Videogames for the rebellious masses

I was gratified to read that Libyan rebels in Misrata have been using the video game Call of Duty as a primary resource for tactical knowledge. Computer games are actually an extremely useful way for civilians with no military training (such as myself) to pick up a little bit of familiarity with military practices and problems that can be extremely useful in trying to function in a combat zone. 

Even the most serious of videogames is no substitute for actual military training, so one shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that you know too much -- ie, concluding that if the tank down the street can't see you in the game, it can't see you in real life. But like any theoretical model of a complex situation, they are invaluable in helping you place yourself in an unfamiliar analytical mode -- to be aware of variables, and consider problems, that you would not otherwise consider. Middle East-focused journalists like myself spend an awful lot of time and effort trying to get close to battlefields, so we ought to have as much of a theoretical framework as possible to try to understand them. Plus, some of these games are really, really cool.

That being said, I’d suggest that the Libyan rebels should delve beyond Call of Duty, if they get the chance (I am aware that those in Misrata might have more pressing concerns). It's a great series, but it's not intended to be as serious as a simulation as other games on the market. So, here's a quick set of recommendations for games which I think are useful for all of us civilians in trying to understand Libya and other conflicts. Warning: extreme geekiness follows.

The CoD series is basically a commercial project, aimed at appealing to as wide a fan base as possible. It is very well-funded series which can afford to overwhelm its players with massive amounts of eye-candy -- scenery, animations, explosions – aimed at creating a cinematic experience. The games I recommend below are mostly made by indie developers going for a niche market: gamers who don’t mind being overwhelmed with detail, and are willing to commit to many hours of learning the system to be able to enjoy it. Some of these developers do spend a fair amount of time interacting with professional military officers, many of whom play the games, and in a few cases the games have been used as training tools.

That being said, CoD isn’t a bad place to start. It’s what’s known in the trade as an FPS, a first-person shooter – that is to say, you run around looking at the battlefield from the point of view of a combatant, and the objective is to use cover and sneak around in a way that allows you to have a clear shot at an opponent, while avoiding letting him or her (and yes, in multiplayer games it’s very often a “her”) get a clear shot at you. Some other FPSes (ie, like Red Orchestra) pay a lot more attention to suppression fire, and other concepts which help shape modern tactical doctrine. But in general, one FPS is very much like another in terms of basic gameplay, so here the Libyan rebels probably didn’t do too badly.

For the next step up in scale, I’d recommend Combat Mission: Shock Force. The basic premise, a US-led invasion of Syria, might hit a bit too close to real life possibilities for some. But the designers made it clear that they were in now way endorsing an actual invasion. As I saw it, it was an attempt to do a more evenly-balanced rematch of the Iraq invasion of 2003, with the Syrians were presumed to be significally better equipped, much more committed, and better trained than Saddam’s forces.*

Anyway, the units in CMSF are squads of 8-12 soldiers or individual vehicles or weapons teams, grouped into platoons and companies. The player doesn’t line up targets in the crosshairs him- or herself, but give orders to occupy particular bits of ground or focus their attention on particular areas. It places a lot of emphasis on the nitty-gritty of what can see, hit and damage what, at what ranges, from what angle, but also focuses on a lot of details that aren’t covered by less ambitious projects – artillery doctrine, the relay of information between units, and insurgents pretending to be civilians.

In the case of Libya, CMSF is useful in understanding why Libyan tanks and armored vehicles could run rough-shod over rebel forces out in the open, but had such difficulty wresting away towns from a determined rebel defense.

Going slightly further up the scale – operational warfare – the best series (Panther Games’ Airborne Assault, Conquest of the Aegean, and Battles from the Bulge) are set in WW2. A battlefield might be 20x20km or so, and a campaign cover a couple of weeks. At this level, issues of command, control, and communications, plus the supply of fuel and ammunition, start having a major impact on operations.

This series is useful in understanding why warfare does not follow a narrative structure – why the initial string of rebel victories did not mean that they were on an unstoppable roll, while on the contrast, the current long pause is not necessarily a stalemate. It was also useful in understanding how the rebels initial lack of a command structure both helped and hurt them – a group of self-motivated volunteers could dash off and take towns far faster than most conventional armies, but because there was no unified command minding the entire campaign, were almost completely unable to respond to Qaddafi countermoves.

In order to get a sense of potential and limits of air power, probably one of the best games out there is Falcon 4.0 and its successors. The original system is over 10 years old, but was so ambitious in scope – you fly a plane, but an entire war is going on below – that it has not yet really been matched. The most relevant aspect of the game to Libya is the emphasis placed on reading sensors – you have all this electronic data at your disposal, but how certain are you that you haven’t made any mistakes in interpretation, or have overlooked something? This is very useful in getting a sense of how friendly fire incidents happen, and why the anti-Qaddafi coalition was so cautious about Libyan anti-air defenses. It also provides an answer to the rebels’ perennial “where is Nato?” question as Libyan forces pounded them with impunity – probably "Nato" is puzzling over a data readout somewhere, asking themselves whether that blob of green really is what it seems to be.

A quick aside about the ethical issue of playing games about combat. On some ways it’s not much different than a movie or a novel, but I suppose it’s a little different when the game actually offers an incentive to pull the trigger on a (simulated) human being. Also, I think it makes a difference how closer one is in time to a conflict: I’ve always played medieval games, but for a while after leaving Iraq I found it very difficult to touch any game that dealt with modern combat. But there’s a lot of actual combat vets and civilians who’ve grown up in war zones out there playing them, so I’m not too bothered.

As for the subjects covered – yes, a lot of games involve Western armies mucking about non-Western countries, and encourages the player to think like the Western military planner. I’ve just downloaded the amazingly detailed French-made strategic simulation of the age of colonialism, Pride of Nations, which offers the following disclaimer: "The creators of Pride of Nations do not, in any way, attempt to justify the 19th century's often racist and horrific attitudes towards the non-Western world“. So, I don’t think that the target audience is imperialists manques – or rather, if they are, the manque part isn’t the joy of  dominating the Other, but the challenge of maintaining a far-flung global battleline: your Highlanders slugging it out with Tsar Nicholas’ serf legions in the Crimea, while spies dressed as Pathan horse-merchants chart paths through the Pamirs, while your frigates chase Sea Dayaks off of Sarawak. If Edward Said came j’accusing me, I’d respond that I’m actually emotionally more attached to my budding Bihari empire in EU3, but PoN is just a beautifully ambitious game.

One thing I haven’t seen, though, is a game which really goes into the details of a politics-driven conflict – a revolution or a contest within a failed state. Ici C’est La France (I think the name may be ironic) is supposed to be a good treatment of the Algerian war in boardgame form, but I have yet to play. Any recommendations here would be very welcome.

·      Disclaimer #1– I was very marginally involved in CMSF doing some voice acting with an Iraqi friend.