Over at Waypoint (the section of VICE magazine that deals with gaming and gamer culture), Muira McCammon, an academic who writes on Guantanamo Bay quotes from the essay on irregular warfare games I wrote with Volko Ruhnke for the Zones of Control anthology . She also references A Distant Plain and Labyrinth.
So, what sort of game system might be able to model the complexity of GiTMO, to give voice to the challenges that detainees, journalists, lawyers, and guards have faced in the detention facility’s history?
My answer: the wargame.
Wargames are a great way to parse asymmetrical conflict in a political system, and in many ways, GiTMO can be understood as a series of power struggles. A wargame has the potential to model the tensions between journalists, detainees, lawyers, and members of the U.S. military. It could give us an outlet to reflect on serious episodes in GiTMO’s history, like that time when Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon accused journalist Carol Rosenberg of “multiple incidents of abusive and degrading comments of an explicitly sexual nature.” It could help us examine the history of coalition building in GiTMO, like when detainees held an election to select two leaders, one who was revealed to the Americans and one who worked in the shadows.
What Ruhnke and Train speak to is a problem that extends beyond wargames. A lot of us with differing ideological, religious, ethnic, and other backgrounds are uncomfortable with the idea of people “playing” games about serious things like war crimes and human rights violations. Anyone trying to make a wargame out of GiTMO would have to simplify the place, and that carries a number of inherent risks. Another problem: GiTMO is still a morphing, changing place with an uncertain future.
I can think of a few ways to do this, actually, but that will have to wait while I work on other projects. I suspect that Camp Delta will be there for a while yet.
Banner: Rodger MacGowan.
And a few weeks ago on a website called Killscreen, she also wrote about A Distant Plain and what did and didn’t go into the Events Deck for that game.
Event cards helped me become comfortable with wargame design. The first deck I really loved and explored belonged to A Distant Plain (2013), a wargame about contemporary Afghanistan. I considered how my Afghan friends would critique the narrative put forth in the deck and the board. What would they think of this attempt to boil a segment of their nation’s history down? Omission, deletion, marginalization, and exclusion—these are issues that always bubbled up in my mind as I shuffled through the deck.
I had mentored a group of Afghan women writers, many of whom were based in Kabul, and I always wondered, if they had been taught wargame design, how might their deck have differed? Instead of having a card devoted to “Koran Burning,” would they have given a card to mark the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning a Qur’an? As wargame designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train crafted their A Distant Plain (2013), which cards had been edited out?
She does have a point and I did attempt to answer her in the comments, but I don’t know if she saw it.
A deck of 72 event cards presents only 72 different chances to alter the game as it is played, even though the number of combinations is astronomical (72 factorial, or 6.123446 to the 103rd power). As I’ve said before, a wargame is a created object, a distillation of first and second hand experience and therefore cannot be a neutral one, any more than there can be a neutral novel. Deliberately or not, there of course will be deletions, omissions, exclusions and abstractions – that’s endemic to the process of recording history itself, let alone abstracting from that history to make a model in the form of a game. The designer, through the processes of research, conceptualizing, testing and production of a game, must make a series of choices of what to include in their design, what to leave out, and how to model what’s been judged relevant enough and left in.
Volko and I were aware of this of course, and took a few online kicks in the ribs for even trying to design a game on a war that was still underway. We felt that most importantly, a designer should be prepared to “show their work” and stand behind what they have done. Therefore we tried to select events that one were based on one or more actual historical events, tactics, or tendencies that materially affected the conflict; in a couple of cases things that could have affected it and were possible but didn’t happen (e.g. a coup d’etat in the Afghan Government). In all cases we had descriptions of what is represented by that card in history in the game’s playbook, with a reference to one or more items in the game’s bibliography.
Jeremy Antley, whom McCammon also references, wrote an interesting post on this aspect in his blog concerning the “My Lai” event card in Fire in the Lake. (Unfortunately, his domain name has expired so I can’t link to it right now – it was at http://www.peasantmuse.com/. Jeremy, pay the Internet Gods!)
And in the final analysis, A Distant Plain is a manual wargame. It’s entirely possible for Muira McCammon, or anyone else, to introduce, edit or replace the cards in the game, for greater or lesser (but certainly different) effect. As Mary Flanagan points out in Critical Play, that’s just the beginning of what you can do!