Is facile better than nothing in Endgame: Syria?

Title Is facile better than nothing in Endgame: Syria?
Author Tom Chick
Posted in Games
When December 13, 2012

Two years ago, the Assad regime in Syria assumed they could just clamp down on this Arab Spring nonsense until it went away. It didn't go away. Instead, a long civil war happened..

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Wouldn't more involved game mechanics subvert the developers' stated goal of trying to engage people who wouldn't otherwise follow this conflict by using game conceits? Isn't there a value in using game-like actions to present the relationship of various real-life elements in the conflict to people who will be more interested in something just because it is in game form? I wouldn't describe it as an "excuse for a game" in this context - it's more like the game is an excuse for someone to find out who the players are in Syria. And be reminded of the cost.

I've always been skeptical of "serious games", (I was never sold on Bogost's Water Coolor Games either) but I don't know if I agree with that either. Is there really going to be anybody playing this game who isn't already aware of the Syrian conflict? If so, how much actual information are they going to be absorbing?

There were studies years back about how games like Number Muncher don't really teach math: they teach kids to recognize shapes and act accordingly, but they aren't forming the "math" mental model of numbers. They're just reacting to shapes and colors on the screen. I wonder how different this is from that.

At the end of the day, I don't think games are very effective at conveying information via narrative because anybody really putting in the effort to "read" the game is going to see through them. They can be very effective at conveying information via mechanics, which usually means things like relationships, power imbalances, etc. But even though we're only scratching the surface of how those can be expressed (or maybe because of that), there's a very definite limit on the kinds of things that we can communicate using games.

Great post! I actually agree with most of it. But I understand that people might think that they can get some people to pay attention to a Syria game who wouldn't pay attention to the Syria news. How many people that actually is, I have no idea.

But if you take the position that games need to be judged as games and not teaching devices or information-conveyance vehicles, I think that they need to be criticized for being bad games without softening the tone due to the subject matter. How is a game about the American Civil War any less serious than a game about the civil war in Syria? The only difference is that one is current and therefore possibly more emotionally charged for some people, and the other is not. And if games are going to be "taken seriously" - whatever that means - they will have to succeed doing exactly that: being able to address emotionally charged topics in a complex way. I'm not sure they can do that with just game mechanics.

I really don't think that a card-flipping game is going to get *anyone* to think deeply about the Syrian rebellion and its various complexities. For example, one key factor in understanding Syria is how Assad pere successfully welded together minority groups into a relatively cohesive whole that served as the nucleus of the security, senior military, and civilian governmental state, and how a rebellion largely sustained by the anger of an Arab Sunni majority could affect regional politics.

In this case, it seems like the rebellion is generally considered virtually unalloyed good guys (some minor numeric penalties from using radical Salafist Islamist militias notwithstanding), while the regime is unabashedly bad. In the real world, however, things are never quite so clear-cut: does a rebel success, even given US pressure to create a more inclusive government-in-waiting, mean potential genocide or "ethnic cleansing" of Shia, 'Alawite, Christian and Jewish minorities? How will the Kurds be impacted -- will they work to create an expanded de facto independent Kurdistan, and what does Turkey do in response? Would Iran lose all influence in a new Syrian state, and how will that affect Hizb Allah and the politico-military situation in Lebanon? From the Israeli point of view, will this stabilize or destabilize the region? What about the Golan Heights and the historically-contested Syrian-Israeli border? Nothing in the Middle East can move without affecting dozens of closely-linked systems.

I suppose that what I'm saying is that a failure to think deeply about a situation is worse than not thinking at all. There's a reason USG was so hesitant to strongly support the Syrian rebels, apart from concerns about their ability to succeed; in some ways the maniacal, brutal, near-genocidal devil you know is better than the ones you don't, especially when they live in what has the potential to be a major regional flashpoint. I see nothing in "Endgame" that indicates the complexities involved. Perhaps the next time they'll do better, but I'm a bit concerned that they won't.

Thanks so much for posting that, Twitchity. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd just copy/paste it over what I wrote. :)

I would agree if I thought there was anything here to remind anyone of the cost. As it is, someone who knows nothing about Syria isn't going to play this thing and wouldn't learn anything if he did. Someone like me who knows a little about Syria is just going to be disappointed at how poorly this has anything specific to say beyond names of cards. And someone like Twitchity (see his comment) who appears to know the situation pretty well is just going to shake his head sadly at how facile it is as a learning tool.

Thanks. :) But the article has to discuss the strictly ludic aspects of the design, and why they prove problematic; in this case the important point is why the game design doesn't fulfill the designers' aspirations, and I ain't qualified to say why. Turns out there really is something to this games journamalism!

I do recall that USC's ICT some years ago created a "Full Spectrum Command" boardgame that cleverly simulated asymmetric "Three Block War"-type conflicts, by forcing the conventional military player to scramble for tactical bandwidth. Basically, the insurgent player could use inferior forces to cripple the military player's OODA loop. Don't know if that proved "fun" in the conventional sense (generally, as I understand it, game mechanics that prevent a player from taking an action aren't good design), but I always thought it was a neat way to show why fighting in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria isn't the same as defending the Fulda Gap.

I want that on my iPad.

A bad game about an important topic is like any kind of bad art about an important topic. If it increases awareness, and drives somebody to learn more, then it's good. If it doesn't, well, add it to the pile of inane conversations that people have everyday about Syria.

Maybe some game designer sees this and says, "I can make a relevant game about this, and at least I'm not the first." Granted, we haven't seen a relevant game about Columbine, or 9/11. But we have seen them for Mogadishu, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Korea, etc. So maybe it just takes time.

Maybe a tad off topic, but since you mentioned Victoria 2, could I get a quick comparison between it and Pride of Nations? I played the latter and was wondering about similar itch scratchers.

I didn't care for Pride of Nations. It felt messy and poorly tuned, but I confess I didn't spend a lot of time with it. Victoria II, on the other hand, is unlike any other strategy game you've ever played. Even if you don't like it, it's worth checking out for Paradox's unique model for political ideas and industry. However, keep in mind it's a typical Paradox design in that you're basically surfing a wave of data instead of the usual godhand you wield in most strategy games, including Pride of Nations.

Hmm, I'm with you on your first point, but I have to disagree with the second. The Super Columbine Massacre RPG ( is a thoughtful response to the event and the ensuing controversy; as for 9/11, you could try September 12th (or Madrid, a more-general response to terrorism) at or even Molleindustria's Oligarchy ( Only Paolo Pedercini's stuff uses complex systems to further his argument, but the others are effective uses of the medium. I would concur that it often takes time to get the perspective necessary to create a solid game based on geopolitics.

Wow, there's a lot of well thought out comments on this thread. I feel a bit silly not being able to articulate something equally profound.

Instead, here's some typos!
"The mujahideen can hold off [a] tank."
"That’s Endgame: Syria in a nutshell: a thin excuse for a game[.]"
"But I want t [sic] respect"

Aren't most "historical" games more a doorway into the subject matter, rather than to be held up as a perfect model of the conflict? Whether it's current or not, seems immaterial to me. In fact one of the draws to this game, was the fact that it was current.

I hear about the Syrian conflict on the news, but sometimes, getting your fingers dirty and exploring the details - even if abstract - acts as a catalyst to your will to gain understanding of a situation. So this hastily developed topical almost throwaway game, can be a stepping stone to the pursuit of further information.

For me, in a similar way that A Few Acres of Snow inspires interest in the era, this game could ignite a similar willingness to find out about the Syrian conflict. In fact Tom mentions Levee en Masse, and that simple solitaire game also had me digging around for more knowledge on the French Revolution.