Monday, February 22, 2016

Over at Cyborgology: Distance as Authentic

A quick note that Cyborgology published my short essay, Distance as Authentic: Modernist Tropes of an Amish Woman on the Internet.  It is a critique of the narrative framing employed in a recent Atlantic interview with a woman, Emma, who grew up in an Amish community and, at the age of 18, left that community to seek a new life in the modern American setting.  Emma is asked several questions about her adjustment to living in our modern, connected world and what sort of insights she can provide as someone who grew up without online technology being omnipresent in her upbringing.  The following is a quote from the piece:
But the Atlantic interview does more than explore current anxieties related to the Internet; it taps into older conceptions of modern identity even as it subtly alters these conceptions for its own post-modern use. By suggesting that Emma’s perspective allows us to better evaluate our condition in the ‘connected world’, the Atlantic interview reveals its own indebtedness to turn of the century modernist projects that favor ahistorical identities and introduce anxieties tied to the production of modern citizens.
 Read the entire essay over at Cyborgology.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Analysis of Sinai (SPI, 1973)

Finally took some time to sit down and record my ever-brewing thoughts on Sinai, the SPI wargame from 1973 that depicts the various Arab-Israeli conflicts up to that period.  I find Sinai to be a fascinating example to explore as it offers so many facets to analyze.  There is the more formal design genealogy interpretation, in which Sinai can claim to be one of the first commercial hobby wargames to tackle a 'contemporary' topic and even indulge in hypothetical forecasting of potential 'future' conflicts.  There is also the materialist interpretation, in which the rules, game board, and pieces used to play the game are seen as means of constructing a theme or enforcing a specific viewpoint of the conflict via procedural mechanics or design aesthetics.  But for myself, the most interesting interpretation is that related to the role Sinai plays as both a secondary AND primary source of the conflict depicted.

I originally gave this presentation as part of the Weird Shift 'Micro Talks' event held in Portland a few months ago.  Assuming my audience would have no prior knowledge of wargames like Sinai, I spent the first portion of my presentation going over a very brief history of wargames in general before launching into my general analysis.

With this project, along with my previous look at the My Lai card in GMT's Fire in the Lake, I'm beginning to put together enough examples to at least have a half-way decent essay in the works.  Still a back-burner idea, especially since I'm closing in on finishing my dissertation, but I believe there is enough there worthy to discuss and examine.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Understanding 'Sinai': Three Angles

(I wrote this to be transmitted on Twitter, so please forgive the lack of standards like transitions or rhetorical flourishes that are often just so much wordplay. Still, I felt this is substantive enough to be posted here for, perhaps, a different audience. - JA)

Last night on I dropped (on Twitter)  ‘three angles’ being used in my personal project on SPI’s Sinai (1973) but didn’t really explain them. I'm going to try to explain them in more detail now.
First: specificity. Only looking at modern turn in hex-and-counter wargames, when they focused on contemporary or future-based conflicts. 'Sinai' is among the first (to my knowledge), mass-produced commercial wargames in this trend.

Second: Immaterial labor via Dyer-Witheford/de Peuter's 'Games of Empire'. How are manual wargames same/different from the biomachines comprising virtual games analyzed in 'Games of Empire'? How does Sinai, produced at the beginnings of neoliberal ideological ascendency in the 1970's, reflect these, then, nascent ideals in its production and actual play? What were the latent networks of immaterial labor surrounding both the play and modification of Sinai?

Third: inward turn of narrative. How does Sinai, as a representative of early 1970's wargame design, fit into the centuries trend of inward narrative development most commonly examined in literature? Given the healthy community of players and the wealth of variations/additions created for the game, what does this early example of a 'modern' hex-and-counter wargame have to offer with regards to study of play and narrative?

Fourth: mimesis. Looking at the culture of wargame copies, from acquisition of 'unpunched' copies to worn copies proudly burnished by experienced players. Yet beyond: idea of folkloric transfer of experience through touch and how Sinai, through powerful mimetic properties, reveals both the 'epistemic reservoir' and capacity for 'kaleidoscopic theatre' inherent in 'modern' wargames.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Memory that is Desire and Gaze

I've been reading Robert Bolano's The Third Reich in off-again, on-again spurts, and recently came across a section (or passage, as my seventh grade English teacher would say) that captured my attention:
I walked the beach when all was Dark, reciting the names of the forgotten, names languishing on dusty shelves, until the sun came out again. But are they forgotten names or only names in waiting? I remembered the player as viewed by Someone from above, just the head, the shoulders, and the backs of the hands, and the board game and counters like a stage set where thousands of beginnings and endings eternally unfold, a kaleidoscopic theater, the only bridge between the player and his memory, a memory that is desire and gaze. How many infantry divisions was it- depleted, untrained- that held the Western front? Which ones halted the advance in Italy, despite treachery? Which armored divisions pierced the French defenses in '40 and the Russian defenses in '41 and '42? And with what key division did Marshal Manstein retake Kharkov and exorcise the disaster? What infantry divisions fought to clear the way for tanks in '44, in the Ardennes? And how many countless combat groups sacrificed themselves to stall the enemy on all fronts? No one can agree. Only the player's memory knows. (Emphasis mine)
Bolano's The Third Reich is a novel about a German tourist, named Udo, who brings two things to his holiday in Spain; his beautiful girlfriend, Ingeborg, and a copy of Avalon Hill's famed strategic war game, 'The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich'. Udo is quite the competitive 'Third Reich' player, having won several tournaments in Germany, and part of his vacation plans involve playing through and refining a new, 'killer' strategy of his own design for the German forces. At the point of the novel from which the above quote is taken, Udo is entering the final stages of long, drawn-out malaise that keeps him from returning to Germany, his only activity centering around a game of 'Third Reich' set-up between himself and a badly burned and disfigured local, whom Udo befriended earlier, known only as El Quemado. What began as a sort of learning game in which Udo believes he cannot lose has, at this point, transformed into a cunning match between two players of equal skill.

Several elements of the quote strike me as worth deeper investigation. To begin, there is the idea put forth of a 'player's memory' that is reflective but also speculative. It eternalizes, memorializes those 'forgotten names' while also recognizing that such ossification is futile, or at best nostalgic, because new fates await such 'forgotten names' with every game. Furthermore this reflective/speculative perspective comes about through the telescoping of play, demonstrated through Bolano's evocation of 'Someone' looking over the player's shoulder, just as the player looks over the figurative shoulders of units and divisions portrayed in cardboard-counter form on the game board. Interestingly the quote also hints that the scene described is that of solitaire play, a mode quite common for aficionados of war games.  There is a sense that the telescoping effect of play allows the solitaire player to become mobile within the endless perspective afforded, their own identity, like the counters below, both forgotten and in waiting.

But what grounds this floating, endless perspective? I believe this answer comes from Bolano's metaphoric descriptor of the war game as 'kaleidoscopic theater'. Kaleidoscopes utilize refraction to generate novel patterns, just as the play of war games generates novel outcomes of battles or, as is the case of 'Third Reich', entire World Wars.  Yet the kaleidoscope works only along a fixed perspective, offering novel configuration within a limited plane of view. War games operate along similar lines, utilizing a fixed perspective to offer novel configurations within the confines of a limited plane of view dictated by rules, materials, and, most importantly, the player's memory which is desire and gaze.  

When Udo questions 'which armored divisions pierced the French defenses' or 'what infantry divisions fought to clear the way for tanks in '44, in the Ardennes', his recompense is to state that while impotent groups cannot agree on sufficient answers only the player's memory can act as a sort of arbiter of truth, no matter how temporarily or ephemeral such truths turn out to be given the endless churning of play. Access to this truth, to this players memory, is provided by the war game itself which Bolano describes as the 'bridge between the player and his memory.' One cannot access this memory unless they play the game and engage in the act of kaleidoscopic theater. Hence the desire, hence the gaze.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Thinking with History in Wargame Design

(Trigger Warning- discusses the My Lai massacre and contains some graphic imagery.)

One of things that interests me most about board games, and war games in particular, is how online forums become places where designer intent and player expectation meet and often clash over how particular mechanics or design choices are correlative to the actual event or perceived operation of how war works. (A good example being rules for lines of supply, or handling morale checks for units)

Recently I've been very caught up with playing GMT's newest entry into their Counterinsurgency (COIN) series, Fire in the Lake, which is about the Vietnam conflict. As with any game that holds as its central focus a controversial war, there will always be points of friction between popular perceptions of that conflict and the ways in which the designer (or in this case, designers) uses mechanics and rules to highlight themes they believe to be inherent within that conflict. Vietnam is still a relatively recent conflict in American memory, and this proximity in memory allows design abstractions to take on heightened forms. As a counterpoint consider the Second World War, one of the most (if not the most) gamed conflicts in short history of commercial wargaming. Time has dulled the controversy over playing the Axis powers, and while some may cringe at the thought of what moving a SS counter means in the meta-narrative of reflection that occurs outside of gaming, few actively protest the presence or option of commanding these forces. This is even more true for conflicts like the American Civil War, or the famed battles of Napoleon's era.

In a presentation I gave at Connections 2012, a conference that seeks to blend together the worlds of professional and commercial wargaming, I discussed how abstraction in design does a marvelous job of compressing time but that it is a mistake to assume that design also compresses what cultural historian Carl Schorske called 'thinking with history'. The rules for supply or the efficiency rating of a particular unit are loaded with meanings that speak to a lot more than what simply occurs on a game map.

To bring it back to 'Fire in the Lake', here is an event card depicting the infamous My Lai massacre.

All of the COIN games are driven by the play of these event cards. They contain a faction order, represented here by the colored circles at the top of the card, and usually, but not always, a shaded and non-shaded event effect. Depending on what order a particular player's faction holds when it's their turn, they can choose to conduct 'Operations' on the board or opt to have a card's event text take effect. It's entirely possible, and often occurs, that players can choose to never utilize a card's particular event text and, instead, focus on using their 'operations' to improve board position. Yet because COIN games utilize these event cards for both driving the action on the board and injecting a sense of 'periodization' tied to the conflict depicted, they become exemplars of the complicated nexus intersecting abstracted design and 'thinking with history'.

Putting this altogether raises an interesting question: what does it mean to have a My Lai card in a game about Vietnam? This was a question raised in a 'Fire in the Lake' forum post on BoardGameGeek (hereafter BGG) titled, "Card 119: My Lay Downplaying the Truth?" The original poster, Darren Kerr, took offense that the card, and the larger description of that card in the accompanying playbook, was intentionally misleading.
The notes in the play book describe the My Lai massacre as a platoon led by Calley killing 22 civilians. However, this is a grossly misleading description of the actual scale of the massacre that occurred on March 16, 1968 where over 300 civilians were murdered. 
I am not trying to make a political point, because for every one Calley the US Army has many more individuals like Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, but I would be interested in knowing why the designers went with a description that would appear to be deliberately misleading. 
I appreciate that the card relates to Calley's court-martial for which he was found guilty of murdering at least 22 people, however, using that as the justification for apparently downplaying the extent of the My Lai massacre does an injustice to those who were murdered. 
Games are games, but the truth is usually the truth. In this case, the truth is clear and should be told as a salutary lesson for current and future generations.
For clarity's sake, here is the 'My Lai' entry found in the playbook for Fire in the Lake.

Reaction to the forum post on BGG was swift and vociferous. Mark Herman, noted game designer and one of the two minds behind the creation of Fire in the Lake (Volko Ruhnke, who created the COIN series, being the other), asserted that it was never his intention to mislead anyone and that the card text was meant to focus on the historical conviction of Lt. Calley. "We chose to include the event, our choice, to highlight this type of horror." Others contested Herman's response. "This card does not do a sufficient job of highlighting the horror," wrote Jonathan Harrison, concluding that, "[it] rather presents a much diminished and consequently misleading view on [the massacre]."

If we return to Kerr's original qualm, that the My Lai card purports a reality that is disingenuous to the 'truth' of the event, the nexus of design and 'thinking with history' becomes more clear. Kerr believed the abstraction of the card betrayed the gravity of the historical event. In a later response to the forum thread, Herman brought forth a rationale expressed in game terms for why the card accurately reflects the scope and magnitude of the event.
Just to be clear, the Playbook description is as I described it, but the card itself is quite powerful… to quote… 
"Massacre: Set a Province with US Troops to Active Opposition. VC place a Base and a Guerrilla there. AID -6" 
This card could represent an 8 point swing in the game as it allows the insurgents to take a 2 value province with Active Support across the entire spectrum to Active Opposition. In addition the base is worth another point to the VC with a guerrilla defender that can then be rallied into three more for a total of 4. Essentially the play of this event can create appropriately huge issues for the US at least that is what we were going for.
Rhetoric in a wargame, as shown by Herman above, draws not only upon the perceived reality depicted but also how that reality can be abstracted into game mechanics. The event text of the My Lai card becomes a type of shorthand for what actually occurred, although the space between the card, its ludic effect, and intended purpose is such that while these purposes are joined in the card's function they do so in a loose manner that allows interpretation and debate to take place. The card becomes a secondary and primary source on the role My Lai held in popular and scholarly assessments of the Vietnam War. The forum posts sampled above demonstrates this fact. This notion is further reinforced by the appearance of another forum post, "Card 119: My Lai NOT Downplaying the Truth", that formed on BGG not long after the Kerr thread came into existence.

I find this sort of debate, of exploring the space afforded by abstracted design being tied to 'thinking with history', to be a fascinating potential for historians and cultural observers alike. While many games come under scrutiny for how their mechanics are tied to historical occurrences, with the example of Puerto Rico coming to mind, the wargame's long standing link to the idea of truth through play (giving these games a quantifiable value of being an 'epistemic reservoir') gives these debates a much more pointed focus.