Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Game plots and the global recession


Over at the electronic gaming website Kotaku, they ask some interesting questions about whether the current global recession will increasingly feature as a plot element in computer and video games:

Would you shoot someone responsible for America’s horrible housing market? Would you like to? What if you met his wife and kid first?

How did we get here, and where are we going? What happens when the 99% rise up, and more to the point, how happy will you be to play a video game that casts you as one of them? Or what if you’re playing as a police officer, an enforcer of the status quo?

The recent economic recession—and its fallout—looms over most everything these days, and video games are starting to reflect that. From Grand Theft Auto V to the newest Rainbow 6, it’s looking as though amid the zombies, aliens, cops and foreign soldiers we’ll be fighting, it’s the economy that will be the next big video game bad guy.

While suggesting that some game publishers might be reluctant to tread upon such political sensitive turf, they also note that others appear willing to do so:

Kaos studio’s Homefront dealt with the economy in its own twisted, interesting way. In the game’s fiction (written by Apocalypse now co-author John Milius), America has lost its world standing due to economic imbalance and a shortage of oil, and as a result has become susceptible to foreign invasion. The main character is cast as an insurgent, the very same sort of “freedom fighter” that other war games label as terrorists. The game was a bit of a flop, but it’s heartening to hear that acclaimed developer Crytek has assumed the reins of the franchise. Kaos was playing with some very compelling stuff: What makes an insurgent? What drives us to acts of terrorism? What does it mean to truly have nothing to lose? One can’t help but hope that Crytek will explore those questions further.

What will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize?

Terrorists make for effective cannon fodder in games, but as villains, they can be difficult to write. One of the easiest ways to give a character or group of characters depth is by adding backstory—you know, “why did the chicken cross the road?” But with terrorists, it’s a bit more difficult to write motivation. For various reasons, religious beliefs are generally off the table with big-budget games, so most video game terrorist groups are motivated by some sort of vague anger at America and the West for imperialistic tendencies. And most if not all modern-day military shooters are perfectly content to avoid these sorts of questions entirely, often by putting some sort of Bond-ian villain behind it all. How many games have crudely taped a megalomaniacal mastermind and an army of “Russian Ultranationalists” onto their story in an attempt to give Western gamers a more palatable enemy to kill?

Ubisoft’s just-announced Rainbow 6: Patriots also features terrorists, but with a recession-flavored twist: they’re fueled by rage at the nation’s economic elite and have risen up and begun destroying national landmarks. At the start of a new video of prototype gameplay, a man and his family are taken hostage by terrorists who tell him, “You really did cash in on everyone else getting foreclosed, didn’t you? Today you’re going to make up for that.”

In the game itself, players will be controlling law enforcers facing an armed uprising. It echoes real life in ways that may be uncomfortable to acknowledge—what will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize? As I imagine a law-enforcement or SWAT video game based on the recent Occupy Oakland protests, I have to wonder: would players be cast as beleaguered public servants trying to do their best or thejackbooted thugs who violently put down dissent?

Economic anger feels intense and relatable, and it can make games more believable, complex, and scary. It remains to be seen whether economic issues will merely be the latest window dressing for video game carnage, or whether some developers and writers will choose to go deeper.

Certainly we’ve seen this theme in a few boardgames, even before the current recession—see, for example, Joe Miranda’s Crisis 2020: America Divided (Victory Point Games) or, on a more tactical level, Brian Train’s Battle of Seattle.

4 responses to “Game plots and the global recession

  1. brtrain 28/11/2011 at 1:33 am

    Well, my reaction to this goes back a ways, to 1977.

    At the end of 1976, the prolific designer James Dunnigan was near the height of his powers. He had turned out seven games that year, including the massive War in Europe project, the perennial player’s favourite Panzergruppe Guderian, and the innovative Battle for Germany (designed in on sleepless night on a dare, or so the story goes). He would turn out even more games in 1977. One of them, in a sort of tarnished homage to the American Bicentennial, was entitled Minuteman: the Second American Revolution.

    Minuteman was one of a string of political-military designs SPI (and, for the most part, Dunnigan alone) was churning out at the time. The three games in the Power Politics series (Russian Civil War, Plot to Assassinate Hitler, and After the Holocaust) were all released within nine months of each other; Minuteman came out at the beginning of 1977, and Canadian Civil War followed shortly after that.

    In Minuteman, Dunnigan’s objective was to portray the spread of underground anti-establishment movements, the government’s reaction to civil discontent, and the mechanics of fighting a popular revolution. Instead of making up an imaginary country, he placed the action in the United States of 2020. The future history he cooks up as the framework to the basic scenario, even though it was written over thirty years ago, seems strikingly accurate now. He describes a world largely at peace, with a bankrupt Russia removed form the superpower game and an America preoccupied with profound internal social problems caused by the massive public debt run up in the last twenty years of the 20th century.

    He wrote: “… the trend of the ‘rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer’ had been accentuated. The only jobs that paid enough to provide a comfortable existence were to be found in the government, military, and the top 100 industrial corporations. Because of the vastly increased mechanization of work, the corporations employed only some 10% of the working population. The government employed another 12% but half of these government employees were patronage jobs, and the workers served at the pleasure of the elected officials who paid them. Another 4% of the working population was in the armed forces, [which] had become something of a hereditary institution… The government now provided millions of ‘public works’ jobs which … had now become nothing more than another form of public welfare… the police, which amounted one-third of all government employees, were kept busy seeing that over 40 million unemployed and underemployed people did not get out of line. The present situation was not one in which Americans were starving, nor did they lack most basic comforts. What they were denied was any great hope of improvement… only some 20% of the population was going to have any future whatsoever. The rest of the population would subsist as well-fed, uneducated, and most horrifying of all, useless drones existing at the mercy of a small hereditary minority.”

    The basic game is for two players. The Rebel player initially deploys a number of Networks (many of them amusingly named after service clubs like the Masons, trade unions, the D.A.R., etc.) and Minutemen (revolutionary leaders and organizers: many of these are named after heroes of organized labour, the civil rights movement, and the first American Revolution) on a hex map showing the Continental United States and parts of southern Canada and northern Mexico. These are placed randomly, so one game can be very different from the next. He spends most of the first part of the game improving what he stared with, building more Minutemen, and creating a secret army of militia against the day of the Revolution. Meanwhile, the Government player has a few Army divisions to keep civil order, and later (as the Rebel movement unavoidably grows) an array of Informers, Counterintelligence Groups and Agents (again, with amusing code names drawn from TV and comic books) to deploy against the Rebel clandestine forces. At some point, the Rebel player must declare a revolution, and form that point the game becomes a more straightforward contest of military strength.

    Other scenarios dealt with foreign occupations and partisan warfare after the “European Socialist Coalition” (an all-purpose enemy created by Dunnigan) won a match of Invasion:America, and a Second Civil War. There were also optional rules for including Canada and Mexico, foreign intervention, air and amphibious assaults, having two or three Rebel players, and so on.

    After 25 years of gaming, Minuteman is still one of my personal favourites, for its subject matter if nothing else. It has good repeat play value because of its randomized setup and the choice of strategies open to both players. The rebel can choose between a quiet, cautious strategy of careful building of clandestine units, or an active strategy of causing widespread riots and sporadic military combat. A switch from one to the other at the right time can be devastating for the Government player, who, for his part, tries to inhibit Rebel growth and engages in a certain amount of “spy vs. spy” combat later in the game. The additional scenarios in the game can make for some interesting free-for-alls, especially the Second Civil War scenario which is entirely randomized at the beginning.

    Joe Miranda did an extensive upgrading of this game in MOVES #79, adding many new functions for units and a new scenario.

    Minuteman was not popular in its day, for a number of reasons: it was about insurgency, which was and still is a minority interest among wargamers; the scenario must have looked ridiculous to the overeducated and hopeful young men of 1977 who might have had some of the “Carter malaise” but still felt they had a good and secure future; even though no one spoke against it in these terms, it would have been a bit touchy for someone to want to play Big Brother, as the paranoia and distrust of government and politicians we almost take for granted nowadays was not as widespread or fervently held.

    Minuteman is one of the very few games where the casus belli is explicitly economics, or rather socioeconomic stagnation and decline. That alone makes it interesting. Think I’m going to haul it out and take it for a spin again!

  2. Mike Cosgrave 28/11/2011 at 5:15 am

    All my game based teaching in IR, and I don’t get a chance to do International Political Economy stuff, but it would be interesting to ask a class of grad students to design and run a sim for the global economy out to 2025 including increasing energy prices, economic stagnation, and reduced government spending with a few nasty climate events thrown in. These are the sort of things they may have to deal with in their careers so it probably counts as vocational.

  3. Skip Cole 28/11/2011 at 6:24 am

    Powerful video. I don’t see my self playing the game though. I like more ‘escapism’ in my escapism.

    Great point Brian on how a Game Designer extrapolated out and saw potential societal problems decades ahead of time. I’ve been thinking recently of how one of the original Game Designers, in this case H.G. Wells, may have also been more on target than people gave him credit for. He predicted the bifurcation of the human race into two groups: Morlock and Eloi. Maybe we can think of these two groups as the 1% and the 99%. Of course, if the Morlocks find ways to stay young and beautiful, and don’t actually eat the Eloi, then things may not get so grim.

    And if the Morlocks actually placate the Eloi with bread and circuses (welfare and video games?) then maybe its a ‘win-win.’ I think that Neal Stephenson’s book Anathem discusses similar issues. I really need to find time to read that …

    Thanks for some highly interesting material to think about. Personally, I don’t see our future as getting very bad, so I predict that games about our dark future will be on the rise — If things were getting really (think-Syria-style) bad, then the reaction would be in the other direction.

  4. brtrain 28/11/2011 at 8:32 pm

    Funnily enough Skip, James Dunnigan wrote in his backstory for Minuteman about how a slight change in climate drastically affected Canada’s ability to produce grain… yet more extrapolation!

    Seen in passing, this piece on the Grand Strategy Programs at various American universities, also mentions the simulations and exercises the classes conduct:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: