Why winning a video-game based on Syria just never feels like winning

DU students test Endgame: Syria.

DU students test Endgame: Syria.

Diana Aqra, Denver, CO — A group of University of Denver graduate and Ph.D. students sat down Friday to feel-out a new controversial video-game based on the real-life, ongoing, civil conflict in Syria. While the idea of carrying-out battles of destruction in Syria on Android phones and computers was certainly perverse, students nevertheless learned that the costs of war are incredibly underestimated and outcomes are rarely , if ever, ideal.

The game or “simulation” called EndGame: Syria, developed by a British group called Auroch Digital in 2011, gives players a chance to virtually play a part in the quickly evolving crisis in Syria.  By default, players become rebels; the opposition attempting to take down the al-Assad regime. Through military and political phases, players must continually decide how the rebel group can counteract ongoing events present in today’s Syria.

Consider the political phase of the war-game below, where a player must decide what the opposition must do in order to counteract Iran’s recent announced support of the al-Assad regime.

Players can choose how to counteract rising support of al-Assad regime by building international support.

Players can choose how to counteract rising support of al-Assad regime by building international support.

The player must make one of four choices to counteract or out-weigh each major event announced. Rebels can work to garner support from an EU country, like France, for example, or organize Islamist groups in neighboring countries.

Political phase of Endgame: Syria. Players must choose reactions to realistic political events.

Political phase of Endgame: Syria. Players must choose reactions to realistic political events.

In essence, the goal of the game is to build as much political and military support (in this case the number of rebels) to win.  The goal is to stomp out the enemy with political and military force.

Although peace may be a desired outcome, the game does not allow for much negotiation of peace-talks. Only an occasional UN-enforced peace deal is offered notwithstanding a player’s choices. Also, lowering the number of casualties does not coincide with success.  A player can still reach a “positive” outcome of defeating the regime even if the number of casualties dramatically rises.

War ending in more violence.

War ending in more violence.

In reality and in the video-game wars “power-sharing never works,” one player at the DU gathering said.  You can attempt to reach peace… but in situations like Syria, the only solution is to “cripple your enemy,” he said.

“I found it very difficult to be peaceful,” Andrea Stanton added, a professor of Religious Studies at DU who put on the event.  A PhD in Middle Eastern studies, laughing, she says, “I don’t seem to be very good at this game!” explaining how after several weeks of playing, she could not “win” or gain a peace-deal to end the war effectively. Instead, she continually finished the simulation with more sectarian violence and chaos.

Andrea Stanton, professor of Religious Studies at DU, holds event to talk about EndGame: Syria

Andrea Stanton, professor of Religious Studies at DU, holds event to talk about EndGame: Syria

The DU group Friday tried to examine what types of calculated sequences of events would lead to more successful outcomes, such as a peace agreement or a toppled regime with less casualties, but the results were unclear.   A correct random political decision could lead to increased rebel support but later in increased chaos.

“You play until you win,” another student trying out the game said, explaining that the game had little to do with precision.  As an undergraduate of game design from the University of Iowa, he explained that because games are based on numbers, it is difficult to marry the game-space with the political realm, as the game intends.  “It’s weird to occupy both [realms],” he said.

Gamer tells why gaming and politics just don't mix.

Gamer tells why gaming and politics just don’t mix.

According to the creator of the game, Tomas Rawlings, unlike most games that end in winning or losing, rebels have the potential to reach three outcomes:  winning, losing, or reaching peace. (Why peace is not equivalent to winning is baffling).

Considering that losers – the ones who lose their lives or have to deal with the destruction of war – are the only real visual representation of an outcome of war, the game just may be a clear depiction that there are rarely, if any,  true victors of war.

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