Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

a force more tedious

game170I agreed to review the pc simulation “A Force More Powerful” (AFMP) by request from Rex, who couldn’t run the game on his Mac (how convenient…).  I was actually looking forward to it, after all, it is a simulation, I enjoy games and simulations of all types, I enjoy playtesting, and I was especially intrigued by the subject matter: nonviolent resistance.  Even with this enthusiasm, I was underwhelmed by the AFMP experience, which saddens me because I really wanted to like it and write a glowing review here.  Here are some observations.

In AFMP you are the organizing “spirit” of a resistance movement in 10 scenarios against the Regime (an intentionally impersonal pronoun reflecting the powers that be in each of the scenarios).  These scenarios range from attempting to peacefully and democratically overthrow a dictator in a little island state, to fighting corruption in a small eastern european city, to protesting a war in a democracy.   I say “spirit” because you are effectively the senior strategist of your movement, though you don’t have a character or a particular role, per se—one weakness of the design to which I’ll return below.  You assign the characters in your organizations various tactics to accomplish policy or regime change in the scenario to fulfill objectives (which you set and prioritize – a good choice by the game designers).

In each scenario you are given a very thorough briefing on the issues, the major groups and actors (characters).  This is presented in a notebook format, with really rough sketches and a lot of handwritten notes.  The interface is actually a really endearing part of the game—the graphic design actually feels like a real grass-roots group operating out of a warehouse, notes written out on scratch paper, organizational charts that might be pinned on a corkboard, graphs that look like fading pens on old overhead transparencies.   In this respect, the feel of the simulation is actually really well done, an example of the designers playing to their relative strengths.  You are also given some rough sketched maps of the island, country, regions, etc. with key objectives identified, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of relevance to these objectives in actual game play. 

As each scenario develops, you work through up to four phases in a pre-determined timeline trying to reach your objectives outlined above through various tactics (boycotts, mass protests, fundraising, pickets, publishing newspapers, fundraising, sending letters, occupying buildings, fundraising, organizing social events, fundraising, training, upgrading communications…).  There are about 40 different tactics you can use to reach your objectives, though you end up organizing social events and writing letters most of the time, oh, and fundraising—did I mention fundraising?  Those letters need postage, so you spend a lot of your time assigning characters to fundraising—I thought the grant chasing at the World Bank and academia was bad—according to AFMP these organizations spend a LOT of time raising money for their cause, when they aren’t in jail.

I played three scenarios and in two of the three I eventually gave up (on normal difficulty) because more than half of my characters were imprisoned with seemingly little chance of being released by an unsympathetic Regime.  This may be extremely realistic, but one wonders at the pedagogical value of month after month of game time (minute after minute of real life) spent advancing time only to be given the meaningless choice of ineffective hunger strikes or ineffectual letter writing.  Not only are your character’s incarcerated, but you have no way of getting them out—none of the nonviolent strategies at your disposal can be directed at the police or the court system to liberate your characters (no picketing the police, no rallies, there are vigils, but they can’t be used to get anyone out of jail).  So, my experience was generally a tedious march of my little rabble rousers heading off to jail, the occasional freedom bought with a hunger strike and the long, painful death of a movement with no forward momentum. 

So, sadly, this review isn’t real positive, but I still think there is a lot to learn about simulation design from this experience, which I’ll limit to four basic points:

  1. Design from learning objectives
  2. Engagement of the audience
  3. Strengths of your simulation
  4. Playtesting

Design from Learning Objectives

The simulation originated from a documentary series by the same name which I will definitely pick up . Alhough the simulation is (in my humble opinion) weak, the designers clearly know a lot about the subject matter and I want to learn more from them.  Still, much of the knowledge that the designers have is lost in the tedium of the simulation.  Had they designed the simulation from clearly defined learning objectives  at the outset, I think it would be a better product.  As it is, the participants are overwhelmed by a lot of information about actors, organizations and tactics in a kind of sandbox for nonviolent resistance where it is difficult to map any actual activities to the outcomes that follow.  Granted, this might be realistic, but it isn’t a particularly effective way of learning and it is a pitfall I am sure we all risk falling into in our simulation designs.

Engaging the Audience

As I mentioned above, while you, the player, decide all of the strategy for the movement, because you are a kind of Senior Strategist Spirit (no character, no role, no identity) there is very little emotional buy-in to what could otherwise be quite an engaging simulation experience.  You currently watch while your main characters go through the trials and tribulations of non-violent resistance – and you really just watch. The simulation would be much more engaging if the player actually had a role, had an identity, could actually be imprisoned or put under house arrest, if you had to communicate what the movement should be doing through letters or passing notes to prison guards, if you had to balance the political significance of a hunger strike against the real possibility that it might weaken or kill you. Without embodiment in the simulation world, very few of these choices have any emotional resonance with the player and it is disappointing.  The lesson from this is that when possible and practical, actually identifying players with characters, roles, goals and identities can be very useful in engaging them.  Who knows how many more turns I would’ve played of AFMP had my character been in prison and I needed to figure out a way out?

Strengths of your simulation

It is ironic to me that AFMP teaches us that non-violent resistance is often the best response to authoritarianism because states have comparative advantage in the use of violence to reach their objectives—following Sun Tzu, we should choose our battlefields where we have relative strengths, not engage our opponents where they are strongest —yet, the designers of AFMP themselves decided to compete against their opponents (real-time strategy (RTS) games) exactly where RTS are the strongest (graphics, maps, video sequences).  Honestly, I have better graphics and video sequences on my blackberry than AFMP delivers.  This is tragic because they didn’t have to engage their competition in this forum – they could’ve left the cuts to video sequences and the graphics of tanks and military parades to the pros in the retail gaming industry and they could’ve used video footage from their own documentaries, but they chose to meet their competition on the battlefield where they are weakest and, sadly, it shows.   I think the lesson here for us is to remember our strengths in simulation design – we will never have the resources to design the twenty thousand person simulations that the military can use for war games, but we can use our knowledge, training, expertise and interest in the subject to deliver engaging simulations that are fun and interesting to participants.  Of course, maybe our colleagues that run simulations for the government have a different perspective on this?


Lastly, there is no acknowledgement of any playtesting in the 120 page player’s guide, the resistopedia or anywhere in game and I think the simulation plays like one that wasn’t seriously playtested.  I can’t imagine a non-gamer interested in learning about non-violent resistance loading up AFMP and spending more than fifteen minutes trying to figure out the interface, trying to understand what they are doing and what is going on and trudging through the tedium of the simulation to get to any of the nuggets of learning there (and there are many).  I also can’t imagine a gamer playing with the interface and not coming up with pages of suggestions for the developers.  If there were playtesters, they may have been too close to the development process to really be critical.  If there were no playtesters the designers did themselves and the subject matter a disservice, which is a shame.  The lesson is that no matter how realistic or interesting you think your simulation is, it will always benefit from outside, objective critiques, especially from folks that might comprise the target audience – set them down and ask them, honestly, what they think about your simulation.

I wish AFMP was a better simulation, it has a lot of potential to teach about nonviolent resistance and political dynamics in authoritarian settings.  The producer’s note says that it is the beginning of a dialogue, and if that is the case, I urge the designers to spend a lot more time thinking about what they want people to learn from their simulation and how the simulation can best be designed to teach those lessons.  Maybe AFMP2 can deliver where AFMP has fallen short.

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