The Design & Sources for Endgame Syria
This is an article that will explore some of the sources used and design issues faced in building the game Endgame Syria. (You can play/download the game from here) The game is the most ambitious to date in terms of subject and time taken (about 2 weeks) of the games we’ve made thus far in the GameTheNews project. If you are interested in the themes and justifications about the topic of the war in Syria, then have a look at this article we produced for GamesIndustry.biz looking at the game and it’s context. Here is a quote:
I’ve had to think a lot about the relationship between games and war as we’ve just launched a news-game about the war in Syria. This is tough as most games steer clear of recognisable current events. Look at the débâcle of Six Days in Fallujah, announced in 2009 when the Iraq war was still very real indeed. It soon sailed into a storm of protest and has yet to emerge from this. Its easy to do a WW2 game as the Nazis make great villains and everyone likes shooting 1940s fascists. So does that mean there is an invisible line we can’t cross that other media forms – the written word, video, audio and photography – don’t need to worry about? I don’t think so. Games, with their connotations of fun and frivolity seem the opposite of how we should cover a live conflict. Comics have that connotation too. Then pioneers like Joe Sacco and his amazing works such as ‘Palestine’ covered war from a different perspective to other media and showed clearly that it is not the medium that is the issue, but what you do with it. …
In trying to do this you face the question; why use games for this at all? Games won’t (nor should they) replace traditional news forms, but they can offer something new. Firstly as they allow the user to interact with the flow of events, they are a great way to explore a dynamic situation with multiple outcomes as they let the user explore many paths in different ways. Secondly they are a medium that many people relate to as a primary media form. This means that for many people games are the ‘natural’ frame they use to understand the world around them. For these reasons I think it is worth exploring games and news and why we’ve chosen to make a game about the war in Syria.
So to explore more of the sources I used in the design of the game, I started off with Wikipedia. I know there are people who look down on it as a source, and we didn’t use it as a primary source, but it is great way to get an introduction to a subject and then fan out from that to find more. I started with the Syrian Civil War page and also used the Kurdistan page (as that had lots of crossover) – the relationship between the various Kurdish groups and the civil war is a good example of the complexity of the situation. The Wikipedia page also lists the groups who line-up on each side and I used this as a basis for the various units within the game. The design for the game really started with the possible end-points of the conflict. What was clear in reading around the subject was that this was a war with many outside forces having a keen interest in the outcome of the conflict. This article by Foreign Policy looked at who stands to win and lose by this conflict. This article (as did this one) mapped out the possible outcomes for the conflict and that got me thinking about how a game could be used to map the paths that might end up at each of these points. So from the endings I set about building a design that would show how the political and military conflict would play out to these possible endings. Then of course there is the issue of WMDs…
Mapping the Forces
In following the news about the event it was clear that there were two ongoing tracks of activity – the political and the military. We opted to make the game start around the time we built it (week 90 of the uprising) by which time it was clear that peaceful protest was almost gone and only war and international diplomacy remained as options, as this article explored:
[Protesters who became rebel fighters] got out, they saw firsthand what the regime was doing, and felt that the only way to beat the regime was to pick up a gun and fight back using violence And the third sense is the feeling that, generally speaking, peaceful protests haven’t achieved what they wanted to do. In the beginning, it was very much obviously about peaceful demonstrations, these were the cornerstone of the revolution. And I think that certainly, there’s revolt fatigue amongst protestors. I see a lot of frustration among people trying to maintain peaceful protests, other kinds of non-violent dissidence against the government. They find it really difficult to cajole other people who are unhappy with the regime, who may have participated in protests in the first six to twelve months [to come out]. They find it difficult to get their former fellow protestors to come out on the streets again because they feel that’s there’s no sense to it when the regime uses guns.
So I wanted the game to give a sense that there are a wide range of interested parties in this conflict. So we have the Free Syria Army (FSA) and the regime’s forces but there are also other groups; Palestinians on each side of the conflict. Kurds had been involved in the early days of protest and as the conflict changed into a military one, as they were often already at odds with the regime, saw an opportunity for further freedom and so took it (but there were also clashes with FSA units too). In terms of other countries’ involvement, many strongly suspected that Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah were also militarily committed to the regime side too. Politically, China, Iran and Russia were supporters of the regime to varying degrees and arms flowed from the latter two. Russia also has a military base in Syria and sees this as a strategic location it wants to hang on to. Iraq has been trying to stay out (but has also been involved) in the conflict. On the other side, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, US, UK, Turkey and France were giving political and varying degrees of logistical support to the rebels (which can often backfire). Turkey was key here as it shared a border with Syria. We wanted the political and military actions in the game to reflect these international forces so the player comes away with a sense of just how complex the conflict is. Added to that each military unit you deply comes with costs; at the end of the game, even if the war is won, there may be negative costs. The chances of these grow with certain types of unit, for example assassination as a tool is powerful but can have blowback. Islamic militias are often composed of experienced fighters, but they may wish to tread a different path from other rebels. In many ways these are the choices at the heart of the design and the point of the game; if your side is facing defeat and the only option to fight back is these more extreme actions, would you use them?
We also wanted to include a sense of how the civilians fare in all this – most military actions cost innocent lives, on both sides. The player is faced at the end of each round of fighting with the growing civilian death toll. You can’t escape this number rising, and the more powerful the military forces deployed (on both sides) the more people die. This was also a crucial design decision of the game; to not background the consequences of military actions. In addition to this mechanic in the game we also embedded a second one; so as well as the ongoing toll of deaths, there is the chance that a military action will result in another serious calamity. Again this applies to both sides and reflects how military actions have an overspill, intentional or not.
Daily & Other Sources
While making the game I wanted to keep in touch with events as they happened. For this my main sources where: Syria Deeply (who also have excellent guides to events and people there) the Guardian Live blogs and Joshua Landis’s blog Syria Comment. Also really helpful and informative were Wired’s excellent Danger Room, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment. Looking from different perspectives were Russia Today and Al-Jazeera as well as Adam Curtis’s blog.
So a big thanks to all the sources – as well as combatants and civilians, reporters are being killed to inform us of events in Syria. If you want to help people over in Syria, then here is a good place to start. Plus the game itself is here.