Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: We Come In Peace, a game about cultural misunderstanding

Or, how screwing up as Control can teach you moral lessons.

[Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this game for free in exchange for a review.]

We Come In Peace is a free-form RPG about first contact between two alien species with no prior knowledge of each other’s existance, language, or culture. To enforce that understanding barrier, the game is played without face-to-face communication between the teams. Control acts as a go-between relaying non-verbal messages, redacting anything with too much shared understanding between humans (numerals, icons, facial expressions, and gestures like thumbs up).

In person it’s played with the two teams in separate rooms, passing notes. We played over zoom, using a separate breakout room for each team, Control hopping between the two, and a shared slide deck so the teams could go full-Arrival with their attempts at communication.

The game is an allegory for a hidden scenario that only Control is aware of (until the debrief at the end), cloaked in enjoyable sci-fi buffoonery to keep the players and teams from bringing too much cultural hindsight and understanding to the table.

That means it’s Control’s job to take everything the players say, translate it into the hidden scenario to determine the outcome, and then back into the sci-fi allegory to communicate the effect to the players. Which is hard. 

This is a game I learnt to play by screwing up as Control and seeing all my mistakes—and what would have made for better gameplay—in hindsight.

How did we do?

My intrepid space explorers did not start a global thermo-nuclear war, in fact the two sides ended having established a tentative trade agreement and cultural exchange…though one side thought they’d sent a hostage into orbit for four days and the other side planned to abandon their scientist planet-side indefinitely, effectively kidnapping the local…I think it’s safe to say we stored up a bunch of slower-time cultural collision consequences that would have ended badly for one side.

Team A: this roughly translates as “Wow! We pick up the gift you’re holding and rush around pointing ecstatically at parts of our shuttle. We give you SCIENCE in exchange.” Team B understood: “The ship is made with dirt? Huh. And what is this blue stuff you’re handing us? We’re smiling like we have any idea what it’s for…” Also it is cannon that this alien species is made of kapock, fleece, wire, and googley eyes.

The teams did pretty well at establishing peaceful intentions, starting out sending mathematical sequences and sharing their words for basic chemical elements. We had a brief exchange of charades “we’re going to land our shuttle craft now, on that spot there…” before an historic meeting of both peoples and exchange of gifts. The subsequent trade negotiations almost caused an Incident when the message, “we’re sending two shuttles to harvest resources now, on these spots here and here…” was briefly misinterpreted as “they want us to leave our planet?!!” but cool heads prevailed.

It was interesting to watch the thought-process behind the communications with one team, and then hop across to the other team with the image and see their thought-process trying to unravel the message. The planetary civilisation were keen not to lose their new friends too quickly, so sent a message asking them to stay at least four days. The explorers got the days and the four, but didn’t know what to make of the rest so planned to do a midnight-flit on the third day to be sure of avoiding any unfortunate consequences of over-staying their welcome. That was the biggest misunderstanding we had.

Peace in our time, then?

Secretly we were all a little disappointed we hadn’t at least come to the brink of war. 

My first thought was is this what happens when you put women in charge? Instead of establishing dominance, both sides tried extremely hard to understand the other side and understand how they might come across to the other side—gasp, leaders doing the emotional labour for a change…

My second thought was wow, this game is hard to be Control at. I was prepared for thinking on my feet, trying to relate the player actions to the hidden scenario. In doing that, I failed to communicate to both teams the sense of fear and isolation about their situation that should have been motivating a lot of their actions. The stakes of our game were we’ll make friends? when it should have been you face death and/or cultural extinction. The scenario is set up to pivot to that fear if one side opens fire (spoilers: the teams are wildly asymmetric) but neither side came close to aggression, and I really struggled to know if or when I should let on you can basically do what you want with impunity here. In hindsight I should have—but it’s also not that simple.

I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say the allegory is about racism—literally every alien encounter in science fiction is about how we treat people who are different to us.

But the game wouldn’t work with me just saying “haha you guys have all the power here,” because white supremacy and colonialism (and misogynism, and homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc) is fear-based: a fear that the oppressed group would do all the same bad things  if the tables were reversed—that slaves would enslave the slave-owners if they were granted freedom instead of just, you know, living free. That women would treat men like chattle and unpaid household/caregiving labour if the patriarchy were dismantled, instead of just, you know, being equals. Supremacy feels precarious.

I didn’t want to dictate how the teams felt about each other. I thought that would be me influencing the game too much. I was trying to let the players decide how to react emotionally—and that was a huge mistake. I failed to communicate xenophobia to the teams: I was too focused on presenting the information neutrally within the allegory—what the equipment translated to—and I failed to account for the system and assumptions present in the hidden scenario that my players simply didn’t bring to the table because of politeness, decent-human-being-ness, Derby House Principles, or the game being majority-women and women being socialised to perform the emotional labour of any encounter. 

In effect I ran a game of I don’t see colour.

By not manipulating the teams, our invented worlds didn’t include the seeds of racism to spontaneously generate cultural misunderstanding: both sides were too open to the other side being actual human beings like them, not less-than.

Racism doesn’t happen in a vacuum: people are indoctrinated into assumptions they don’t even perceive as racist. I don’t see colour only works in a world lacking existing injustice.

The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality. To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs for white people to be really nice and carry on – to smile at people of color, to go to lunch with them on occasion. To be clear, being nice is generally a better policy than being mean. But niceness does not bring racism to the table and will not keep it on the table when so many of us who are white want it off. Niceness does not break with white solidarity and white silence. In fact, naming racism is often seen as not nice, triggering white fragility.

We can begin by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race. We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or through unequal relationships. We can insist that racism be discussed in our workplaces and a professed commitment to racial equity be demonstrated by actual outcomes. We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. These efforts require that we continually challenge our own socialization and investments in racism and put what we profess to value into the actual practice of our lives. 

This takes courage, and niceness without strategic and intentional anti-racist action is not courageous.

Robin DiAngelo

I had a conversation at work with a guy who was adamant that he treated everyone equally, and therefore was not discriminating against anyone. In fact he was quite insistant that actively making space for women and minorities in any opportunity was wrong and unfair and though he didn’t say the words, underpinning his argument was the assumption that making room for women and minorities would mean better-qualified men missing out. Underpinning his argument was the assumption that women and minorities could not possibly be as qualified as the men currently taking up all the space.

“Treating everyone equally”—not seeing colour, not seeing gender (or gender identity), not seeing sexuality, not seeing disability—is to deny the lived experience of being black, a woman, LGBT, or disabled: their culture, their value, and the real and tangible obstacles they have faced to get here. The reality is the women and minorities who make it to the wargaming table are very often more qualified and more able than the straight-white-non-disabled-men, because it’s been so much harder for them to get there.

Lt Syed Ahsan, number one at the Bombay Tactical Unit: went on to lead Pakistan’s navy. Captain Roberts? He did some odd-jobs for Norway, collected a few gongs for his war work, but he never rose above the rank of Captain nor did he serve in government.

So what can I do about that, as a white person, and someone who supports the Derby House Principles?

People whose careers center on examining and repairing racial inequality tend to say that being willing to see color, and talking about what it means, is one part of how white people can turn their black friendships into something that broadens their horizons on race.


The verdict

We Come In Peace is a good game. It works well over zoom. We had a real mix of experienced professional to never-wargamed-before players and everybody got into it. The puzzle of how do we even communicate that intention was enjoyable to watch.

The explorer team have some great dynamics going on: it was relatively easy to establish this team’s mentality based on the breifing and sci-fi touchstones. The team breifing’s humour provided excellent direction for the players’ motivation without it feeling heavy-handed.

The planetary civilisation felt less developed in their breifing. I took this to be a reflection of them being somewhat at-the-mercy of the situation, but the fact that they didn’t clearly have a goal to pursue beyond reacting to the demands of the other side made for less interesting game play, or relied on the team to spontaneously come up with a goal in response to the arrival of this alien speicies. I suspect this is why we had a relatively peaceful exchange: our planetary team spontaneously chose the goal of mutual cultural exchange, ie of co-operation. In reality—and in keeping with the hidden scenario—they needed an overriding desire to preserve a clearly-defined way of life to create friction. Even something as simple as the aliens have shown up on a national holiday and we’re busy would have set that train in motion.

The Control guide instructions on the hidden scenario were a little vague: read up on the real-life situation on Wikipedia, and here’s a glossary for translation into sci-fi which is focused on the physical—what sending a shuttle-craft or using sensors really means in the hidden scenario. If the players invoked combat the cultural collision would be obvious. Beyond that it was lacking guidance on how to be the cultural misunderstanding. My best suggestion for how to play Control in this game is to think of yourself as the rogue unit in Arrival delivering the explosives.

This is a game I’ve learnt to play by doing it wrong the first time, and realising that my job as Control is to manipulate the hell out of both sides, to out-right lie to them about the other side’s actions and perceived intentions—because ultimately this is a game about the clash of two different cultures, and when both teams are actually made of humans with the same culture, that clash and wild misunderstanding is not created by pictionary alone; both sides are operating from the same concept of what good intentions look like.

I thought my job was to be a neutral party and see if they do or don’t start a war by accident. I see now my job is to do my best to cause friction at every turn and see if both sides can tell cultural collision (my manipulation) apart from hostile intent.

We Come In Peace is available for download from Stone Paper Scissors.

You can read the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.

3 responses to “Review: We Come In Peace, a game about cultural misunderstanding

  1. Sally Davis 13/12/2020 at 4:51 pm

    I wasn’t, now I am. Wowsers.

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