“How does a game replicate the complexity of a mess like Syria?”

When I talk to General Sir Mike Jackson, it is in an auditorium of the British Museum, beside a banner promoting Civilization 6. It strikes me as a surreal situation to find myself talking to the former chief of general staff and head of the British Army until 2006, and one of the most high-profile generals in the British Army since World War II.

General Jackson admits he has not played the strategy game, so I ask him instead about his experiences of real warfare. He talks to me about the moral uncertainties of contemporary global conflicts. “Syria is extraordinarily complex,” he tells me. “You think you have it worked out today who’s with whom, but tomorrow it will have changed again.”

His comments remind me of a scene in Adam Curtis’ 2015 documentary Bitter Lake, when a former captain in the British Army explains the reasons behind the failure of Western forces to fully comprehend the situation in Afghanistan. The army was led to believe the Taliban was a singular enemy, he says, but they were duped. Instead of a clear, monolithic adversary, they were faced with a multiplicity of alliances, all using the British Army as a tool for their own power struggles.

“Post-2001, whereas we’ve understood the conflict as good/bad, black/white, government/Taliban, they’ve understood it as a shifting mosaic of different groups and leaders fighting each other,” the soldier says.  

How do you turn that “shifting mosaic”, which characterises not only the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but arguably the current conflict in Syria, into a set of playable systems? How do you make a game out of contemporary war?bitter_lake

Re-winning a war on terror

For a large swathe of games, the solution has been to pretend such complexities don’t exist. Over the past decade there has been a glut of war games that imagine contemporary or near-future scenarios, and the majority of these present players with graspable conclusions. Instead of a confusing knot of struggles, these games make complex geopolitics manageable, masterable and, crucially, winnable.

“I think that on some level there was a desire to think about what this set of circumstances might actually mean”

“After 9/11, there was a boom in war-themed games,” says Dr Nick Robinson, an associate professor in politics and international studies at the University of Leeds. “Some of these games, like 2010’s rebooted Medal of Honor, go straight into a post-9/11 social imaginary. I think that on some level there was a desire to think about what this set of circumstances might actually mean. How we can re-win the war on terror, as it were.”

Whether it’s taking out Russian ultranationalists or Middle Eastern terrorist cells, games such as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series have allowed players to act out extensions of events glimpsed on the news. Even as those series have moved into near-future scenarios, these approachable versions of global politics have remained. Robinson suggests this is no coincidence.  call_of_duty_modern_warfare

“The temporalities map onto a post-9/11 set of values,” says Robinson. “So the Chinese, the Russians and the Middle East remain enemies, and seldom become allies…Take Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, for example. In one way the enemy becomes the military industrial complex, which is the same enemy that Kojima constantly deals with in the context of the Metal Gear Solid series. But the space that is represented is New Baghdad – so we still get this situation where in the future Iraq is a place that will harbour danger and violence.”

Retreating from the contemporary

An interesting turn is happening in 2016, however. Both of the leading war-based shooter franchises, Battlefield and Call of Duty, are moving away from near-contemporary settings. The former is going back to World War I, while the latter is going into a science-fiction future. It’s too soon to tell whether either of these will map their conflicts on contemporary modes – reading our own global conflicts into the multinational clash of World War I, say, or the interplanetary clash of some fantasy future – but there is a shift away from from straight-up takes on contemporary geopolitics.

Robinson suggests that this could be partly down to exhaustion. “While it is not totally clear why the developers have shifted focus, they could have done so for a number of reasons. Perhaps they’ve run out of things to say about post-9/11 conflict? Perhaps their players have become bored of fighting the same old wars? Perhaps, however, with the failure to find WMD in Iraq and the increasing war fatigue, the moral certainty of the early games released after 9/11 has become increasingly difficult to sustain, so we seek entertainment in the past and the far future.”

Players may be tired of plots that pull on a post-9/11 view of the world, with the clashes between Western, Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern powers running out of narrative steam. Could it also be that the world of 2016 is too bleakly uncertain to translate into a satisfying game? Drawing on a fantasy of American exceptionalism may have worked in the years following the invasion of Iraq, but where is the power fantasy in our current morass of internal division and external inaction?battlefield_1_world_war_one

“Where is the good side in Syria? I would argue there probably isn’t one”

“How does a game replicate the complexity, and speed of change of alliances, of a mess like Syria? The answer is I don’t know,” General Jackson tells me, back in the Civilization 6 junket. “A game within the context of World War II – to be oversimplistic – has a good side and a bad side. Where is a good side in Syria? I would argue there probably isn’t one. And you get down to that much more morally difficult question: which is the worst of the two, three or four evils? Sometimes that is the question.”

While World War II is viewed as morally unassailable, and can be easily reduced into a battle between good and evil, such rhetoric is harder to swallow when considering the wars of 2016. Nor is this only an issue of morals. From a practical perspective, war is – more than ever – a game of information and misinformation, of data. “Your speed of information now is the speed of light,” says Jackson. “The quantity, arguably, is a problem. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is now the problem. All of that has transformed the way not only armies but air forces and navies work.”

Faced with a complex set of global conflicts that increasingly involve digital, semi-invisible, clashes, it’s no wonder that shooter series have turned to firmer grounds – towards historical battles and science fiction. But is there another way to broach these ideas to players? If gung-ho shooters face a growing incompatibility with the modes of contemporary war, can other games speak more truly about the present? 11 bit studio’s 2014 title This War of Mine sought to present the civilian experience of surviving in a besieged city, while Ubisoft’s 2014 title Valiant Hearts, although set during World War I, focused on the human stories of both soldiers and noncombatants during that conflict. Are games such as these better equipped to represent the state of modern war?

A net of systems

General Jackson may not have played Civilization 6, but his comments on the importance of military intelligence and the difficulty of imposing moral certainties chimes with the game’s structure. If shooters stumble against the realities of contemporary politics, can a game that zooms out from the battlefield, to a God’s-eye view of the world, provide a better model? It may offer a reductive version of human development, sure, but grand strategy games such as Civilization arguably encourage players to think about war as an outcome of multiple factors and aspirations spanning culture, geography and information, not a result of good brushing up against evil.civilization-6

The “good/bad, black/white” divide described by the soldier in Adam Curtis’ documentary doesn’t fit with Civilization’s ethos. On a philosophical level, and on a very literal design level, Civilization 6 is a shifting mosaic of tiles.

Ultimately, though, the Civilization series is free from the weight of representing real-world war. In a situation where you can fight Gandhi with Pericles, the fantasy of global conflict takes precedence over the reality of situations such as the one currently playing out in Syria. A strategy game may go further than blockbuster shooters in representing the cocktail of events that lead to war, but it still reduces those forces to abstracted, clearly defined systems to be mastered – to be won. Mission accomplished.

When you listen to the radio, to the cavalcade of news, such neat delineations are notable in their absence.

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Images: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks in Azaz (Creative Commons), A shot from Bitter Lake (BBC), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered (Activision), Battlefield 1 (EA), Civilization 6 (2K Games) 

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