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. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Gated Conversions

Shankly Gates at Anfield, Liverpool via Andy Nugent
I took a break from Twitter recently, partly because several family members shuffled in and out of my house over the last week and partly because I tried to focus my efforts towards completing a long overdue dissertation chapter.  But the allure of the infinite timeline proved difficult to resist and I decided to scan my Twitter lists the other day to see if anything interesting occurred during my absence.

Two words, sandwiched into one, kept appearing: GamerGate.

If you have any interest in video game culture, then you probably already know what I’m talking about.  In case you don’t know, here are some more detailed posts for your perusal:

On 'Gamers' and Identity

A Conversation about Concerns in Videogame Journalism

#gamergate as reaction

If pressed to summarize GamerGate in a sentence or two, here is what I would say: GamerGate is a belief, held by an indeterminate number, that collusion exists between games journalists and games developers and that this nexus is corrupting games, or at least moving them towards a trajectory abhorrent to self-defined ‘gamers’.  Yet to put the GamerGate controversy in such succinct terms suggests the movement possesses cohesion, which it certainly does not.  One has only to survey #GamerGate to see the variety of opinions expressed.  But a couple of developments caught my eye and seemed worthy of further exploration.  The first was the start, and subsequent termination, of an Indiegogo campaign to create a legal fund for exploring the potential abuses between Games journalists and developers.  The second was the posting of a Gamer Manifesto, anonymously written but edited by ‘Gamers’.  What these examples demonstrate is that there is a desire, on behalf of some, to begin formalizing and structuring relationships within so-called Gamer Culture.  It is, as Geertz would call it, an effort at ‘internal conversion’, an attempt to utilize rationalization as a defense against the intrusion of modern and post-modern critiques and ideals.

Last year, spurred by what is now a periodic outbreak of sexism/racism/transphobia from so-called ‘gamers’, Daniel Joseph wrote a post titled “Videogames are the gardens of the bourgeoisie" in which he argued that bourgeois values necessitated the creation of ‘spheres’ of activity separated from ‘real life’.  “Mass produced hobbies, mediated through gatekeepers like trade and enthusiast press is one reason why “games” became a private sphere,” Joseph concludes, later adding that this private nature conjures within individuals the need to protect games from the pressures of capitalism.  Using Joseph’s theme, I explored in my own post, “Games, Truth, and Defense of the Private”, the idea that the rise of bourgeois values correlated with the belief that games could become an arbiter of truth.

But now, a year later and with the rise of GamerGate, I wonder if we are witnessing something new, something that goes beyond the need to wall off games from the public.  Videogames may be the gardens of the bourgeoisie, but what GamerGate reveals is that some feel compelled to venture out of their gardens and establish, in the public sphere, a nascent, rationalized belief in what games should be and how relationships around those games should be structured.

Clifford Geertz
Geertz observed what he termed ‘internal conversion’ in Balinese religious ideals during the 1950’s, that is the process by which the traditional Balinese faith sought to take on elements of the Weberian ‘rationalization’ inherent in the established religions of Christianity or Islam and begin codifying their own belief as a defense against the intrusion of said established religions.  In doing so they introduced a ‘distance’ that demanded greater and more concrete articulation of the sustaining links between belief and practitioner.  Problems of meaning, which before addressed issues in a fragmentary manner, become “conceptualized as universal and inherent qualities of human existence.”  What is good?  What is evil?  Geertz suggests that these broad questions subsume narrower concerns inherent to the pre-rational conversion (such as ‘How do I uncover a witch?) and in doing so bring forth the “radically disquieting suggestions” of the broad questions to the fore.  This, in turn, demands that answers be brought forth in a form equal to the “sweeping, universal, and conclusive manner” the broad questions introduced.

Of course, there are inherent issues for any culture engaging in such an ‘internal conversion’, or ‘rationalization’, of their beliefs.  A brief selection from a larger article on Mari peasants in 19th century Russia highlights these issues:

From "Big Candles and 'Internal Conversion': The Mari Animist Reformation and Its Russian Appropriations" by Paul Werth in Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia
What interests me here is the idea that in borrowing the “idiom of religion employed by official Russia” the Mari both utilized a colonizing discourse inherent within that religion and fell victim to its conceptual modes.  In trying to assert their unique belief they ended up assuming viewpoints that integrated them into the colonizing discourse they tried to fight.

GamerGate appears to be following the same path, at least with regards to the two examples, that of the Indiegogo campaign and the Gamers Manifesto, mentioned above.  By utilizing the colonizing discourse inherent in games to provide a Weberian rationalized view of what Gaming culture should be, a culture which is replete with contributions by misogynistic and paternalistic forces, the advocates of GamerGate can’t help but fall into the same conceptual modes that underlie such a discourse.  These modes no longer address fragmentary concerns, like those that prompted Daniel and myself to write blog posts last year, but rather attempt to bring together universal and inherent qualities of Games into focus so that the problems those qualities bring to light can be addressed.

The rallying cry for supporters of GamerGate is that of ‘corruption’ brought about by the perceived collusion between games journalists and developers.  Corruption is a handy conceptual mode to base the rationalization of Gamer culture, at least from the view of GamerGate supporters, because it does away with all the messy fragmentation of previous complaints (Feminism is ruining games!  Transgendered people are ruining games!  Fake Gamer Girls are ruining games!) and, instead, suggests that the larger problem stems from a collected erosion of Gaming ethics.

This is, essentially, what the Indiegogo campaign to establish a ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ legal fund for investigatory purposes holds as central to its existence.  By asserting a juridicial solution to the corruption issue, the ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ wish to utilize one of the most pervasive patriarchal institutions available to find and perhaps punish the ‘true’ offenders.  In an example that could have been taken straight from Girard, ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ offered GamerGate supporters a rationalized process for finding the scapegoat that will absolve them all from the corruptive influence of gaming today and restore the supposed community to its more pristine state.  Instead of having to answer critiques leveled at gaming culture as a whole, the ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption’ offer a way to funnel anxieties prompted by these critiques into the far more defensible position of identifying and fighting corruption.

This logic becomes especially insidious when the corrupting forces are linked to those who raised the critiques in the first place, thus making attacks on female writers, for example, both a natural extension of the corruption ideal and capitulation to the patriarchal conceptional modes built into the colonizing discourse surrounding games.  In trying to defend gamer culture from critiques of patriarchy or misogyny under the larger guise of corruption, the creators and supporters of ‘Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption are utilizing the very same justifications patriarchy and misogyny embody.

This becomes even more noticeable upon examination of the Gamer Manifesto, posted to Pastebin on 2 September 2014.  Even though it purports to extol virtues of harmony and inclusion, the manifesto nonetheless offers up a tiered, almost caste like structuring of Gaming culture:
“There are three parts to this industry that we feel must be addressed for the general health of video games as a whole: the role of the consumer, the developer and the supplier. This trifecta makes up the core of the industry and thus each piece must be improved for games to continue to evolve.”
At the core of this conceptualization, however, is one ‘truth’; that games “should be about the enjoyment of the player.”

The Manifesto states that gamers should add to the future of gaming, not demonize its past.  That Developers, while recognizing that misrepresentation and under-representation of certain populations is a real problem, should not be required to change their own game’s vision and idea.  That Suppliers, which is an unusual term for journalists or critics, should not be pressured by outside influences to “change their opinion to fit an overarching agenda.”  In short, the Gamer Manifesto outlines a structural basis for how gamer culture as a whole should proceed and operate, all while articulating the need to avoid outside pressures that, as the Manifesto explains, are related to the corrupting influences in gaming today:
“It has been said that gamer culture is in the throes of death. This isn’t true. It has merely grown impatient as a wall of both divisiveness and radical ideologies have kept it from progressing further. 
This article, this gamer manifesto has been made with the desire to break down that wall. It is both our branch of peace to those who believe we mean only harm and a battering ram to those who think we will simply comply with how corrupted video game culture has become.”
For the writers and editors of the Gamer Manifesto, seclusion in their walled off, bourgeois gardens no longer provides adequate protection from what were once fragmentary issues now brought together under the aegis of corruption.  Instead they must enter the public sphere and begin the process of 'internal conversion', of providing rationalized interpretations of gamer culture that both promotes distance between gamers and their games while also allowing structural links to surmount the distance, such as the concept of ethics or corruption above, so that the relationship between games and gamers can be harmonious and free from 'divisiveness and radical ideologies."

One important feature for Geertz and his notion of 'internal conversion' is that it is not a totalizing event, nor does it necessarily involve all the members of the cultural group in question.  Therefore we can look at the disparate nature of GamerGate yet still understand some of the larger forces feeding the movement and its expressions.  That the 'Lawyers Against Gaming Corruption' and the Gamer Manifesto are not representative of the whole of gaming culture is obvious.  Yet the fact that these two examples not only put forth a sophisticated response but also attempted to outline and address what is perceived to be the larger illness of gaming is worth noting.  What will happen from here on out is anybody's guess, but it is entirely possible that we are witnessing a decided shift in the evolving articulation of gaming culture.