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May 5, 2009

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Brave New Wargame

John Robb's Brave New War basically confirms a suspicion that I've had for some time now: that so-called "fourth-generation" warfare is really just the military catching up to its nonviolent counterparts. Robb's book serves as a useful summary of 4GW thought, incorporating examples from Iraq and elsewhere. In short, it amounts to the realization that straightforward military conflict--soldiers firing guns directly at other soldiers--is no longer the predominant threat. Instead, Robb says, the goal of "global guerrillas" is to disrupt the enemy economically, psychologically, and logistically. None of this would be a surprise to, say, the Danish under Nazi rule, or Ruhrkampf in 1923, or the organizers of the American civil rights movement. The violence of the methods listed by Robb may be different, but the underlying philosophy is very similar.

This is kind of satisfying as an advocate for nonviolence, but it's also interesting as a gamer. There's a whole genre of shooters and strategy titles that are based around the ideas of third-generation warfare: get better equipment than the other guy, then go beat the crap out of him. I could be wrong, as I'm not an expert on the strategy/RTS genre, but I can't think of a single popular title that isn't firmly rooted in that idea (tower defense games might come the closest).

Not that I'm saying that shooters should necessarily be following up-to-date strategic doctrine. Or that they should be anything near realistic. I like a good me-against-the-world shooter as much as the next guy. But even if you don't believe that gaming can influence cognitive approaches--and I go back and forth on that point--the lack of progress does seem a shame, for two reasons. First, because 4GW is more interesting: it's about finding weak points and undermining legitimacy, the kind of min-max problem that munchkin-style gamers have salivated over for years. Robb says that knocking out 1 percent of high-load nodes would make up to 40% of our electrical grid go dark. Can you imagine the GameFAQs entry for that? Or the feeling of accomplishment when it's figured out?

Second, it's less violent (and more parallelizable). The violence thing is not just me being squeamish. I can't be the only person to have noticed that as consoles and PCs have gotten more powerful, one of the primary uses for that power is to enhance violence: zone-specific injury, ragdoll physics, more on-screen enemies, bloodsprays, etc. It's kind of morbid, frankly. Surely there's more challenge (and gameplay) in modeling the network of relationships between infrastructure and population--and it might be easier to scale that kind of modeling, in a world where concurrency is the new dominant programming paradigm. Easier on the art team, too.

Of course, if you do believe that games are educational experiences, perhaps this is not the education that we want: how to sabotage a developed society? Creepy. But then, if you believe that, you should already be worried about the lessons that third-generation wargames are teaching. The strategies of current military titles are largely generalizable only to other military applications, and they carry the implicit message that coordinated force is a valid solution in international conflict resolution. At the very least, games that address weaknesses in community resilience and redundancy can also be applied to sustainability and our economic situation (at the extremes, the green movement and the paranoid survivalists become strikingly similar), to name just two of the networks that increasingly define our world. More importantly, it's a view of the world that stresses interdependence and complexity over unilateral force. I can't help but see that as a (slight) improvement.

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