entry point for Michael Vlahos’s culture piece on video games and war is Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 3’s “Face Off” trailer. He notes the strange setting, a post-apocalyptic duel, and from there extrapolates that our games are emblematic of a culture of defeat.  As with all media, changes away from once-popular subject matter is more in keeping with a general exhaustion with the theme. The heroic narrative that fueled the shooters of the late 1990s/early 2000s has been replaced by grim combat and covert missions now, but the genre it displaced was a 90s cyberpunk dsytopia, which itself replaced the foundational the explosion-happy juvenile gorefests embodied by DOOM and Duke Nukem, games that their origins in the pioneering shooter & WWII send-up Castle Wolfenstein. That said, the heroic narrative in shooters is hardly gone.

Fallout, a popular late-90s role-playing game, was re-imagined in 2008 as a shooter. It’s setting implies defeat – the protagonist emerges from a vault into a post-apocalyptic beltway, and there are traces of our destroyed world all around (in particular, WMATA tunnels feature prominently). But the apocalypse is the setting, not the narrative. The player is free to make a range of choices, not it isn’t an inherently heroic story, but the possibility for heroism exists, and many plot set pieces demand it. This is an inherited mess, and throughout the Fallout series the player has the option to work towards fixing it. In making sequels, this is the plot path assumed.

While writing this piece, I discovered a much more concise response to Vlahos, using Mass Effect as it’s primary example.  Mass Effect is, like Fallout 3, a hybrid shooter/RPG, which allows for more story telling than most one-track shooters. Part of that means high stakes, a longer narrative arc, and more potential for heroism or villainy. But a lot of it means really tedious chores.  As D. Gomez put it:

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

What the long wars have brought to gaming is not a culture of defeat, but a culture of boring professionalism needed to tackle extensive but low-intensity conflicts. Sure, the world is saved in Mass Effect, but that’s after a lot more time spent talking to local notables and going through inventory. And it comes after the third game in a series, which were released over a span of five years.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it’s worth noting, is the eighth game in a series that began the same year as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Our games during the long war have evolved from high-stakes girt and heroism, in the guise of WWII or transcendent space marines, through shadow wars and special operations, to a workmanlike state now. The stakes are still high, but the journey is slow, the details important, and with the exception of a few crucial set-piece engagements, the combat, while still intense, is more incidental than decisive. Name a medium that describes our wars better.


While I was working on this, Adam Elkus released his own response piece to Vlahos. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it here.

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Egypt and the Konami Coup

This weekend, a year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster was touted as the principal moment in the Arab Spring, a funny thing happened.  The SCAF, who were initially hoped to be good stewards for the transition to democracy, decided that after a year of ruling they wanted to keep all the machinery of the system in their own hands. As Tom Gara put it:

Saying SCAF are realpolitik geniuses is like saying a guy is a video game master because he has the code that gives you unlimited lives. It’s not hard for your moves to seem effective when they are implemented by every state institution up to and including the supreme court.

The cheat code metaphor tells us a lot here: the SCAF appear to operate in a very constructed environment, and they do so with advantages not afforded to the opposition. Such controls, ideally, turns the situation from one of high uncertainty and difficulty into a challenge they can tackle with ease.  In video games, this was first accomplished by the Konami Code:

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A

The Konami Code

The code was popularized by Contra, a side scrolling shooter/platformer where the main challenge was completing the game with only three lives.  After the code was entered, the player had 30 lives, substantially reducing the difficulty.  Upon first appearance, it seems that the SCAF as seized power in a similarly cheaty way, by pulling secret levers and making it easier for their guy to win the election.

Only I’m not entirely sure that is what happened. As I write this, the presidential election results are days away from being clear enough to call. Both the SCAF supported Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood supported Morsi have claimed victory. If the SCAF was straightforwardly manipulating the game in favor of their candidate, they probably would not have suspended parliament or declared martial law. This is a different game, one altogether more strange and arbitrary than anything a computer can hope to winMarc Lynch goes beyond my small video game domain to show us what the Egyptian election really is: Calvinball

For those who don’t remember Bill Watterson’s game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules — or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely.   The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals (“When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine’s hidden.”), the identities of the players (“I’m actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!”) and the nature of the competition (“I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!”).  The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt’s current state of play?

There is only so much a person can do in a game with set rules, and usually when those rules are bent it is clear that the person bending them has been cheating.  But when the very nature of the game requires changing the rules, the opposing player can only suffer from expecting the rules to be fair, and instead has no choice but to adapt just as quickly and innovate in ways the game master doesn’t expect. As coherent as Egyptian politics are right now,  “up up down down left right left right B A” might work as well as anything.*


*Metaphor extended into meaninglessness.

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From the Cradle of Civilization to the Grave of Empires

“My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war and thus use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I’m listening.”

Lycerius, writing at Reddit

Games have a monopoly on the apocalypse.  Sure, it shows up in other media; how could it not, when nuclear reckoning was the fear that sustained us throughout the Cold War, sent us both flying under desks at school and trapped us in a thousand little Alamos in southeast Asia? But those haunting bleak Cold War campfire tales stop with the flash, the last gasp, the automated house whirring along in tribute to its vaporized occupants. Dr. Strangelove only speculates at the apocalypse it brings on, joking about fertility ratios and a century spent in caves. It’s treatment of the end times stops with people thinking about entering a vault. Fallout begins with the Vaults opening.

There have been other explorations of the wasteland, of what it means to live when we have done everything to wipe life out.  But there are limitations to the world that can be built for an afternoon, and to the stories it can tell.  The Fallout series, which spans four core games and has a few spin-offs, is entirely about exploring that world. Apart from the constant opening refrain of “War Never Changes,” the game is not a commentary on life now but is instead an imagining of how humans reorient themselves post collapse.  Players are born into a world (literally, in Fallout 3) aware of the past, but with artifacts and ruins as their main touchstone.  In this world, players will encounter bandits and raiders and small towns struggling to hold on, as well as violent new nations trying to impose order through chaingun fire and powersuited warriors.  It’s a world of beginnings, where relics from a more resource-rich era hold value while scavenged tools from the present day are the domain solely of the poor and desperate.

Fallout takes place in the margins, starting in deserts that were deserts before the war began and escaped the worst of the nuclear onslaught.  It is a setting where governments collapsed instantly, making a new beginning possible.  Lycerius relates a darkly different tale.

Playing the same game in Civilization II for ten years, Lycerius has guided his people from the humblest of beginning as a small tribe to the pinnacle of civilization and back again, fighting through multiple nuclear wars while the polar caps melt and fallout renders land uninhabitable.  It’s a nightmare scenario, three great powers locked in constant war while their people starve and all resources are devoted to holding the front lines. Lycerius has plotted out the twin nightmares of the Cold War, both Orwellian and Apocalyptic.  The only reason given for this grim pursuit is a morbid curiosity in seeing the simulation through to it’s end.

It’s that narrative, that fascinating pull through terrible consequences as viewed in a harmless media, as fleshed out through rigorous calculations and well-designed opponents, that makes games an ideal tool for seeing and plotting a way to, through, and out of the end times.

Update: If you want to try your hand at solving this forever war, Lycerius has uploaded the save game for anyone to download.

Update II: Crowdsourcing victory. Once the save game was released into the wild, it took a day for someone to end the forever war.

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Syria is Libya on Nightmare Mode

Writing against an American military intervention in Syria, Walter Pincus says this:

Syria is not a video game. Americans need to understand that. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, fighting to stay in power, are using increasingly brutal force against their own people. It is becoming a civil war, with both political and religious elements complicating the picture. Syrians are killing each other, military and civilian, children as well as the aged. It is uncomfortable to watch. But like it or not, here in the United States, President Obama cannot push a button,* end the slaughter and bring peace. (emphasis mine)

First, an acknowledgement: I am not going to be making an argument here about Syria. Others have done so at length, and anything I said here would be a retread of better posts. Instead, I am interested in the choice of “video game” for the metaphor here.

What I think Pincus means to say, and which I’m sure most readers interpreted him to mean, was that US military intervention in Syria would be a complicated and uncertain affair, and a lot harder than just wishing it instantly fixed.  I agree with the thrust of his argument here: Syrian intervention has costs far beyond just the expenditure of weapons. Where I disagree with Pincus is in the complexity with which video games handle the difficulty of prolonged conflict. In fact, I would go so far as to say that certain video games offer a good metaphor for why we would want to avoid such an intervention.

As I wrote in my guestpost at Rethinking Security:

Simulating unrest means that conquest becomes just as much about taking and holding territory from enemy armies as it does about pacifying the population recently conquered. If precautions against unrest are not taken, the unrest will start spawning rebel forces, or even in some cases cause the complete expulsion of garrisoned forces and return of the province to its prior owner. Unrest slows advances, thins armies as they detach units to garrison cities, and in some cases requires sending agents into the targeted regions years in advance so that they can create a core population favorable to [their new rulers]

Later, in the same piece,

…the net effect is that wars of choice are thought of in terms of lasting effect, and because the player remains in power long after the decision has been made, the consequences have to be dealt with along that scale as well.

While I was describing a game that specifically deals in conquest, the difficulty it shows even in adding contiguous territory, by force, against a hostile nation is illustrative of the broader challenges of forcible regime change even under explicitly imperial ambitions. If, instead, one were to undertake a similar campaign to drive out a hostile regime and its militant loyalists, but were to do so with extended lines of supply and multiple non-cohesive nominally allied guerrilla groups as the main source of local support, it would become an incredibly difficult task.  Add to that a hostile enemy funneling fighters, weapons, and expertise towards the embattled regime in an attempt to bleed the US dry, and you have what gamers refer to as Nightmare Mode: the hardest setting a player could attempt.

In fact, the change in difficulty level help explain why the US was willing to intervene in Libya and not Syria. As Fareed Zakaria noted:

For a number of reasons, military intervention is unlikely to work in Syria. Start with the geography: unlike Libya, Syria is not a vast country with huge tracts of land where rebels can retreat, hide and be resupplied. Syria is roughly one-tenth the size of Libya but has three times as many people. Partly for this reason, the Syrian rebellion has not been able to take control of any significant part of the country.

In addition, Libya had no external allies, a military chronically undermined by a Colonel fearful of another coup, and was a conflict that European allies were ready to fight. Setting aside for a moment concerns of national interest and grand strategy,** Libya posed less of a challenge in terms of simple operational considerations. As wars of choice go, Libya was very close to easy mode. If we are going to be evaluating policies based on their similarity to video games,*** we should at least understand the medium.


*”Push a button and end the slaughter” is still not something that happens anywhere, virtual or tangible. If Pincus meant “like the intervention to save Benghazi did,” then it’s worth noting that while Benghazi was saved, slaughter resulting from the Libyan Revolution continues, and has spilled over into the now-destabilized Mali.

**Just set them aside for a moment! They’re important and better arbiters of action than feasibility, and ideally should guide policy more than media pressure, whim, or “oh, that’d be easy to do? Well, let’s do that, then!,” but policy is hardly ever formed from ideological purity.

***Which we shouldn’t do, that’s crazy talk. I like games and see value in them as simulations, but there’s a very finite amount of light that games can shed on international conflicts.

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