Virtual nation building

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“The game is over,” Iraq’s U.N. ambassador said after the fall of Baghdad, referring to the Iraq war almost as if it was an all-night game of “Command & Conquer.” But in geopolitics as in computer gaming, prewar strategizing and postwar recovery can be even more challenging than the quick thrill of combat.

BLOOD-AND-GUTS fighting holds the easy allure, for gamers no less than politicians. The war barely over, a smattering of desert combat mods are already vying for the quick buck.

The true “game” may lie elsewhere, however. From last-minute diplomatic alliances to the continuing battle for hearts and minds, Iraq holds much game fodder for fecund minds.

“If you look at games over the years, current events and history play a big role,” said Doug Lowenstein, the president of the Interactive Digital Software Association. “The game industry, like Hollywood, looks to the real world for story ideas. It’s very fertile ground.”

So where’s “Iraqi Reconstruction: The Game?”

Rethinking “Civilization”

At Firaxis Games in Maryland, company president Jeff Briggs has been playing close attention to the big picture side of the unfolding story in Iraq. The big picture is his job: Firaxis is home to revolutionary game designer Sid Meier, creator of the granddaddy of all strategy computer games: “Civilization.”

“Our game ‘Civilization’ always had what we called a United Nations component to it,” said Briggs. “And if you achieved the consensus of the other countries you could achieve a diplomatic victory.”

But real world events has Briggs thinking about updating the Civilization series. Among the features: An increased role for the media and a more true-to-life world governing body. In this more realistic setting “Civilization’s” United Nations component would be less kumbaya, more realpolitik. More powerful members would have the power to veto or go off and wage unilateral action.

“If Iraq has told us anything about modern warfare, it’s that it is as much a war of words as a clash of arms. It makes for interesting game decisions.” said Briggs.

But will such a game matter when it’s released, two or three years down the road? Briggs is not so sure: “Things are happening so quickly that it’s going to be hard for any game company to respond with a great game in time for people to still care.”


There may be at least one untapped gaming contingent with a professional interest in “Civilization: Iraq.” Public policy wonks have likened the dark art of nation building to a game long before your Apple II ever painted its first green-hued “Diplomacy” map.

Serious Games, a project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, is an attempt to get the wonks to realize that specially designed computer games can help them get their “Great Game” chops. David Rejeski, director of the project, has been lobbying commercial game designers and public policy experts to work together.

“Policy guys are used to running simulations that pump out answers,” said Rejeski. “They are saying ‘Tell me what to do. Don’t tell me that there are five possibilities.’”

There is at least one such government simulation that partly matches Rejeski’s requirements for multiple answers. The simulation “MEPolity” creates a fictional country populated by over 2,000 agents representing types of people, villages and other communities found in the Middle East. Users can apply any number of scenarios to the country’s inhabitants and measure the results.

“MEPolity doesn’t make point predictions,” said its creator, Ian Lustick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead of specific answers, the program produces any number of possibilities: some good, some less good, some horrible.

MEPolity is not a game. Only a connoisseur of PowerPoint-rendered Matisse could enjoy its interface.

Rejeski, on the other hand, sees a more democratic environment. His dream: a massive multiplayer Iraq where policy makers, graduate students and assorted cranks set out to build — or destroy — a post-Saddam Iraq.

“I would put in policy makers, graduate students, even people opposed to reconstruction,” said Rejeski. “And just let the game run. There will be surprises. New ideas we never thought about may appear.”


While some game design gurus and policy analysts explore the big picture for game fodder, other game companies have succumbed to the allure of the combat component. The fires along Baghdad’s Euphrates River waterfront had barely subsided when Sony registered “shock and awe” with the U.S. Patent Office. (Sony then quickly retracted, proving that even game companies have limits.)

America’s battlefield tactics — overwhelming firepower — and the lack of performance on the part of its enemies may not inspire that challenging of a game.

“I’m sure there will be a rash of games about Iraq,” said Firaxis’s Briggs. But we’ve seen that resistance to the United States is futile in the military sense. A lot of people may be trying to simulate that experience, but it’s not going to be fun.”


Ultimately the best Iraq-based computer game may yet come from the military gamer market. While Sony generated ire with its grab for “shock and awe,” quietly registered “Operation Iraqi Freedom” with nary a media peep. specializes in war games that are “simulations first, games second.” Steve Grammont, president, admits that if Battlefront ever tackles a game, combat play could not ignore war of words leading up to the conflict. Most notably, a realistic game would have to incorporate the tactical cost of civilian casualties.

“There are lessons to be learned from our games,” said Grammont. “Most games out there are often about destruction and death. And they aren’t honest about it. We are under no illusions.”