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Serious War Games: Serious as Life and Death

If we want serious games, maybe more of them should be about war... including lead-up to casus belli, showing how the military both prays to avoid & urges the execution of conflict... Something more directly related to real life than StarcraftII. Context.


April 21, 2010

6 Min Read

Today a web site about virtual world simulations posted a short blog article on America's Army as militainment.  The author seemed to think it was a little stunning that a game that approached a portrayal of real life in the military would wash over into "serious games."

I was frankly a little boggled.  Aren't wargames the original "serious games?"  It didn't start with Games for Health, or even computers and consoles.  Wargames have probably been with us as long as there has been enough communications bandwidth to explain strategy and tactics in grunts.

But America's Army never portrayed itself as a combat training simulation -- it's a recruiting tool.  As a recruiting tool, it's amazingly effective.  The blog article above reports:

According to an MIT study, 30 percent of Americans 16-24 years of age had a positive impression of the Army because of the America’s Army game.

"MIT study" lends a certain class to this, but Google Books finds the quote as coming from a book from MIT's Sloan School of Business.  The footnote for the number cites a marketing study from giant ad firm Leo Burnett produced to analyze military outreach effectiveness.  Maybe AA's clearly a product placement, more than a wargame? National security analyst Peter Singer wasn't so cheery. 

But the blog author hesitates to place "militainment" in the same box with "serious games," which have mostly been seen as therapeutic and educational in more of a 3R's sort of sense.

I responded to the serious games blogger:

Dolls aren't really anything like babies, but they teach a lot of kids how to channel nurturing. 

Most of what children do in play is a remote abstract of the serious things they'll do in adulthood.

I think you need to view America's Army for what it is -- not a combat simulation, but an aspirational game (and a very effective piece of propaganda, regardless of your views on the military).

America's Army was never meant as a training simulation.  The military uses simulations that help them represent strategic, logistical, and tactical situations, but these are generally not available to consumers.

Through research I was doing for my own game, I found a study that said a Navy flight simulator was expected to get 60-80% of the recruits seriously motion sick, many to the point of vomiting.  For them, it was a desirable outcome - better hit that on the ground rather than in a very expensive and dangerous training flight. 

I think that wouldn't go over well on the X-Box.

Still, I grew up playing wargames that involved a zillion cardboard counters or lead miniatures, and they were serious games, very similar if not identical to those used in military training.  We have always trained our officers using games.  The alternative is letting them learn in the field, and that's catastrophic.

Perhaps wargames are the ultimate serious game?

And it strikes me, with Jane McGonigal's altruistic take on how games can save the world, and Jesse Schell's consumerist eu/dystopia, how far we've come from understanding the traditional use of wargames for teaching military science and leadership. 

Now, my father was a great advocate for nonviolence, in a formal sense.  He was mostly a pacifist, but he believed in just wars.  He had great hopes for the UN, in his time.  But he taught me that to reduce wars and the social and human costs of war, you must understand the needs and motivations of those who start and execute war. 

In my father's parsonage, I read Sun Tzu and Clauswitz alongside Gandhi and MLK.  (And trust me, Gandhi and MLK were political/social strategists Sun Tzu would have appreciated!)  I learned to view the Gita as not only a spiritual text, but a leadership manual on how to kill your relatives without accruing bad karma, if that's the task before you.

And, as a person who yearns for peace, I became a wargamer (as a girl in the 70's!) and military science/history reader, and have passed that to my son -- who (at 17) seems to be living on refried beans and Starcraft II's beta this week.

But the popular PC/platform strategic games today don't have the context and social/historical pattern learning I remember getting from those multi-week multi-table campaigns at the MIT Strategic Games Society in the late 70's, before D&D hit large.

What is a larger danger?  That people will be influenced to personal, Columbine-style violent outbursts from playing videogames? Or that people will lose sight of Sun Tzu's edict from the Art of War, and forget that nearly all the victory conditions of war are lost when the situation deteriorates to armed conflict?

This is a question of media literacy, and games are the most effective media to teach it.

It makes me wonder how we can avoid the Ender's Game syndrome, and get our young people understanding the full context of modern (and historical) conflict. 

If we want serious games, maybe more of them should be about war in the old fashioned strategic "playing God" role, including lead-up to casus belli, showing how the military both prays to avoid and urges the execution of conflict.

Most war games are about one hero.  Real war strategy rarely involves only the Superman except in legend.  Patton, Napoleon and Nelson all had a lot of help, though it's their Gordian knot work, the brilliant flashes of genius, that tend to stick with us.

Is there a way to get people to play realistic political/economic/military strategic war games, as real as McGonigal's Urgent Evoke, to demonstrate the cause and costs of war -- and retain an audience, and entertain? Something more directly related to real life than Starcraft II.

In a world where a lot of kids don't know that milk comes from a cow's teat, we have to worry about a citizenry who doesn't understand the first thing about modern warfare -- unless it's capitalized, serialized, and trademarked -- or they've already enlisted.

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