Nothing to Come and See Here

This video to set the scene (I've been playing a lot of Rise of Nations because my GFX card exploded last week).

Jim Werbaneth, of Line of Departure, wrote this on the subject of the Eastern Front for the 20th anniversary edition of his magazine:
As much as anyone, I enjoy games on the Eastern Front. At the same time, I find it impossible not to see what was at stake. Along the way, I grew a certain abhorrence of the Nazi glorification that has arisen in some quarters, an implicit agreement that it was ultimately a conflict of civilized Europe against the semi-Asiatic hordes of the East. More accurately, it was a war of genocide and aggression against other civilized peoples, who happened to suffer under the yoke of their own monsters. Even the monstrous nature of the Soviet system, and the great Stalin himself, does not change this, let alone excuse it. Even so, one might hear a kind of wistfulness in some conversations about the war, regretting that the good guys did not win, as though there were any good guys on the Axis side.

So while we can all enjoy games on Russo-German war, it is doubly important to remember the history. It is never value neutral, like some eighteenth-century contest between absolute monarchs.
With all due respect to Mr. Werbaneth, whenever there's a disturbing undertone in a particular group- like Nazi-worship in the wargaming community- it's always a bad idea to just blandly denounce it. Presumably, wargame designers and academic historians both have a similar interest in 'remembering history,' historians for one set of reasons (tenure, $$) and wargame designers for another (fans, $$). But why is it that in wargames there can be either active or passive Nazi sympathies (people 'respecting their bravery' or whatever), and in academia there basically can't be? What is it about wargamers that allows the selective memory Werbaneth is talking about?

It could be the political makeup of the two groups. Or it could be a problem with wargames themselves.

What do 'politics' mean in a game anyway? The Rise of Nations video I posted has a lot of political meaning, but none with reference to the actual game it's set in. A real game of Rise of Nations involves two sides starting on widely separate areas of the same map with similar capibilities and resources, and similar opportunities for expansion. The interplay of resource, borders, units, trade routes, alliances etc. is the reason people play the game. If all Rise of Nations scenarios were as overtly political and limited as the one in the Youtube, nobody would play the game (more on the intersection of grating messages and mini-games in another post). Still, since we've been given the context ('this is a Holocaust joke') and since we see a few of the trademarks of the Holocaust- a ring of towers, defenseless civilians being attacked, fire, the scene has meaning on some level. What do we do with the fact that scenes which are by definition meaningless or absurd (with reference to the games they are in) can be made to have meaning and some sort of logic? Here's what one developer did with it:
In our game, you'll interact with an object that, when pushing the context button, causes you to blow up a mall full of civilians. You cannot progress in the game until you do so, and after you do, you get to walk through the mall and see the corpses and people with half their flesh seared off screaming for a merciful death, and you can't progress the game either until you've walked through the mall. In this way we hope to evoke similar emotions to movies where characters do things because of who they are and how they've lived their lives up to the point where they have to make an awful choice.
I said earlier that the RoN Holocaust scenario had meaning. I meant by that that it appears to us more logical and relevant than it would to a hypothetical human in the Rise of Nations universe (where the Holocaust never happened). I did not mean to suggest that we should be struck emotionally by what we see, since it is a ridiculous scenario to begin with. I agree with the parody that 'characters do things beecause of who they are and how they've lived their lives,' and I agree with the historian who argues that the Holocaust, or any other genocide, was the natural consequence of the 'life' the 'character' of post-Weimar German politics had led. But if the point is to demonstrate to someone that the past effects the present, then why make a scenario where the past has been completely erased and the only option we have is to do something horrible but completely disconnected to any sort of context and without any sort of personal consequence? After all, if the only way to win the scenario is to destroy the enemy and all we have are flamethrowers and all the enemy has are civilians, then the outcome is foreordained and, most importantly, it wasn't our fault. In the same way, the parody button-atrocity sequence simultaneously forces the player to do something horrible, and, because the player was forced, removes any responsibility from him altogether. The reality is that the only way to really get a point across in an interactive medium is to make the player demonstrate the point naturally to himself, via your game.

How to do this? Incidentally, Rise of Nations is already kind of a Holocaust-simulator, in that you invade and occupy enemy cities and are required to murder their civilians and military units before you can repopulate the productive areas (farms, mines) with people of your own color (this is literal, each player on the map has their own color). It's not exactly the same thing as Lebensraum but it's close enough, and it makes a specfic Holocaust scenario even more absurd. And, much more importantly, its something the player is gradually taught the importance of throughout the game. In RoN you either expand and extinguish your enemies or you lose. It's one thing or the other. It's a stark choice (ultimately it was the designer's decision to shove that choice down your throat) but it isnt presented in that way. That's one of the reasons why Rise of Nations is a good game. And why that parody is such a hoot.

All of this is coming back to Jim Werbaneth. If we 'remember the history' of the Eastern Front then we have to say that most wargames that deal with the subject do a poor job of rmembering it. There are abstract spaces where armies are already fighting, with a fully realized and highly detailed supply model, morale, reinforcement, victory points, general skill values, turn resolutions etc. But as far as the player is concerned, none of what goes on is really his fault, at least in the macro sense of 'why are we fighting to begin with.' The two sides are already at war when the game begins, and everything is downhill from there. That Germany started the war and had clear political objectives which included the eradication of most of the people in the areas it planned to conquer is not reflected except in giving the Germans, in turn-based games, the opportunity to go first.

So if we want to satisfy Werbaneth's demand then we have to deal with politics and why wars begin in the first place. It's no wonder that the Nazis get off easy in some quarters of the wargaming community. None of the games that feature Nazis really put them in their proper political context. They're either deranged or neutral, not cunning and highly aware of the full consequences of their program, or the game puts political questions completely out of bounds and focuses autistically on 'fighting the war.' If we want a wargaming community that doesn't have any space for Nazi apologism then we need wargames that make the player demonstrate to himself exactly why the Nazis did what they did- which means we need to include a new level of abstraction and put politics in command.


Joe said...

This is my problem with "moral choices" in videogames. As they are most typically presented, the moral dilemma is a solved problem. You are playing as Hitler in a WWII-themed game. Do you start a war of aggression? If you are interested in the player's ethical response to this, the player always choose not to start a war, provided that s/he is not a sociopath. It's not an interesting decision, because the answer is clear. Warfare, on the other hand, is a much more interesting and exciting problem to puzzle through. This is a double whammy because making the correct ethical choice opts you out of the opportunity to play with much more interesting and varied game mechanisms.

I think that's what excuses the "autistic" focus on "fighting the war" - fighting the war is a much more dynamic, interactive, and thought-provoking exercise than choosing not to go to war.

yarles p said...

agreed. I guess I'm not saying that fighting has to be removed, I'm just proposing that we add another layer on top of what's already there. War in the East is probably going to make the 'command layer' of delegating selected sector commands to the AI standard, like previous games made in-depth supply models and seasonal variation in terrain mandatory.

Dr What, said...

I enjoyed this, but what's a "GFX card"?

yarles p said...

a gfx card is a piece of computer hardware meant to perform complicated calculations involved in the rendering of computer graphics, typically three-dimensional computer graphics, and by so doing allowing the resources, namely clock cycles and system memory, which would have been otherwise occupied by the graphics to be employed to other purposes in the application.