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THATCamp IMMERSe 2013

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THATCamp IMMERSe will be held on 12-14 July 2013 in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario:

Announcing THATCamp IMMERSe! On the weekend of July 12th, we’ll gather in Kitchener-Waterloo to discuss, create, debate, design, and play games!

THATCamp IMMERSe is an unconference hosted by the University of Waterloo Games Institute, in partnership with the IMMERSe Research Network for Video Game Immersion. THATCamp IMMERSe was founded as a way to bring together game studies and digital humanities theorists and practitioners, game developers and designers, games enthusiasts and advocates, and humanities instructors and scholars interested in games, pedagogy, and player experience. This THATCamp is organized by Lauren Burr, Neil Randall, and the graduate students of The Games Institute.

What is THATCamp? Short for “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” THATCamp is a user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities. THATCamp was originally the brainchild of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where the first THATCamp was held in 2008. Since then, more than sixty THATCamps have convened across the US and internationally.

What is an “unconference”? According to Wikipedia, an unconference is “a conference where the content of the sessions is created and managed by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by one or more organizers in advance of the event.” Participants in an unconference are expected to share their knowledge and actively collaborate with fellow participants rather than simply attend or read a paper. Unconferences strive to avoid pomp and hierarchy; as a result, they’re generally more comfortable and free-flowing than a typical academic gathering. A frequent THATCamp attendee summed up the difference between a THATCamp and a regular academic conference this way: “[THATCamps] give all the good of traditional conferences and nix the endless PowerPoint presentations, sage-on-stage moments, and insane costs.”

Who should attend THATCamp IMMERSe? Anyone with energy and an interest in games, technology, and the humanities. We invite games scholars, students, developers, designers, and enthusiasts interested in the confluence of games and the (digital) humanities to join us.

What will happen at THATCamp? Our THATCamp will feature workshops and sessions. Workshops are pre-planned, and feature informal and fun instruction in a particular skill or topic in the broad fields of game design and game studies. Sessions are looser, participant-generated gatherings, which will be collaboratively scheduled the first morning of our THATCamp. At THATCamp IMMERSe, sessions may range from software demos to game jams to training sessions to discussions of research findings.

What’s my role as a Camper? Using our THATCamp blog, propose a session before we meet in person. Alternatively, bring a session idea and propose it to the group during our scheduling session. Once you’re at THATCamp, you may also find people with similar interests to team up with for a joint session. If you would like to lead a workshop, see our call for workshop leaders. If you would like to contribute something to our public games showcase, see our call for games.

Where is all of this taking place? We’ve booked a different venue for each day of THATCamp IMMERSe. On July 12th, workshops will be held at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in UpTown Waterloo. On July 13th, unconference sessions will be held at Kitchener City Hall. And on July 14th, a public showcase and gaming event, as well as a private THATCamp Design Lab, will be held at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener. This arrangement gives campers a chance to see more of what both “Uptown” Waterloo and downtown Kitchener have to offer, and to partake in fun gaming and social events sponsored by The Games Institute.

How do I sign up? Visit our THATCamp site’s registration page and fill out a short application. Registration will begin on APRIL 1st. It will remain open until JUNE 15th, or until all available spots are full. Please note that we can accommodate no more than 100 people, so sign up as soon as possible to reserve yourself a spot!

How much? THATCamp IMMERSe is FREE to all attendees! THATCamps are cheap or free on purpose. Our THATCamp has been generously sponsored by The Games Institute, IMMERSe, the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Kitchener City Hall, and THEMUSEUM, and so we’ll be able to provide coffee, snacks and swag, along with three state-of-the-art venues, at no cost to our participants.

Contact: For more information, visit our website at http://immerse2013.thatcamp.org/ or send us an email at thatcampimmerse@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter for regular updates!

Iran, covert information operations, and the politics of videogames

As has been widely reported in recent days, former US Marine and former video game developer Amir Mirzaei Hekmati has been sentenced to death in Iran for alleged espionage and subversion. According to the New York TimesHekmati was accused by Iran of, among other things, being involved in the development of video games intended to covertly change attitudes in the Middle East:

According to Iranian state television, a former United States marine who was convicted of spying on Iran and sentenced to death on Monday was also involved in a nefarious plot to brainwash the youth of the Middle East using an unlikely tool: video games.

In a video report broadcast last month, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the former marine of Iranian descent who was arrested during a visit to Tehran in August, allegedly confessed to a career in American intelligence that included a stint at a video game company in New York that was “a cover for the C.I.A.”

According to an English translation of the report published by The Tehran Times, an Iranian state-run newspaper, about one-third of the way through the report, Mr. Hekmati said he had worked for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, after he left the Marine Corps in 2005. Then, according to the newspaper’s somewhat oddly worded translation, Mr. Hekmati said in Persian:

After Darpa, I was recruited by Kuma Games Company, a computer games company which received money from C.I.A. to design and make special films and computer games to change the public opinion’s mindset in the Middle East and distribute them among Middle East residents free of charge. The goal of Kuma Games was to convince the people of the world and Iraq that what the U.S. does in Iraq and other countries is good and acceptable.

He reportedly added: “The head of Kuma called me and said, ‘I have received your resume from Darpa, and we have a program in which you can help us.’ ” Kuma, Mr. Hekmati explained, “was also a cover for the C.I.A. and only the chief of company knows that you’re working with the agency.”*

The US has officially denied the Iranian charges.

The game publisher for whom Hekmati worked for a period, Kuma Games, certainly does publish Middle East themed games. Most of these are simply plug-in episodes for its Kuma\War series (108 of them and counting) in which players refight various semi-historical incidents, ranging from the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein in Iraq to Aghanistan to Muammar Qaddafi’s last stand in Libya. While the perspective is rather American, these games are essentially generic modern first-person shooters, mostly set in post-9/11 Iraq or Afghanistan (although you can also refight the UK’s Operation Barras rescue mission in Sierra Leone). A couple of episodes involve Iran, two based on the failed 1980 American hostage rescue mission in Iran and one (published in 2005) based on current nuclear tensions:

As a Special Forces soldier in this playable mission, you will infiltrate Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz, located 150 miles south of Iran’s capital of Teheran. But breaching the security cordon around the hardened target won’t be easy. Your team’s mission: Infiltrate the base, secure evidence of illegal uranium enrichment, rescue your man on the inside, and destroy the centrifuges that promise to take Iran into the nuclear age. Never before has so much hung in the balance… millions of lives, and the very future of democracy could be at stake.

There’s really not much much of a political message in these games at all, beyond the notion that it’s generally not a good idea to get shot in a firefight.

Rather more interesting is Kuma Games’ newer episodic game Sibaq al-Fursan (Race of the Knights), the first episodes of which were published in 2010. This is sort of an apocalyptic Speed Racer-meets-Mad Max adventure, in which a group of heroes drives around an Arabia that was devastated by nuclear weapons (including the radioactive “Desert of Glass” and the “lost city of Dubai”), rescuing friends, battling the army of the False Caliph, and collecting gold-covered thorium beans (GTBs) to trade for various in-game upgrades. The game has been translated into Arabic (in Levant, Egyptian, and Gulf dialect), French, Urdu and Farsi—you’ll find the Arabic website here.

After a few introductory episodes, Iran pops up in this game quite a few times when the beautiful Princess Dima is kidnapped by the evil “False Caliph” to be dragged off to Isfahan (lovely city by the way, Princess!).  The evil military forces also subtly sport a sort of hybrid Iranian flag-IRGC logo (see above), and drop North Korea-branded bombs on the brave Knights, their muscle cars, and poor radiation-afflicted refugees alike (see below). The bombs, incidentally, don’t seem that much more effective than the real North Korean ones, and fizzle as often as they explode.

In Episode 4, we’re explicitly told that Zulfiqar al-Harabi, the “False Caliph,” is a former arms merchant who is supported by North Korea and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The dastardly villain seems to have kidnapped the princess in order to force her father, a scientist, to finish work on the ultimate weapon, which may soon be used against Damascus.

Is this a US-sponsored information operation intended to subtly promote the view among target audiences that Iran’s current nuclear program is a dangerous one? Or is it simply an episodic videogame that draws on current history, much as Hollywood movies or digital games have variously featured the Communist menace, evil South Africans, Latin American drug cartels, Middle Eastern terrorists, or even Canada? I have no idea. Certainly, however, one can imagine how already paranoid Iranian security officials might have been suspicious of an Iranian-American ex-Marine who worked under a DARPA contract, and also worked for the company that produced Sibaq al-Fursan, especially in a context of escalating US-Iranian geopolitical tensions. (Needless to add, however, Hekmati’s “confession” on Iranian TV is meaningless as evidence of anything at all. Forced confessions and show trials are a staple of Iran’s autocratic government, and some of the things he says—for example, about US policy, oil pricing, and OPEC—make no sense at all.)

At Slate yesterday, Will Oremus had a piece asking “Does the CIA really make video-game propaganda?” He notes that a great many games today address contemporary conflict themes, sometimes generating political controversy for doing so. Moreover, not all game playing societies have the same view of history, for obvious reasons. A case in point is the Vietnamese game company Emobi Games, which has just released 7554—a first person shooter videogame about the Viet Minh struggle against the French that commemorates the Vietnamese victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954 (it looks rather interesting too).

Getting back to the case of Iran, what might a covert, videogame-based information operation aimed at that country look like? Oremus asks that question to games researcher Ian Bogost, who suggests it might not look at all like Sibaq al-Fursan:

If U.S. intelligence agencies were making secret video games to foment unrest in Iran or elsewhere, they would likely be less violent and more focused on realistic decision-making scenarios. According to Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech professor who co-founded a company that designs games as marketing tools for clients, the most persuasive games are those that model real-world systems and give users a chance to see the consequences of different courses of action. A game aimed at Iranians might seek to demonstrate the pitfalls of Islamism or the value of participation in a democratic opposition movement. (It would probably not be called, as one Kuma title is, Assault on Iran.) One model might be People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance, a single-player, turn-based strategy game developed by the nonprofit International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in which the player builds alliances and chooses tactics to secure rights and freedoms for an oppressed populace.

I’m not so sure, however. People Power is not a terribly immersive game, and it is an open question whether that sort of politics-as-strategy -game approach would ever garner an adequate number of users. If I were trying to develop a game-with-a-message for casual users in a crowded digital game market, I would probably go with something a little more engaging.

UPDATE: Since this report was first published, Sibaq al-Fursan’s Arabic-language website has been taken offline, and replaced with an English language “coming soon” page. The videos are still available at YouTube.

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….

Do wargames glorify war?

Our recent post about the forthcoming documentary War Games helped to spark an interesting discussion on whether wargames glorify war over at BoarGameGeek. While at times the discussion conflates cardboard boardgames and the much more visual, immersive, and seemingly “realistic” genre of first-person-shooter videogames (there seems to me to be rather a difference between the two), there’s much of value there. Look out in particular for some very thoughtful posts by Eric Walters.

We’ve posted a few pieces in the past that touch upon the subject:

The image above is from the controversial (and still unpublished) videogame Six Days in Fallujah.

h/t Gorgoneion (for starting off the BGG discussion)

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