May 24, 2004

Antiwargame

by Michael Mateas · , 11:06 am

The Futurefarmers collective has released the online game Antiwargame. Like the controversial September 12 (GTxA discussion: 1 2), Antiwargame explores the politics of the war on terror via a game simulation. In Antiwargame you take actions such as setting your budget, sending troops overseas and manipulating the media, with the goal of maintaining a popularity high enough to remain president.

Via Rhizome

Update: More on the simulation rhetoric operating in Antiwargame can be found in the comments.

22 Responses to “Antiwargame”


  1. Jill Says:

    I think this has been around for a while, though Rhizome announced it today – ah, yes, since last October at least.

    I tried the game out again but really don’t quite get it. Why IS this an antiwargame, anyway? Maybe I’m just not a very good gamer (I get impatient) but I sent people to war, stopped sending them to war, spent money on foreign aid, war, social services and so on (these seem to be the only options) and nothing in particular really HAPPENED although once I got assassinated for not spending enough on the military.

    Perhaps someone can explain the critique of war involved? Or is it kind of a double bluff?

  2. Michael Says:

    Like other political games out there, I see the critique as operating in the simulation rules, which, through the various binds the rules put the player in, force the player to think about the complete system of the war on terror. I only played for 15 minutes or so, but the factors are saw operating are:

    1) If you don’t spend enough on defense and business, business interests become unhappy enough that you are assassinated (popularity becomes dangerously low).

    2) As you spend more on defense and business, more of your population is available as troops to send overseas.

    3) As you spend less on social programs, people grow economically dissatisfied and become protesters. If you keep the news positive, the economically dissatisfied population will remain patriotic (keeping your approval ratings up).

    4) If you don’t send troops overseas, business drives your popularity down because you’re not securing oil fields.

    5) If you send troops overseas, reporters start taking pictures of carnage. Negative media images, combined with economic dissatisfaction (if you’re spending too much on business and military), create more protesters, driving approval ratings down.

    6) If you keep more troops at home as national guardsmen, they can track protesters, keeping them from creating new protesters.

    7) Overseas troops have low moral (depicted in the game as sitting around and smoking pot – very Vietnam-era), requiring officers to motivate them. But the more people you promote to officers, the less people you have to do any shooting (officers can’t do anything but motivate soldiers and control the media).

    8) If you leave your troops unmotivated for too long, they become chronically unmotivated, fragging officers who try to motivate them.

    9) The more you successfully secure oil fields (which inevitably involves killing people), the more scenes of carnage the press take pictures of, requiring more officers to control the press. But, since officers don’t fight, that means you need to recruit more troops from the home front.

    10) The more civilians you kill, the more civilians turn into enemy troops. Presumably you can slow down the rate of civilians turning into enemies by spending more on foreign aid, but this of course will mean spending less on domestic social programs and military/business.

    There are undoubtedly other simulation dynamics operating, but these are the major ones I saw in a quick play. The critique of the war system includes:

    1) Military and business interests are the same.

    2) The war in the gulf is really about oil.

    3) Domestic social programs are a tool for pacifying the population.

    4) The purpose of the national guard is to control the domestic population.

    5) The media is actively manipulated to pacify the population.

    6) Troops are not happy to be serving overseas, operating only under continuous motivational pressure.

    7) The purpose of foreign aid is to pacify potential enemy combatants.

    There are undoubtedly other critiques you can pull out of the simulation rules. I actually find this be a more compelling critique than September 12, though September 12 takes less time to “get” (it’s an extremely simple game). But the more complex simulation rules of Antiwargame allow a more sophisticated critique to operate. Where in September 12 the gameplay quickly teaches you that you shouldn’t play, in Antiwargame continued gameplay reveals more interdependencies and raises more questions about the war system.

  3. Jill Says:

    Maybe there was a browser incompatibility. Kill civilians? You can do that? Media? Huh? And I couldn’t see where to do ANYTHING to business. Of course it might have been a Jill-incompatibility.

    This is why I’m not a gamer. Except for The Sims. And Myst. And Civilisation. And Scrabble and Risk and AD&D and Othello. But they’re not really games ;)

    Thanks for the explanation, Michael!

  4. B. Rickman Says:

    Such a clunky interface. Michael, you have an abnormal amount of patience.

  5. Ian Bogost Says:

    Obviously, I’m a fan of Antiwargame. I’d say more, but I’m completely beat from my Atlanta househunting trip last week. So, I’d just like to make an interface design comment, since that seems to be a common objection.

    To play Antiwargame successfully, you have to experiment with the allocation of resources between military/business, foreign aid, and social spending. The problem is, the pie chart interface is rather unintuitive. You have to roll your mouse into the proper pie segment to increase that segment’s allocation. Would have been better just to have some sliders or up/down buttons, methinks.

    I guess I’ll take this opportunity to plug my forthcoming political game, due out in late June, which I’m still sworn to secrecy on.

  6. Malcolm Says:

    I left the initial budget as is, made all the troops into national guard and just left it. An awful lot of nothing happened.

  7. Emily Short Says:

    Yes, my experience was also that nothing much happened unless you started fiddling with the starting conditions. Which I suppose may be part of the point, but it presented me with no problem to try to solve at the outset.

  8. B. Rickman Says:

    It isn’t just the pie chart that is clunky, there are problems with the little action menus, especially when several of the characters are overlapping. Why does the country at the bottom slide back and forth? Why is the little businessman inside a box, and not “in” the country like all the other citizens? Sometimes he threatens me, and then, in a rather arbitrary way, the game is over.

    What am I supposed to focus on to play this game? It doesn’t resemble any familiar game form, so I’d like a few hints as to what potential actions I might want to attempt — like, you know, instructions (I doubt that instructions would diminish whatever political meanings are to be found here).

    Aside from all the interface snafus, the whole thing works like a first draft concept. Michael gave a recap of the simulation rules, but I think he’s reading a lot into it that just isn’t there. Let me go through his list:

    1) Military and business interests are the same. – They are in that the interface makes no distinction between the two. Is that political statement or just something that was convenient for the designer?

    2) The war in the gulf is really about oil. – What gulf? What war? There are some oil wells here, and the languid shuffling of soldiers across continents, but no explicit connection to the current situation. The visual references hint more at Vietnam than anything else.

    3) Domestic social programs are a tool for pacifying the population. – Except that “domestic programs” are just another label on a pie chart. Surely there is some better way to demonstrate this.

    4) The purpose of the national guard is to control the domestic population. – That may be true, but it isn’t clear at all. It also seems more relevant to Vietnam than the current situation.

    5) The media is actively manipulated to pacify the population. – This is not clear at all. There are so many other things going on, none of which the player has control over, that the media window is just another source of noise.

    6) Troops are not happy to be serving overseas, operating only under continuous motivational pressure. – This is about the only game mechanic that works for me.

    7) The purpose of foreign aid is to pacify potential enemy combatants. – Foreign aid being yet another label on a chart.

    Too much of the political meaning is tied up in that stupid pie chart. Why not represent social programs/foreign aid/military spending as icons within the game itself? Show some interaction, show how a social program makes a protester happy, show how foreign aid pacifies a terrorist, &c.

  9. michael Says:

    While the interface is awkward, I think it is no more awkward than your typical console game (I’m playing Kingdom Hearts on the PS2 right now, and have definitely had some struggles with the interface). When a game starts offering many verbs to the player, the interface design intrinsically becomes hard. One way to offer many verbs to the player without a bunch of interface cruft is to support natural language input (the approach we take in Facade, and employed by the IF community), though this approach opens up it’s own set of hard problems.

    I agree that the fact the game starts in a stasis situation is a problem. The initial situation of the game should be one where your approval rating continuously falls (eventually ending in assassination), forcing the player to do something. Ideally there would be no stable points in the simulation; even after a temporary boost, the approval rating should always start dropping if you keep on doing the same thing. The addition of a high score table (score = approval rating) would be an easy way to motivate play, providing a clear goal to get a player started.

    1) Military and business interests are the same. – They are in that the interface makes no distinction between the two. Is that political statement or just something that was convenient for the designer?

    It’s not just that they’re the same in the pie chart – increased military activity and economic activity are tied in the simulation.

    3) Domestic social programs are a tool for pacifying the population. – Except that “domestic programs” are just another label on a pie chart. Surely there is some better way to demonstrate this.

    From what I could tell, increasing domestic spending decreased dissatisfaction on the home front (based on mousing over people to hear what they’re thinking) and seemed to decrease the rate at which protesters turned civilians into protesters.

    4) The purpose of the national guard is to control the domestic population. – That may be true, but it isn’t clear at all. It also seems more relevant to Vietnam than the current situation.

    This is communicated through the action menu for national guardsmen where one of the choices is to control a specific protester. The guardsman then follows the protester around, presumably preventing the protester from making more protesters (I didn’t play long enough to confirm this). I agree this could be made more explicit by perhaps throwing protesters in jail. This could be visually effective in that you could end up with a majority of your population in jail. From the point of view of resource allocation gameplay, it’s nice that controlling protesters uses up guardsman, which decreases the number of people you have available to send overseas.

    5) The media is actively manipulated to pacify the population. – This is not clear at all. There are so many other things going on, none of which the player has control over, that the media window is just another source of noise.

    Reports filed by reporters in the field (running around amongst the oil wells) are depicted as little pieces of paper flying to the media window. The patriotic images are then temporarily replaced with images of war carnage, decreasing popularity. You can use up officers (another resource allocation problem) to control media, preventing them from filing negative stories.

    7) The purpose of foreign aid is to pacify potential enemy combatants. – Foreign aid being yet another label on a chart.

    I didn’t play long enough to confirm this, but notice how when your troops kill people around the oil wells (presumably civilians), some of them start turning into black ninja looking characters, presumably enemy combatants/terrorists, who fight against you. It seemed to me that the amount spent on foreign aid decrease the rate of conversion into combatants/terrorists.

    Again, I only played the game for 15 or 20 minutes, but found it to be one of the most effective political games I’ve played. Most people seem to disagree with me, though. Which other political games do people like better and why?

  10. Ian Bogost Says:

    I agree with Michael that there is political speech going on here, not just button-mashing. For the record, Antiwargame was first released back in 2001. Here’s a quick excerpt from a mention I made of the game in a paper I wrote that’s still in press:

    In 2001, artist Josh On created Antiwargame (On 2001), a simulation that allows the player to explore how different policy decisions affect Presidential popularity. The player allocates government funds between military, social, and foreign targets. On injects his own view that US policy exists only for “securing the interests of the US ruling class in the world” into the gameplay logic (On 2003). As a result, deployed troops lean toward desertion, and the homefront populations destabilize as social spending decreases. On uses Antiwargame to show “how war-games are used to legitimate killing,” and to communicate his personal perspective on US foreign policy.

    (Note: The 2003 reference is from the <re:play> exhibit that featured Antiwargame).

    The interesting feature of this game is that it does successfully embed its political position into the game mechanics, not just the game art (compare it with a project like Velvet Strike, for example). And trust me, that’s hard to do.

    I think the wall players are describing running into here has to do with the payoff from those mechanics, and how kinesthetically connected (or disconnected) the player feels from them. In a console game like Kingdom Hearts, the player has a different kind of incentive to learn the interface; if nothing else, he or she shelled out $45 for the game and thus has an economic incentive to get some use out of it. But with a casual political game like this, it’s very important that the player understand the political and gameplay payoff for each discrete action. This is one of the reasons why September 12 is so successful.

    This is all in the paper I’m mentioning, but it’s still in press. I’ll link to it when it’s out.

  11. B. Rickman Says:

    I think a decent interface is crucial to playing a game. If it isn’t present, there is no runner-up prize games that are interesting but suck to play (which is pretty much how you describe Kingdom Hearts).

    Seen in terms of idea-form-idiom-structure-craft-surface (I’ve been writing about this in my blog), the interface is part of the craft of game making. The political messages — which I agree do appear in the game, though are presented very weakly — are tied in with the structure of the game elements. But before a player can encounter those structures, they have to grapple with the interface, and for 90% of the people who look at antiwargame they will never get past the interface to those political structures.

    What is happening here in this discussion is that those structures are being exposed to people who now have little reason to play the game, and so the political meanings of the game come to the fore. Common understanding of the game comes not by the experience of playing the game, but by people talking about the game. Most people aren’t going to bother to figure out all those political meanings by playing the game itself. And I think that is a failing for a game.

  12. michael Says:

    Brandon (or anyone else out there), what is the most effective political game you’ve seen? For example, I agree that September 12, through the simplicity of its interface, provides immediate political and gameplay payoff. But in that case, the simplicity of the interface is matched by a simplicity of the simulation rules, limiting the complexity of the political critique. It seems to me that complex critique, critique that is actually carried by the simulation, not merely through the graphics, will inherently require complex procedural structure (complex rules), which will necessitate giving the player many possible verbs to execute, which will necessitate a complex interface. Of course there can be good and bad complex interfaces, but even a good complex interface will defer political and gameplay payoff relative to a simple interface. What’s the best example of a political game balancing complex rules/complex critique with immediacy of payoff?

  13. Ian Bogost Says:

    Michael — I do agree that for more complex interrelations of political representation, you need more complex procedural structure. However, the addition of verbs does not need to complicate the interface.

    In other words, there need not be a correlation between simplicity of interface and simplicity of simulation rules.

  14. Saul Bottcher Says:

    The integration of a political statement into the mechanics is excellent, it’s the interface that’s poor.

    The biggest design flaw is simply that the player is expected to mouse-over everything, constantly, to feel the pulse of the nation. That’s annoying – the game should bring critical information to me.

    The simple addition of SimCity-style popup messages, with helpful instructions, would solve the problem. (e.g., “Business groups are planting negative stories about you in the media – increase business funding to appease them”; “Your people are protesting the lack of social spending – increase spending to appease them, or create more national guard units to suppress protests”). As the player followed the instructions, they’d very quickly realise that they couldn’t please everyone.

    The futility of the contradicting game rules *is* the game’s statement, which is why I think the biggest mistake is failing to clearly teach the rules to the player. The other interface mistakes are quite livable in comparison.

  15. B. Rickman Says:

    I’ve been mulling over Michael’s query, not finding a satisfactory answer. I guess my interest in games that are political starts and ends with the handful of recently discussed examples, like September 12 and antiwargame. Part of it is that I find the practice of games to be a small thing, pretty minor compared to art or work or all the other things people do besides make games. Having a discussion about political games, which are still just hypothetical in my mind, buys into the idea of an independent games movement, that there is a significant percentage of game people working in the shadows of the large game studios. But I think this independent movement is itself mostly hypothetical.

    I mean, it is possible that we are going to see some/more politically motivated games, the tools (Flash, &c) are accessible enough to encourage them to a greater degree than before. And there are plenty of politics on sites like newgrounds, all those sim date games and anti-Bush/bin Laden/Britney cartoons. But none memorable enough for me to say which one was the most effective as a political game. And none that have enough game-like sophistication of simulation to really consider the balance of complexity and critique.

    That leaves me with a handful of commercial games that offer both complexity and ersatz critique. The big empire building games like Civilization. But the politics of these games is conservative, or perhaps technology-fetishistic. These are games that took a lot of coding and testing, which would dull the edge of most political critique in favor of game balance.

    Which is to say, the politics you find in popular culture (newgrounds) doesn’t mesh well with the production of complex games (Civilization), because gameplay trumps politics.

  16. josh on Says:

    I was really excited to read this thread. Antiwargame is the only game I have ever made – and it was really difficult! I wanted it to be didactic – I was angry that the tragedy of 9-11 was being used as an excuse to bomb Afghanistan (which today is no better off for it) and start talk of an Axis of Evil etc. I also thought it might be a playable game too, although that was really tricky to get right, and in the end I think it fails to be a very good game for all the reasons people outline. All games are political, of course, and that is really interesting to me. Just as people can make incredible political films I think it would be possible to make powerful propaganda games. I am sure that there are countless examples – such as civilization. It is an interesting question about whether the gameplay necessarily runs counter to message. Perhaps if a skilled enough craftsperson (gamemaker) could seamlessly integrate the two. Just like some political authors can weave politics into a narrative. Bad political art can be a real clunker though – so it is a risky business. Better to try and fail – or maybe kind of succeed, than not to try.

    I think Antiwargame runs really differently on different machines for some reason – the CPU and OS seems to affect it’s timing.

    It is possible to have a revolution – everyone jumps up and down and is happy. I think you need a ton of protesters.

  17. Saul Bottcher Says:

    “It is possible to have a revolution – everyone jumps up and down and is happy. I think you need a ton of protesters.”

    I love it! What a perfect extension of the game’s statement: the only “good” solution comes from the people destroying the unwinnable system for you.

  18. josh on Says:

    “the only “good” solution comes from the people destroying the unwinnable system for you.”

    exactly. The idea was that you play the president – but really there is only so much control that you can have. I kind of like the idea that it is a bit ambiguous what effect you are having on the world. The real players in society are US – the masses of ordinary people. Of course it is hard to have that represented accurately in gameplay – you’d have to be more of a craftsperson than I am!

    Workers of the world unite!

    Josh

  19. Saul Bottcher Says:

    “The idea was that you play the president – but really there is only so much control that you can have”

    I think one of the cool moments in the game, for me, was right at the beginning. I increased social spending, so the business leaders had me assassinated; of course, my drive to “win” compelled me to restart and obey their instructions.

    You have to wonder, if the threat of ruin or assassination were real, would I have the courage to ignore them? Or would I obey right from the start? In a way, it takes some of the focus off blaming the president as an individual, and puts it into the political and social structures that allow that power-play to occur.

    I think that aspect of the game mechanics, milking the player’s desire to “win”, worked very well for me.

  20. we make money not art Says:

    GAME as CRITIC as ART 2.0 (Part I)

    I found on the always precious media teletipos and La Petite Claudine links to GAME as CRITIC as ART 2.0, a workshop to be held on January 12 in Barcelone. The documents written by Laura Baigorri from Barcelona University, as…

  21. WorldChanging: Another World Is Here Says:

    Game As Critic As Art, Part I

    I found on the always precious media teletipos and La Petite Claudine links to GAME as CRITIC as ART 2.0, a workshop to be held…

  22. Phil Samurai Says:

    9.I see no way of finishing the game, other than failing not to fail or to not fail.

    10.Officers are killed by their own troops and will get fragged after attempting several times to motivate desert

    47.When returning home some troops feel the need to join the national guard and stand in the ocean on their heads

    11.Protesters use blank signs

    12.The country is controlled by business which loves the war machine and create presidential popularity

    13.The citizens will all be killed by nuclear devices and protesting war is pointless

    14.Overseas military are either non-combative officers, death machines, or stoned out of their minds

    15.Media coverage will eventually get out of control and outnumber both military and civilian populace and destroy your computer

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