The Syrian Civil War Is a Game
Can gaming raise awareness about the world's worst humanitarian crisis?
Earlier this week, I was a mother of two living in Daraa, Syria. My husband Ali had recently called me on Skype and told me that he’d joined the Free Syrian Army. After President Bashar al-Assad cut off my electricity and access to the Internet, however, I had lost touch with Ali. I was told that I had only two choices:
1. Continue to stay in Daraa. If you leave now, with internet and cellphone reception down, there will be no way for Ali to find you.
2. Leave Daraa. Take shelter in the countryside where the shelling isn't as severe, at least until your city becomes safer.
These choices, and this identity, were not mine, but those of a character in the interactive, text-based news game "1000 Days of Syria." The game, which creator Mitch Swenson refers to as "part electric literature; part newscast; and part choose-your-own-adventure," allows players to navigate their way through the first two years of the Syrian uprising. They can do so from the perspective of three characters: a Syrian mother, a rebel fighter, and an American journalist.
Each character begins the game with the same text—basic background on the origins of the Arab Spring and the Syrian rebellion:
Emboldened by the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 11th and then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak one month later, political dissent starts to take hold amongst the Syrian youth. Nearly a dozen teenagers are arrested in the southern city of Daraa after spray painting: "the people want to topple the regime." A Facebook page named "Syrian Revolution 2011" has surfaced, calling for a "Day of Rage" protest similar to the one that sparked the revolution in Egypt. Meanwhile, hoping to curb the escalating violence in Libya, the United Nations Security Council flirts with the idea of imposing a no-fly-zone over the government of long-standing Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. There is an overall sense of promise in Syria, that, like those before them in the Arab Spring, their draconian president, Bashar al-Assad, will be expelled.
As the narrative progresses, its perspective and tone shift into a character-dependent, second-person address:
A mother of two, you are in your mid-thirties. You are happily married to Ali, your husband, and your family resides in Daraa, a city that rests along the southwestern border with Jordan. You are a moderate Sunni Muslim, considered by most to be living a middle-class lifestyle on your husband's electrician salary. While you are in favor of political reform, you still fear Bashar Al Assad's secret police, the Mukhabarat. It's the Mukhabarat that arrested the teenagers that painted the anti-regime graffiti in Daraa, your city, earlier that week. You think about where those boys are being held. You think about how you would feel if they were your children.
At the end of each message, the game calls upon your character to take action. Sometimes these actions echo dramatic video-game choices:
1. Choose to make explosives with the warehouse mothers.
2. Choose to steal petrol with the Turkish smugglers.
But more often, they involve fraught ethical decisions involving personal preservation, interpersonal responsibility, and societal demands:
1. Tell Ali to forget Assad's secret police. It was only one time. Tell him he has a good life with you and his children. Tell him it isn't worth it. Tell him you will worry about him.
2. Tell Ali to join the protesters on the street, three stories below. Tell him Assad has gotten away with his dictatorship for too long. Tell him that you and your family are being marginalized because, even though you are the Sunni majority, the Alawite minority still unjustly reaps the luxuries of Syria.
According to Swenson, who recently participated in an interview on Twitter with the journalist resource Muck Rack, the game has two primary purposes. The first is to develop American interest in and understanding of the Syrian conflict, which in its three years has claimed more than 190,000 lives, become one of the wold's worst humanitarian crises, and drawn the United States and its allies into battle. (Since its launch last spring, the game's site has been viewed 200,000 times, Swenson says.)
It's a cause that has personal significance for Swenson, who traveled to Syria in September 2013 as a correspondent for the blog War Is Boring and interviewed Free Syrian Army fighters and others in the region. After Swenson returned to the U.S., he was dismayed by the lack of American concern about the Syrian uprising and its tragic aftermath:
In Sept 2013 ~10x as many people were reading about Miley Cyrus than the atrocities in Syria. For me that was very disheartening. #mucked— Mitch Swenson (@Mitch_Swenson) October 22, 2014
Swenson also wanted to prove the value of new-media resources in reporting on the conflict. Coverage of the Syrian civil war has become notoriously problematic due to the lack of reporters on the ground and the mortal danger faced by journalists in the region. Swenson believes, however, that there are opportunities to embrace new, safer methods for reporting stories. Given the wealth of open-source intelligence that is coming out of Syria and in need of analysis, Swenson believes "reporters, for the first time, might be of better use from behind the computer than from behind the front lines."
Swenson's gamification of the Syrian conflict has an ethical dimension as well. Players are continuously prompted to make choices and take actions, and thereby re-calibrate their decisions based on their assumed characters. The push to inhabit the consciousness of individuals involved in the conflict leads to many difficult moral crossroads.
Take, for instance, this scene from October 2013, in which my character, the Syrian mother, watches her eldest son, a teenager, consort with members of ISIS. In confronting her son and his recently radicalized cohort, the mother has the following options:
1. Push the older boy aside and reach out to Emad. What are they going to do? Kill you? He is your son.
2. Yell at the older boy and hold Yara, Emad's sister, in the air. Make him remember your family, or what's left of it at least.
3. Walk away. Emad has made his choice. If he comes back to you, you will accept him. But if not, you are ready to let him go.
The game doesn't explicitly tell you whether your answers are right or wrong. Some paths lead to your character's death, imprisonment, or kidnapping, but most yield only another set of challenging choices. In each instance, the player is also indirectly forced to think, "How would I make these choices, if this life were my own?"
In their essay on ethical gaming, the digital-humanities researchers Mary Flanagan and Jonathan Belman refer to these kinds of dynamics as “empathetic play.” The interactions require that "players intentionally try to infer the thoughts and feelings of people or groups represented in the game ... and/or prepare themselves for an emotional response."
This form of empathetic engagement can break down cultural barriers:
When one experiences a visceral empathetic response to another group’s plight, this may transform the 'emotional lens' through which one views the other group. Emotions commonly associated with empathy, such as concern or indignation, could disincline people to dismiss the outgroup’s suffering...
In the U.S., developers are already working on news games (a cross between journalism and video games) that make use of empathetic play and its potential to change how people think about violent conflicts. "We Are Chicago," for instance, encourages players to explore the sociological factors behind the epidemic of gang violence in the South Side of the Second City.
But these types of games are more difficult to pull off for foreign conflicts, in part because game designers have limited resources and opportunities to conduct research abroad (the developer of "We Are Chicago" originally wanted the game to focus on life in Afghanistan, but the project was shelved because of a limited budget).
Commercial games set in war zones, meanwhile, tend to highlight the real-time, visceral sensations of combat rather than the emotional and cultural characteristics of individuals caught up in conflict. The Esquire columnist Stephen Marche, for example, boldly claimed in 2010 that Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare was “the greatest artwork made so far about the War on Terror," only to follow that up with a clarification: “I don’t enjoy playing it much. Controller in hand and eyes on the screen, I keep asking myself: Why am I here? Whom am I killing?"
Unlike, say, Call of Duty, Swenson's plain-text game resists sensationalized depictions of violence and instead focuses on rigorously researched narrative elements. As Swenson explained in his Twitter Q&A:
Omission of visuals in 1000 Days was a conscious choice. Here text seems better to illuminate the gravity & humanity in Syria #muckedup— Mitch Swenson (@Mitch_Swenson) October 22, 2014
For me creating interactivity w hard news should foremostly be rooted in education. It seems somewhat exploitative to do otherwise #muckedup— Mitch Swenson (@Mitch_Swenson) October 22, 2014
Swenson believes that this mix of interactivity and news can help people understand the Syrian conflict in ways they never did before, and explain related issues like the rise of ISIS. Still, he admits he isn't the only one experimenting with new ways to convey developments in Syria. "Today I think we're in this strange interstitial zone of reporting," he wrote during his Twitter chat. "ISIS just shot a feature film showing war through a RED camera."