March 1, 2003
Follow me on Twitter

Understanding War Games

Game designer Greg Costikyan recently described an idea for a game, Great Patriotic War, that he'd like to create, if only it made business sense. The game is about the Eastern Front in World War II, the great struggle between Hitler and Stalin. It's meant to be played very quickly -- the entire war in twenty frantic minutes.

New media critic Anja Rau, in turn, took a look at the idea and can't imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing, The war was terrible -- war is always terrible. Why would anyone want to relive it? Why would anyone think anything about this was fun? Isn't the entire idea obscene?

I think Rau is mistaken because she misunderstands what the game is about. This is not surprising: most people who look at war games, including players and designers, misapprehend their subject. In fact, Costikyan doesn't quite understand the subject of his own game.

For once, we don't need to worry about the intentional fallacy. It's usually a gaffe for critics to talk about intentions: we can't know what the author meant to do, only what he or she actually did. But, in this case, all we have are intentions.

Costikyan thinks the game is about two things:

1. The Eastern Front was a terrible struggle between two brutal, totalitarian regimes. Costikyan argues that they were equally evil, and plans to emphasize this by reminding us of the camps and gulags, and by telling players about aggregate casualties suffered by both sides. Costikyan also wants to remind us that this was the core of WWII, that everything else was a sideshow; Americans love to remember Normandy and Arnhem, but nothing in the West came close to Stalingrad.

2. Costikyan also wants to make a technical point about military simulations, many of which operate more or less like chess, with abstract units that are moved in the abstract geometrical space of a checkerboard or hexagonal grid. The Great Patriotic War would be played on a continuous map and the forces would also be fluid and continuous; there would be neither units to move nor spaces to move them into.

Rau looks at these ambitions and sees little of interest. She's right. The irony of the war -- the terrible, noble sacrifice that the monstrous Soviet regime made to save us all from the Nazis -- deserves commemoration and demands understanding, but this game hardly seems the way. The technical question is technical: there's not much there to interest a literary critic. So, what's the point?

The Great Patriotic War is not, I think, about the Soviets and the Nazis, and it's not about the sacrifice of the common soldier or the millions of victims over whose towns and fields the struggle raged. It's about two of the central questions of the study of history:

1. Could it have been better? This is the question that always hides beneath the surface of historical scholarship. Was there something -- anything -- that could have been done to make this terrible struggle less awful? Could it have been avoided? Could it have been won sooner? Could more have been saved? Counterfactual history is for amateurs, but in the end it's always the question that saves History from idle pedantry, the moral heart of the discipline.

2. What is it like to make decisions of terrible consequence in terrible haste? How can anyone do such things? That's the real fascination of this conflict: every day, people would wake up, grab a steel cup of terrible coffee, and start making decisions that would consign thousands to torment and that would decide the fate of nations. They'd do this for hours on end, without decent information, without reliable advice, often with explosions in the distance, and always knowing themselves surrounded by bosses and subordinates who plotted every day to kill them.

That's why Costikyan wants a fast game, an arcade-like game. Time stress distorts our perception. Stress is emotionally immersive even though the game cannot be sensually immersive, and emotional immersion is the point. What was it like to be Zhukhov, bearing on your shoulders the fate of the greatest land army in history, the last hope of millions of peasants who were being slaughtered by Nazi invaders, knowing every day that the future of mankind could be imperiled forever by a single stupid blunder? And knowing, too, that the leader of the grateful nation whose army you were leading was plotting to kill you, too? But Stalin isn't here now, and right now your radio operator is telling you that 37th Tanks needs to be supplied now, and you've got to decide right now where to find them food and bullets or, perhaps, the 37th will just melt away into the Russian winter and the panzers will pour through and perhaps you'll have just made the blunder that dooms the species for a thousand years, or forever.

This is the stuff of literature -- to know what great people can do in great times, to know what we might do if we must. It matters to us because people matter. It matters, too, because life is always filled with snap decisions that carry grave consequences and that are always made with too little time and knowledge. Are you going to Wellesley, or MIT? Are you going to ask her to marry you, or not? Do you want to have a baby now? It always comes down to a moment and a hunch.