Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 24/07/2010

Ici, c’est la France! Impressions of an impressionable graduate student

As I mentioned in an earlier review of Ici, c’est la France!, my opponent for one game was a doctoral student writing her thesis on, appropriately enough, Algerian-French relations. Ginger has kindly sent on the review below from Algeria, where she’s currently doing her field research. As a non-gamer but subject matter specialist, her perspective provides a useful complement to my earlier review. In particular, she highlights the potential trade-off between the complexity and detail of a game on the one hand, and the overall sense and feel of the simulated conflict on the other—especially for those who do not habitually spend their weekends pushing little cardboard counters around on a map. (At one point Ginger refers to the “cacaphony of chits,” an evocative term I’m sure to use myself in the future when reflecting on the educational potential of commercial wargames.)

She also highlights a potential practical use of games like these as a possible catalyst for enabling groups to examine their own historical perceptions and senses of the “other.” If she does indeed manage to organize some games in Algeria at any point, we’ll try to post a report on those here in Paxsims.

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As an absolute newcomer to the world of gaming, but with considerable interest in their value towards pedagogy and academic research, I was quite interested in seeing whether a round of Ici c’est la France would satisfy two obejctives that I had put forth for my own curiosity. First, I wanted to know whether the game would help to illuminate the difficulties involved in the war of Algerian independence from France, particularly insofar as allegiances and support networks were not divided along clear cut lines of metropole/ colony, nor of ‘French’/‘French of Muslim origin’ (as Algerians were called during the period immediately preceding independence and throughout the conflict). As a student researching contemporary Algerian-French relations, the incomplete and jagged ruptures of the 1954-62 war are of fundamental importance to the interaction between the two countries on both political and social levels, and indeed if we want to understand some of the most pressing issues in both countries we would do well to go back to the myriad issues that were crystallized in the war. This enterprise is not without its diffculties, as an open and honest discussion about France and Algeria, and France in Algeria, is in many ways akin to a minefield, with all sides and parties affected engaged in contentious exchanges over who has the dates right, who was there, and who did what.

The murkiness of the debates surrounding Algerian and French history and its link to the present is what led to my second objective, more closely tied to the pedagogical value of the game. However, I wanted to see whether a game like this, which attempted to include all of the social and political facets of the conflict, would be a useful way to begin a more fruitful conversation about this time period and the consequences it has had for both states. Could it be a useful tool in Algeria or France, for example, where people who had an actual stake in the conflict, or were particularly affected by the time period would have a chance to put themselves in the roles they or their relatives might have occupied, and whether through watching the game unfold they would be able to uncover their own memories or transmitted recollections? How far, and to what end, could we stretch the pedagogical value of the game? Could it be not only a tool for understanding from the outside in, but also for opening up a space from the inside out? As my research is primarily directed towards developing new methods for mediating social conflicts, or more directly in understanding the dynamics of social conflict and using innovative methods to catalyze transformations, I am particularly interested in whether or not a game like Ici c’est la France has the potential to serve as one of these methods. Therefore, while my two objectives were linked, I wanted to evaluate each separately, as well as paying some attention to the user-friendliness of the game (where my newbie status was a benefit rather than the detriment it should have been).

So what happened?

First, while the rules are voluminious to say the least, they are clearly laid out and easy to follow (especially if read a few times over in advance, and if given some assistance by someone vastly more experienced in these matters like, say, Rex Brynen). The game itself is also visually appealing, with ample room to move across the terrain and clearly see the different wilayas (zones) that remained throughout the actual conflict. Moreover, as someone familiar with the specificities of the war, I really enjoyed the fact that the game’s creator found ways to fit in so many of the different historical events that took place, both on and off the battlefield, and in the centers of what would become two different states by the end of the war. The importance of opposition to independence within Algeria by French settlers was of paramount importance both in the execution of military manouvers as well as the political tumult that accompanied French efforts. All of these elements are present on the board during play, and the cacaphony of chits, soldiers, fellagha, and FLN movements mirrors this frenetic environment.

That said, I know all of this because I study these two countries, and I have spent some time looking at how the war divided people along those lines. I can’t say that I learned that from the game, and I don’t know that I would say that the game could serve as a tool to transmit that knowledge to students or those unfamiliar with the conflict. As Rex mentioned in his review, one would do well to read one of the more comprehensive histories of the Algerian war of independence (he mentions Alistair Horne, I would agree with that for those looking for a user-friendly introduction). Indeed, while the players are provided with most of the major elements of the conflict in the game, the sheer complexity of the game (for a newbie gamer)  makes integrating all of these elements extremely difficult. For example, I often found the markers on the population and support level tracks shifting back and forth depending on the moves we made, but there complexity of the rules and the sheer number of markers involved rather blurred my sense of the impact of this on the game. Part of this was due to inexperience with the rules of the game, combined with the fact that we didn’t have time to play through the full campaign game (as I was leaving for Algeria soon after.)

But we are two people who have, between us, lots of experience gaming and lots of interest in the war between France and Algeria. For those who might not have either of these things motivating their participation in the game, would they appreciate these elements? How much would they try to integrate these factors into the game?

One particular game mechanic that I found a little problematic was the use of political (historical) chits. The chits selected by a player at the beginning of the game cannot be exchanged, so missteps early on can cost players dearly both in terms of available military options as well as a comprehensive understanding of the social, political, and military terrain. I found that, for example, having not selected the chit for augmenting “troop density” was a huge disadvantage for me as the French side, although it had not been clear to me at the outset of the game how much I would really need this. Moreover, players are given a very limited number of chits to select, and those like that for the kepis bleus had to be sacrificed in order to hold onto other important events, like the arrival of General Massu as commander in Algiers. Perhaps with a greater number of chits available to hold onto, players would be able to better merge the different dimension of the war. Perhaps also, if the game were played with four players (two for each side), more could be accomplished. All in all, there were moments where I felt that the very important detail the creator had put into the composition of the game were lost, and that in reference to my first inquiry, I am unconvinced that the game as it is might be a more useful tool than others to illuminate the intricacies of the conflict.

However, in terms of the second point I wanted to investigate, I think that the potential for the game to serve as a tool to illuminate debates between people who have some stake in the legacy of the war is quite intriguing. Throughout the game, the difficulties in coordinating troops, public opinion, and political order is evident on both sides, and for those who might need to understand these dimensions in order to better understand their own history within the conflict, this might be an extremely useful tool. For example, as I am currently a researcher at the Centre des Études Maghrébines en Algerie, I might propose a round of the game with players assuming opposite roles (as in, French researchers playing the role of Algerian insurgents, and Algerian researchers playing the roles of the French forces) with a debriefing afterwards to see whether or not they had some different appreciation of how the ‘other side’ was forced, or chose, to conduct their operations. In this way, the game could have considerable value as an alterative pedagogical tool, perhaps even more than the creator intended. For while the game is a snapshot of a time since past, the repercussions are both present and powerful, and the scale and ambition of Ici c’est la France allows players to appreciate this in living color.

Virginia DiGaetano
Oran, Algeria

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