When depicting history and modern political realities, what stories do we want to tell?
Games are, above all else, forms of storytelling. And in that act of play, we commit ourselves to enacting narratives not entirely of our own design. Kiri Miller, in her article Grove Street Grimm: Grand Theft Auto and Digital Folklore, identifies games as performative folklore, navigable culturally significant experience. Like all folklore, she states, video games can “inculcate values, demonstrate behaviors, and transmit beliefs, thereby creating and perpetuating social formations and actions.” This same process appears mirrored, sometimes grotesquely so, in the processes by which narratives of both peace and conflict appear in media - propaganda and otherwise - in war zones. Appropriate, then, that the recent Gaza Missile Crisis, another event in a long and intractable conflict, should find a board game created in its image.
A Reign of Missiles, created by game designer Pail Rohbaugh, is a simulation game that asks players to embody the Israeli military high command during the recent 2012 escalation of the Gaza-Israel conflict (which itself is part of a much larger Palestinian-Israel conflict). For those unaware of the recent violence taking place, it can be crudely summarized as follows: Increasing Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza into Israel earlier this year resulted in strong military actions from the Israeli Government, resulting in offensive strikes - mostly aerial bombardment from drones and F-15s. It was an intense and relatively violent time period on both sides of the border.
In such overly-simplified terms, you could see the appeal of designing a game in this scenario. Each “side” has its own primary means of attack. Their goals seem relatively clear: attack, stop the attack. Likewise, each side has distinct goals and means towards the resolution of a cease-fire. Indeed, Rohbaugh’s game simulates just that. The game, admittedly a work-in-progress, comes with a printable set of rocket, defense, and unit tiles, a clear win-condition, as well as an illustrated game board that includes key locations in Israel.
The single-player game tracks both Hamas and Israeli Diplomacy on range, as well as a Hamas and Israeli MVP Track. The location of Hamas and Israel along these two tracks determines the outcome of the game, with the value along the tracks changing according to offensive and defensive actions. While I will discuss some of the game’s details in this article, I highly encourage you to read the rules and play the game yourself. A Reign of Missiles is free and available for download via Foreign Affairs, right now.
A Reign of Missiles is certainly worth playing, if for no other reason than to examine the ways in which games reflect, produce, and critically engage with conflict narratives. Even the board itself plays into conceptions of Israel and Palestine. Printed, ideally, on an 11 x 17 inch board (or peace of paper), the physical space of the game is isolated. Israel is realized as geographically confined, a relatively small area, the pieces of the game covering it in its entirety. It also appears surrounded by the opposition, Egypt, Gaza, and the West Bank. This same narrative (whether it be fact or fiction), plays a crucial role in Israeli self-perception. Interestingly, Gaza still appears quite small in A Reign of Missiles, creating a sense of confinement and vulnerability on the board, which carries its own conflict narrative.
While the game is remarkably accurate, the mechanics create some troubling narratives as well. The historical confines of the game are as isolated as its apparent geography. The game takes place in November of this year and chooses not to simulate or detail the historical events and precedents that brought the conflict to this place and time. Yes, that task is likely far to complex to incorporate into a simple board game, but the narrative still applies - this is an event distinct and solitary in time.
Even the idea of “sides”, of a binary game between two opposing forces places the conflict far towards the zero-sum narrative of conflict and conflict resolution. Either Hamas or Israel can achieve Victory on the Diplomacy track, as though the end of the this crisis has no relation to the ongoing conflict. If Israel “wins”, Hamas, by necessity, loses. The game does make room on the Diplomacy track for a tie. However, there are only three spaces available versus nine spaces available for either a Hamas or Israeli victory. It also names the area a “Diplomatic Stalemate”, a negative connotation implying a zero progress for both parties, despite their alignment on the Diplomacy track.
Political influences in the game also create interesting conflict narratives. Random dice rolls at the beginning of each round may augment Israeli or Hamas Diplomacy tracks. While both Egypt and the US affect the two bodies equally, implying a potential counterbalance to US support of Israel, the odds that the US offers support is 10% more likely to occur. In either case, neither force can offer support more than twice in the game. A Reign of Missiles does portray foreign involvement in the conflict, particularly the large role the US plays in the region, although it still maintains a narrative in which, at least potentially, this support is compromised by other political forces.
Similarly, Hamas actions in A Reign of Missiles fit into existing and contestable conflict narratives. The rules of play dictate that Hamas always sets up their rocket launches before Israel determines their military assets. All Israeli action modeled in the game is reactionary by necessity. They are a nation taking military action in response to a very real threat. Devoid of historical background, the game lacks a contradictory narrative. Likewise, the lack of multiple political forces in Gaza fails to illuminate the severe political pressures driving Hamas. The game makes no mention of the numerous rockets launched during and proceeding the conflict by other, more radical groups, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Nor does the game contain reference to the various Salafi groups vying for influence in Gaza. A narrative of a single, blindly antagonistic force remains.
I could go into much greater detail about the mechanics of A Reign of Missiles, from its representation of civilian deaths (an unmitigatable and random event in the wake of bombings) to its relationship between military and diplomacy (rocket misses are politically meaningless, while successful strikes lower Israeli military capacity). Regardless, the point is clear. Narratives of peace and conflict abound in the real world. They drive political affairs, from the international level to the individual level. As Robert Rotberg states, “Conflicts depend on narratives, and in some cases cannot exist without a detailed explanation of how and why the battles began, and why one side, and only one side, is in the right.” (“Israel and Palestine Narratives of Conflict,” Indiana University press, 2006).
As pieces of performative folklore, games play as much a role in reflecting, undermining, and perpetuating popular conflict narratives as any media. It is no surprise, then, that A Reign of Missiles is just one of many games that closely relates to the history of Israel and Palestine. The board game Israeli Independence models the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, while Das Alijah-Spiel prepped children during World War II to make the journey to Palestine in the first place. Tahta al-Ramad (Under Ash), Intifada, and Global Conflicts: Palestine create their own game-based narratives in the digital space as well, in case you thought only board games trawled the waters of serious political issues.
None of this is to say that games about serious issues necessarily create troubling narratives. We craft our own narratives every day. In conflict zones, this process takes on powerful meaning and has lasting repercussions. These narratives can, and do, make themselves known even through play. As the end of A Reign of Missiles’ rule set, Rohbaugh writes: “I have long felt that games have a unique ability to inform and teach others about history and current events.” Rohbaugh is right, but this must come with a caveat. When depicting history and modern political realities, what stories do we want to tell?