Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 09/01/2012

simulations miscellany, New Year 2012 edition

A few recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers (or older items that we missed at the time):

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Back in early December, Michael Peck had a column in the Training & Simulation Journal asking “Tools or toys? Training games are popular, but no one knows how well they work.” Important question, that—there’s a real danger in being attracted to the whiz-bang modernism of digital educational or training games without asking whether they actually deliver more than other lower-tech training or educational approaches.

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A couple of weeks ago at Policymic, Jonathan Dowdall wrote about what he calls the “Skyrim effect,” arguing  that while there has been much attention to the morality of commercial conflict-based video games, there has not been enough recognition of the extent to which “contemporary video games now give a mature and sophisticated treatment to issues of war and politics.”

Strangely, misperceptions and prejudice towards the game industry — and the hobby of gaming itself — are proving difficult to dispel. Despite the average U.S. gamer’s age being 37-years, and 43% of gamers being female, this multi-billion dollar entertainment sector is intellectually derided by critics.

At best, it is labelled a shallow light show for adolescent boys, and at worst, a perverse industry that is breeding a generation unhinged from basic morality by casual violence.

Now admittedly, Middle East pounding shoot-em-ups and vicious criminal fantasy romps may not be the highest art form. But recent games have demonstrated the ability for this fast-growing medium to engage with complex political ideas.

Take Eidos’ Deus Ex Human Revolution – a startlingly imaginative detective story that explores, amongst other things, themes of social justice, the complexities of international law, and the Prometheus-like pitfalls of modern medicine.

Or Bethseda’s Skyrim, whose depiction of a civil war deftly avoids the clichés of good and evil and instead paints an ambiguous picture of a society gripped by elements of racist nationalism, imperial hubris, and violent revenge. From public executions to competing demands of treachery, no side emerges untainted from this conflict. This is a particularly moving morality play – as well as visually stunning.

If this moral depth is not good enough, many games are also increasingly relevant to the challenges of contemporary governance. Intrigued by the theoretical complexity of international relations? Try Sid Meier’s Civilization 5, where everything from taxation to religious policy can be tailored by your government in a game of world-spanning competitive empire building.

In fact, from the logic and costs of nuclear deterrence to the challenges of strategic counter-insurgency, computer games have provided thoughtful, well-researched and, of course, entertaining explorations of some of today’s biggest political challenges.

Undoubtedly there are a number of the games on the market that offer more complex political narratives (Skyrim indeed being an excellent example of this), and there is certainly much discussion in the broader gaming industry about the complexities of modelling complex moral choices. In many games now the moral choices you make affect game dialogue, options, abilities, non-plater character reactions, and plot development. Still, the industry still tends to do this in relatively unidimensional ways, such as one’s karma total in the Fallout series, or the extent to which your choices mark you on the “Dark Side” or “Light Side” of the Force in the new online Star Wars: The Old Republic MMOG. The Mass Effects series is a little different in that its paragon and renegade points are two separate but somewhat parallel variables rather than a single continuum, but it still doesn’t fully capture the complexity of moral (or political) choice. In general, we’re generally still not quite at the point that the pencil-and-paper RPG Dungeons and Dragons was over thirty years ago, with its two-axis crosscutting measures of good versus evil and lawful versus chaotic.

It should also be noted, moreover, that moral or political complexity in a game narrative is not necessarily the same thing as being a good simulation of piece of virtual politics or political science or war.  Games, after all, frequently play to stereotypes—including stereotypes of political process. A narrative might be compelling and engaging, and the politics or war-fighting all rather stupid. Equally a game might be hyperrealistic, and boring as all hell.

This isn’t to disagree with Dowdall–overall I think he’s right that games are becoming complex in much more interesting ways. However, it is to say that I think we’re perhaps a little less far along than his piece suggests.

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Finally, Paul Webber’s has a very useful list this week of the top 20 “must play” games (old or new) for 2012 over at Wargaming Connection. He discusses what makes the game approach or mechanics particularly interesting in each case, so it is a useful list not only for entertainment purposes but also for looking at a number of outstanding examples of game design. (I’m particularly pleased that he included on the list one of my all-time favourite SPI boardgames, Freedom in the Galaxy (1979)—which also remains one of the best insurgency/counterinsurgency games ever published, I think.)

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Speaking of D&D, New York Times has a piece today on the decision by Wizards of the Coast to reboot the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game with (yet another) edition:

True believers have lost faith. Factions squabble. The enemies are not only massed at the gates of the kingdom, but they have also broken through.

This may sound like the back story for an epic trilogy. Instead, it’s the situation faced by the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, the venerable fantasy role-playing game many consider to be the grandfather of the video game industry. Gamers bicker over Dungeons & Dragons rules. Some have left childhood pursuits behind. And others have spurned an old-fashioned, tabletop fantasy role-playing game for shiny electronic competitors like World of Warcraft and the Elder Scrolls.

But there might yet be hope for Dungeons & Dragons, known as D&D. On Monday, Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that owns the game, announced that a new edition is under development, the first overhaul of the rules since the contentious fourth edition was released in 2008. And Dungeons & Dragons’ designers are also planning to undertake an exceedingly rare effort for the gaming industry over the next few months: asking hundreds of thousands of fans to tell them how exactly they should reboot the franchise.

This wouldn’t exactly be serious gaming news if it weren’t for the fact that D&D has had profound impact on the development of the entire RPG genre. Moreover, it is the place where a large percentage of game designers and even professional wargamers got their gaming start. As a D&D veteran (all the way back to very first version of the game), I certainly have to say it is the place where I learned a great deal of my gaming and game facilitation skills.

On that note, my advice to WOTC would be: stop rebooting the damned game. I’m not going to fork out a fortune for endless rulebooks and supplements for a 5th edition. Also, stop trying to make it into a simplified collectable card game or copying videogame approaches. It works fine at what it does best: a flexible, customizable, pencil-and-paper RPG. Certainly don’t go the route suggested by this (very clever) parody website….

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