You can’t always get what you want. I have just offered my enemies money for reconstruction, and they laughed in my face: in view of my recent ‘security actions’ (um, political assassinations using Apache helicopters), no one believes that I really mean well. To add insult to injury, opposition members of my own government have called my tenure a “comedy of errors”. I realise that everything I do is an act of symbolic communication, and so my actions need to represent a consistent narrative. Lesson learned: I ease border controls and trade restrictions, arrest a few of my own extremist nutters, and eventually another offer of aid is accepted. I do better in the polls, and soon I am rewarded with a video of bikini’d babes walking along a beach, tickled by the ‘Winds of Peace’. I have reached a pacific milestone. But the tension is not over yet.
Such is one possible experience of playing Impact Games’ rightly admired PeaceMaker, a geopolitical simulation that you can ‘play’ as either the Israeli Prime Minister or the president of the Palestinian Authority. It combines an RTS-style map of the territory with real news footage and a turn-based mechanic. Every week you choose one action – making a speech, negotiating with internal factions, encouraging or suppressing violent activity – and then watch as an unanticipated event (suicide bombings, riots, etc) throws a spanner in the works, and your poll ratings vacillate among the various domestic and global onlookers. Naturally, things proceed very differently depending on which leader you are:no standard videogame concept of ‘balanced’ forces can apply here. As the Palestinian president, you have to keep Hamas and Fatah relatively on-side, while commanding only a ragtag police force, and having to make wan appeals to outside actors such as the UN. As Israeli PM you have the option of missile strikes and tightening army checkpoints, while also having to deal with your own parliament and the ‘settler’ faction, but at least you have the US as a friend.
PeaceMaker is thus an ‘educational’ game, in that it provides a roughly accurate model of the political and security options on both sides of an actual conflict – as with Impact’s very interesting continuing series of web minigames based on current affairs, under the rubric ‘Play the news’. But perhaps the most potent aspect of PeaceMaker’s pedagogy is more abstract and potentially more widely fruitful. It’s the fact I began by mentioning: that sometimes, you cannot do what you want to do. Not because it’s a greyed-out menu items that is impossible to choose in the first place, but because, unlike in most videogames, there is an unpredictable disjunction between intention and effect. So you click to give the Palestinians some money to rebuild their infrastructure, and wait nervously as the calendar ticks over. They refuse to accept it. A thought-provoking kind of frustration ensues. The right thing to do is, somehow, not the right thing.
Such an unreliable sense of agency would be enormously annoying in most games, even though it is closer to real life. Indeed, one of the high-level pleasures of nearly all videogames is precisely that they provide a sense of perfectible agency, which is essential to inducing that exhilarating feeling of individual power with which videogames console us for the powerlessness of our daily existence. But the point that PeaceMaker drills into the player – importantly, not through text or video, but through the way it models interactive causality – is that even those people who ostensibly do have power, prime ministers and presidents, cannot control everything. They, too, can be at the mercy of events.
Creatively compromising the player’s agency is an underexploited tool of game design. To make an analogy with prose, it is as though videogames are written almost entirely in the active voice, with too little heed paid to the aesthetic effects available in the passive voice. Now, if you withhold agency from the player completely, what you get is a cutscene. Yet what PeaceMaker most reminded me of, curiously, was the stunning passage in Call Of Duty 4 where you struggle out of a downed helicopter to see a city devastated by a nuclear explosion. You don’t even have a weapon in your hand, and a mushroom cloud is towering in the sky. Your breathing becomes increasingly laboured. At length you fall over, and die. The game brilliantly underlines the enormity of the scenario precisely by putting you in command of an individual who is utterly powerless.
Sometimes, one man cannot change anything with a rifle and a bagful of grenades, just as sometimes, a political leader cannot accomplish his objectives with the levers available for him to pull. Both PeaceMaker and Call Of Duty 4 are subtly educational to this extent: they remind us that however big your hammer, sometimes you will come across something that is not a nail.
Steven Poole is the author of Trigger Happy: The Inner Life Of Videogames. Visit him online at stevenpoole.net.