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.