Games of War and Peace

Okay, this is my first post since I joined up as a member of Chicago Boyz, and I’m delighted to be here — thanks to Zen and Lex for the introduction and invitation!

I’ve had a couple of guest-posts here already, one for the Afghanistan 2050 roundtable and one on the topic of religion and violence — a perennial interest of mine — and I’d like to take the opportunity now to address another of my passions.


I’m deeply interested in games and play.

It’s my contention that play is the mode in which children learn and masters create and express themselves. And with the coming of modeling, simulations and scenario-planning I think we’re deep in a movement away from the binary opposition of theory and practice and into a zone where play occupies an intermediary position between the two — with simulation and modeling giving us the opportunity to practice our theories in a “safe” zone which allows us to learn positive lessons from both positive and negative decisions, without suffering from the negative consequences of poor decision-making in the “real world”.

I try to keep tabs on games of war — and peace — because of this, and would like to offer you one of my “DoubleQuotes” based on a couple of things I read recently. The idea behind these DoubleQuotes is to drop two quotes into the mind simultaneously, like two pebbles dropped into a pond, and see how the ripples intersect and interact.

Here’s today’s example:


I’m not arguing for or against anything here, just inviting you to consider the implications of two related but different news items: one one of them, the US army is thinking of banning a game because it allows players to play an insurgent role, in the other the army is using insurgent role-playing as part of training.

Josh at Al-Sahwa has an interesting recent post on the same conundrum, and links to this CNN video, which shows some of the training in action.

What do you think? It’s your thoughts I’d like to get at here, my own contribution is mostly intended as an opening salvo to get a conversation going.


So: should Paul van Riper have been allowed to play Red in a game like Millennium Challenge 2002?

I know, my own bias is beginning to show … I favor modeling, scenario-planning and gaming with as much intelligence and creativity as possible.

23 thoughts on “Games of War and Peace”

  1. Frank Herbert, noted for his creation of the Dune series and his big pouffy beard, had a series of stories involving a Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab).

    Per Wikipedia:

    In Herbert’s fiction, sometime in the far future, government becomes terrifyingly efficient. Red tape no longer exists: laws are conceived of, passed, funded, and executed within hours, rather than months. The bureaucratic machinery becomes a juggernaut, rolling over human concerns and welfare with terrible speed, jerking the universe of sentients one way, then another, threatening to destroy everything in a fit of spastic reactions. In short, the speed of government goes beyond sentient control (in this fictional universe, many alien species co-exist, with a common definition of sentience marking their status as equals)…BuSab began as a terrorist organization whose sole purpose was to frustrate the workings of government in order to give sentients a chance to reflect upon changes and deal with them. Having saved sentiency from its government, BuSab was officially recognized as a necessary check on the power of government. It provides a natural (and lucrative) outlet for society’s regular crop of troublemakers, who must be countered by society’s regular crop of “do-gooders”…First a corps, then a bureau, BuSab gained legally recognized powers to interfere in the workings of any world, of any species, of any government or corporation, answerable only to themselves. Their motto is, “In Lieu of Red Tape.”…Forbidden from committing acts of sabotage against private citizens, BuSab acts as a monitor of, and a conscience for, the collective sentiency, watching for signs of anti-sentient behaviour by corporate or government entities and preserving the dignity of individuals…BuSab monitors even itself and employs sabotage to prevent the agency from slipping into hidebound stasis. Agents are promoted to the head of the organization by successfully sabotaging the Secretary. By the same token, there is no term limit imposed on the Secretary of the Bureau of Sabotage. As long as he is alert enough to avoid being sabotaged, he remains qualified to lead BuSab.

    Institutionalized red teaming (or benign sabotage) would be nice for our own governmental functions but red teaming always comes with the risk of focusing on defeating the Near Enemy and neglecting the Far Enemy.

  2. Art:

    You’re right, of course. Yes, the first quote has to do with the British. I put the two quotes together before I read that the US has its own problems with the game, and is banning its sale on US army bases:

    Military Bans Video Game That ‘Kills’ U.S. Troops

    Military bases across the U.S. have banned the sale of a new video game that lets a player pretend to be a Taliban fighter and “shoot” U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

    Medal of Honor by Electronic Arts, a major game developer based in Redwood City, Calif., hits stores Oct. 12. Gamers are scoffing at the decision, saying that advanced technology has made it commonplace in the gaming world to let players switch sides and play the bad guy.

    After public protests, including by British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, U.S. military officials decided not to stock the game in any of the nearly 300 base exchange shops.

    My basic point remains the same — but thanks for catching the error!

  3. M. Fouche:

    Thank you for the pointer to Frank Herbert’s BuSab.

    As you may imagine, I’m a big fan of the Dune series, not least because it deals with a whole slew of topics in religion that interest me greatly — prophecy (the Bene Gesserit), ecstatic intoxication (the Spice), and Mahdism.

    I’m also reminded of Tolkien’s creation story, the “Music of the Ainur”, in The Silmarillion. Counterpoint as in Bach, chiaroscuro as in Rembrandt and dramatic tension as in Shakespeare all seem to demonstrate the power that can be derived from a skillful use of “opposition”.

  4. Yates writes brilliantly about children in many of these stories, partly, it seems to me, because he understands that in important ways most of us remain children all our lives, perpetually attracted to all the wrong things, taken in repeatedly by whatever is cheap and eye-catching and superficial. “A Glutton for Punishment”‘s Walter Henderson, who discovers at the age of nine the intense pleasures inherent in defeat and who practices falling after he’s shot playing cowboys and Indians, never quite grasps that he’s patterned his entire adult life on this childish game. Failure will forever be his only grace.

    I suppose some people are afraid that certain types of play may become a kind of indoctrination. But “charismatics” and recruiters will look for the weak in any way they can, so keeping young people away from the video games won’t help. Or it’s just plain disrespectful.

    I just made that up. Is there anything to it? I’m on the “we need to play so we are not behind the curve” side, myself.

    – Madhu

  5. Okay, I wasn’t talking about army recruiters in my above comment, just to be clear. I meant recruiters for something more sinister.

    – Madhu

  6. Interesting comparison. I believe this is one of those circumstances in which context is crucial.
    There is no better way to analyze the tactics of one’s opponent than to occupy their position in a simulated environment. The Navy’s Top Gun program does exactly this, as does (I believe) the Air Force; military exercises have separated soldiers into opposing forces so as to train how to, and how not to, overcome an equal adversary. Putting soldiers in the role of insurgents is a necessary and appropriate exercise: whether in the field, in the classroom, or in a computer or otherwise-simulated environment.

    Not so, pimply-faced teenagers or their older counterparts. I recognize that the free market is called that for a reason. I recognize also the outrage that military officials and military families express as valid—indeed, my brother is a Marine officer halfway to Afghanistan for another tour, having completed his first in Iraq. Under no circumstances would I play such a video game in the adversarial role, nor purchase same for my children. For the military to ban nonprofessional applications of this software is reasonable. Military service has strict boundaries: that’s why they call it ‘service’, and not ‘free-for-all’.

    Let software engineers make what they will (within the bounds of human decency). Let people freely express their disgust, and parents exercise their guidance. It’s the worst of systems, to paraphrase Churchill—except for all the others.

  7. The United States’ great strength is its willingness to undertake unpleasant changes and challenges with less flinching and denial than just about anybody else. Not permitting the game is a flinch. I think it’s one we can survive but you never know…

  8. Charles Cameron wrote:

    “It’s my contention that play is the mode in which children learn and masters create and express themselves. And with the coming of modeling, simulations and scenario-planning I think we’re deep in a movement away from the binary opposition of theory and practice and into a zone where play occupies an intermediary position between the two — with simulation and modeling giving us the opportunity to practice our theories in a “safe” zone which allows us to learn positive lessons from both positive and negative decisions, without suffering from the negative consequences of poor decision-making in the “real world”.”

  9. Hi Mahdu:

    A pleasure to talk with you again. And it looks as though I need to read Richard Yates — thanks for the pointer.

    Both Hezbollah and the US DOD use games for recruitment. Hezbollah, for instance, has a 2007 game called “Special Force 2: Tale of the Truthful Pledge” which a spokesman admits has training potential:

    In this game you can be a partner in the victory. Fight, resist and destroy your enemy’s Merkava tank in the game of force and victory … The game features the battles that took place in southern Lebanon in July between our strugglers and the Zionists. Special Force 2 also offers mental and personal training for those who play.

    On the US side:

    “America’s Army” was developed by the U.S. military to aid recruiting. To log onto the game, you have to connect via the Army’s recruitment Web site and give them your information. The gamers can also check out profiles of current Army soldiers and video testimonials of why they joined up.

    Finding your future warriors via a video game sounds a bit too much like the plot of the 1984 film “The Last Starfighter.” But it works. The Army has found it, according to testimony to Congress, more effective at recruiting than “any other method of contact.” Indeed, a 2008 study by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that “30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”

  10. Mlyster, TMLutas: Thanks for your comments.

    Zen: Thanks for the pointer.

    I’d just like to express my delight at the conversation here…

    More shortly.

  11. I gave a presentation on games of war and peace to one of Stephen O’Leary’s classes at USC’s Annenberg School one time, and the sheer range of issues that can come up for discussion is amazing.

    I’ll break this post up a bit, so I don’t get too tangled up in my own HTML.

    First, there are some pretty trivial “quickie” games.

    How does killing bin Laden compare with killing Obama? I doubt that Special Forces wants to recruit players of the first game, or that the Secret Service bothers to track those who play the second — and then there’s Barney. How do you feel about killing Barney the dinosaur? All three games are pretty much the same as games, and nobody believes killing Barney is “real”.

    FWIW, there’s even a GURPs manual for a game called Barney Jihad:

    The Jihad Universe can support an impressive range of power levels, from innocent bystanders to nigh-invulnerable superheroes.

    These are not particularly realistic games, and perhaps the choice of target doesn’t make as much diffrerence here as it would in more complex games…

  12. Is it okay to torture prisoners in a game? In Al Qaidamon:

    You have vour very own Al Qaida prisoner. Will you please the human rights activists by feeding him and keeping him well groomed, or will you hearken back to the days of Nazi Germany? The power is yours! PLAY!

    This is another of those quickie games – but the issue of the rules of war is a real consideration for serious game designers. America’s Army, for instance, wouldn’t let you torture people:

    From its earliest version, America’s Army: Recon (v1.0.0), players were bound by the Rules off Engagement, teamwork and adherence to the seven Army core values. Two dozen releases later, success in the game is still built upon team play, and still guided by the Army’s values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

    Under Siege also claims to follow appropriate rules of engagement:

    This game is suitable for 13+years age players, it contains graphical violence and shooting at military personal models, it does not includes shooting at civilians or abusing them, it does not include suicide bombing or any terrorist simulation, level contents are inspired by real stories of Palestinian people, that were documented by United Nation records (1978-2004), west bank and Gaza strip are occupied land according to UN law, and military actions performed by local fighters against occupying forces is considered eligible.

    Covering the same conflict from a human rights perspective, we have Safe Passage:

    An online video game launched on Tuesday lets you play the role of a Gaza student who must negotiate a web of Israeli obstacles in order to attend university in the occupied West Bank — but you can’t win.

    The game, developed by an Israeli rights group with EU funding, walks players through the restrictions that remain in place despite Israel’s recent decision to allow greater amounts of consumer goods into the Hamas-run enclave.

    “We are focusing on the two aspects of the blockade that have not changed and that there is no discussion of changing — exports and freedom of personal movement,” says Sari Bashi, the head of the Gisha Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement, which has closely tracked the four-year-old blockade.

    Gaza video game highlights enclave’s hazards

    And at the peacemaking end of the spectrum, still dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, there’s my friend Asi Burak’s prize-winning game, Peacemaker:

    PeaceMaker challenges you to succeed as a leader where others have failed. Experience the joy of bringing peace to the Middle East or the agony of plunging the region into disaster. PeaceMaker will test your skills, assumptions and prior knowledge. Play it and you will never read the news the same way again.

    It’s quite a spectrum…

  13. And then there’s academia — something of a realm unto itself. There’s a “ton of material at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, where the games industry meets the military.

    James der Derian’s Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network is IMO the key reading in this area.

    You’ll find the history of wargaming from Kriegspiel up to and including the beginnings of the ICT and America’s Army in Lenoir and Lowood’s Theaters of War: The Military-Entertainment Complex.

    And then there are scattered pieces of the puzzle all across the acadedmy — Patrick Rogers-Ostema’s 2010 MS thesis Building and using a model of insurgent behavior to avoid IEDs in an online video game, for instance, isn’t about voiding IEDs in a video game, although the title reads that way — it’s about using a video game to learn how to train soldiers to avoid IEDs in real life.

    An online video game offers a good setting to generate and collect action sequence data for the insurgent model. A downloadable game client that allows a player to control an insurgent whose goal is to destroy an autonomous agent trying to get from point A to point B can capture this important action sequence data. This action sequence data can then be used to construct our insurgent model. This approach offers several advantages. The most obvious advantage is that there is no danger in learning insurgent tactics in the virtual world. Another advantage is that the action sequence data collected is generated by real people from around the world giving the action sequence data for various, possibly innovative tactics. Also, because the action sequence data is generated from an entertaining video game, people will want to generate more and more action sequence data at no expense to the project.

  14. Okay — one final short post and then I’m done — but I don’t want to leave the topic without some mention of Chess and Go.

    For Go (and games of war), let me point you to Scott Boorman’s book, The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy.

    And I’d like to present this graphic of a chess game in al-Andalus between Muslim and Christian as an example of Chess (and games of peace).

    Phew! I’m done for now.

  15. Not to take the comments thread too far off-track, but the only Richard Yates I’ve read is Revolutionary Road. I was prepared to hate the novel thinking it was just another pan of American middle class culture as soulless and deadening.

    I know it’s been read and reviewed that way, but honestly, I thought it was something altogether more heart-breaking and subtle. I thought it was about the sadness some feel in life because they dreamt dreams – big or small – that just didn’t happen. I think his novels are about sadness.

    – Madhu

  16. Thanks, Madhu — and my apologies for mis-spelling your name above. I haven’t read anything of his, but you’ve persuaded me to try.

  17. And today brings a new twist to the “games of war and peace” angle…

    Spencer Ackerman leads off his Wired post How To Spot A Whitewash In Army’s Death-Squad Inquiry:

    According to Army investigators at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, soldiers in the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment of what’s now the 2nd Stryker Brigade hunted and killed Afghan civilians for sport. If this gruesome tale turns out to be true, then it means American soldiers in Afghanistan became something we associate with the worst of all war crimes, something that we’d like to believe simply doesn’t exist among our troops: a death squad.

    As I said in my comment over there, I don’t think that’s quite right: I think part of the horror here lies in the phrase “hunted and killed Afghan civilians for sport” — that little phrase “for sport” is the give-away.

    If the story as recounted is true, the soldiers were “playing a game” – as in the story The Most Dangerous Game first filmed in 1932 with Joel McCrea and Fay Wray — or for that matter in the movie Surviving the Game with Ice-T, Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, F Murray Abraham.

    As far as I know, death squads kill political opponents, or people whose lands they wish to seize. Killing just for the thrill of the kill is in a whole other dimension.


    The most honorable use made of the “hunter hunted” archetype may well be Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male, described in Household’s NYT obituary as:

    a psychological story of an unnamed English sportsman from an aristocratic background who decides to assassinate the dictator of an unnamed Central European country. Captured, tortured and left for dead by the dictator’s secret police, the sportsman escapes to England, where he finds himself pursued by foreign agents.

    Pretty clearly, the dictator in question (the novel was published in 1939) was Hitler, as Household later acknowledged.

    Attempting to assassinate Hitler in a “big-game hunting” manner comes closer to the “targeted killing” idea and the recent US finding approving the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.

    Itself a matter of some contention.

  18. @ Charles Cameron:

    I heard the following story on NPR yesterday and it gave me the chills. This is complicated business, isn’t it?

    “In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files.

    – Madhu

  19. In case the relation of my last comment to the current thread isn’t clear, I’m wondering about the psychological impact of different types of game-playing.

    – Madhu

  20. Hi, Madhu:

    I’m pretty sure that “play” is akin to “flow” in the sense in which Csíkszentmihaly uses the term, and games and play go pretty deep into the human psyche. Carl Jung told his friend the novelist Laurens van der Post, “One of the most difficult tasks men can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games and it cannot be done by men out of touch with their instinctive selves.”

    In very simple, cartoonish games like the ones I linked with above where you “kill” Barney, or Obama, or bin Laden, the separation between the “pretend world” of the game and the “real world” outside it is pretty clear — but the more sophisticated and “realistic” a game gets, the easier it may be to forget the distinction, so that the symbolic representation elicits real feelings…

    But we’re getting into the realm of how the arts work — and I’d refer you here to Oatley’s paper, “Shakespeare’s invention of theatre as
    simulation that runs on minds”, downloadable in .pdf here — and to sources such as Abhinavagupta and Ibn ‘Arabi.

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