Thursday, February 4, 2010

War Game Theory

by C.T. Hutt

Recently, I’ve been playing an open world game where the main character is a member of a secret organization outlawed by the puppet government which is propped up by an occupying foreign power. As a member of this organization, you are dispatched on a variety of missions to destroy this occupying power using any means necessary, with an almost total disregard for civilian casualties and property damage. Your methods include car bombs, assassinations, and hiding amidst the general populace to avoid detection. Interestingly, this game is not the latest recruiting effort from the Al-Qaeda R&D department, but rather an open world shoot ‘em up based on the French resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris. The game is called The Saboteur and it was produced by the now defunct Pandemic Studios.

Before I’m hauled out of my house and beaten to death for the comparisons I just made, let me say that the French resistance was a heroic endeavor undertaken during impossible times by some of the truest patriots in France’s history, I have nothing but respect for the men and women of the United States armed forces, and Al Qaeda are a collection of fanatics who have chosen violence of the most depraved and indifferent sort. The Saboteur is played from the perspective of a character who utilizes terrorism to achieve his goals, and as such I believe that it is a highly relevant piece of work given the contemporary “war on terror.”

Your character in The Saboteur is named Sean Devlin, a stereotypical Irish rogue based on an actual WWII English operative, William Grover-Williams. Whatever else this game may be, I have to give the developers credit for publishing a historical piece loosely based on a real person; we don’t see nearly enough of that. Visually, the game is quite striking: sections of Paris which have yet to be liberated are black and white, with the exception of the burning red surrounding every swastika and propaganda poster. The game play is adequate, the controls are intuitive, and the game flows from combat to sneaking to driving with few seams. There are a few impressive action set pieces in The Saboteur, and more than enough free-running mayhem to keep any open world fan busy for hours. With the exception of a few glitches, The Saboteur is a solid, if unremarkable, gaming experience.

What struck me about The Saboteur was not the game itself, but the perspective from which it is played. Sean Devlin is a video game cliché, his motivation is revenge, and he’s tough but rather charming, in a mass murdering kind of way. It’s not who he is, but what he is that sparked my interest. Sean Devlin is an insurgent, a man who uses violence and naked aggression to harass his enemies and win over the general populace. What’s more, despite the horrors of everyday life in occupied France, Sean has a grand old time doing what he does best: blowing up Nazis. Every time a player bombs one of the hundreds of viable targets in the game, Sean chuckles and mutters some ridiculous catch phrase in an over-the-top Irish accent. The Resistance is really just an excuse for Sean, a chance to let his inner demons loose. The fact that he is fighting for a good cause is purely incidental. Terrorism is an inherently immoral and unethical activity, and just because Sean Devlin is on the right side of a conflict doesn’t make him a hero. On the contrary, if he were a real person we would label him a megalomaniacal butcher, not a hero.

Since the September eleventh attacks on the United States, I have struggled to understand why a group of people would be willing to dedicate themselves to terror and destruction without a tenable long term strategy or goal. And through this title and a little research into the matter, the answer became clear.

It is widely and incorrectly assumed that religious and political terrorists carry out their attacks because they are working toward some kind of broad social change. Hamas fighters who launch rockets at people’s homes from the Gaza strip claim that they are doing so for Palestinian independence. Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Murrah Federal building in 1995 claimed he did so in retaliation for the U.S. Government’s handling of the Waco Siege two years earlier. The terrorists who brought down the world trade center reportedly did so because of a disagreement over U.S. foreign policy towards Israel and a general disapproval of our way of life. Whether each particular brand of justification leaned toward religion or politics, all are equally fallacious. I will grant that terrorism has often been a bi-product of social movements, such as the French resistance or even the American Revolutionary war, but it has never been the central goal of those movements. The employment of terrorist methods to further a given goal is neither effective in the long term nor ethically sound. No matter how many rockets are fired, Israel will not be packing up and moving to Europe. No matter how many buildings are destroyed, the federal government will remain the federal government. And finally, no matter how many of our planes are destroyed, Americans will keep on eating cheeseburgers. In short, terrorism alone is not an effective means of achieving anything beyond the spread of chaos and fear.

Why then do Al-Qaeda and similar organizations carry out these terrible actions? I believe that they do so because their supposed causes are merely a means to an end; terrorism itself is their very raison d'etre. Like Sean Devlin in The Saboteur, terrorists commit terrorism because to them it is a game. Unlike Sean Devlin, they have not attached their proclivities toward violence to a feasible or genuine social movement. Because they are unbound by any drive to achieve a productive end, but rather to simply perpetuate the game, they feel justified in every action they take because within the confines of their perceptions, it’s fair play, and what’s more, it’s good sport. To them, pulling off a particularly devastating attack under the nose of our modern security is a great triumph. It doesn’t matter if no positive change occurs as a result of their actions because they have already taken everything they wanted from the event. As time goes by, the game changes, maybe it gets harder, but because there are no real long term objectives for them, it will never stop. It’s a frightening concept to consider in its entirety.

Our national response to international terror has been to try to beat terrorists at their own game. Sadly, by engaging them in an endless conflict with no specific goals, we haven’t lessened the appeal of terrorism; we’ve simply upped the difficulty and provided them with additional excuses to perpetuate the contest. We can’t kill them into seeing our side of things anymore than they can kill us out of our way of life, but we both keep trying. I think we would have greater success if we were to concentrate on removing the conditions necessary for the other side to play the game. For example, if Al-Qaeda were unable to recruit more young people to its cause, it would be incapable of perpetuating itself. If the victims of suicide bombings were to receive more media attention than the bombers themselves, public sentiment could turn against the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. If a generation of young people were to receive contemporary levels of education and access to other points of view, it could help to reduce the viability of terrorism as an option for solving their problems. It’s the digital age; our greatest weapon is our enhanced ability to communicate and disseminate information, but for some reason we have not been employing it effectively in the war on terror, and I can only guess as to why.

I believe that The Saboteur was created primarily as entertainment rather than social commentary. Furthermore, it is a work of fiction; no one gets hurt by playing it and it doesn’t teach children how to become insurgents or any other such nonsense. That being said, I think that Pandemic Studios made a bold choice in releasing this title during a period in our history during which some of the greatest military, political, and judiciary minds in our society are struggling to find the lines between terrorists, enemy combatants, and freedom fighters. All operate in very similar ways, but without truly understanding why our enemies do what they do it may be impossible to bring the “war on terror” to an end. In any case, The Saboteur provides an interesting perspective on the subject and an enjoyable gameplay experience. I think it is worthy to note that without restraint, purpose, and critical thought, war becomes an endless game where people like Sean Devlin may have a chance to shine, but where most of the population and civilization as a whole can only lose.


  1. Brillent, absolutely brillient. This is why I love to read critisim.

    I do have a few points. You bring up an adequte difference between Al-Qaeda and the French Resistance, but you left out the most important point. One that complicates things when you talk about other parts of the "war on terror." The French Resistance were defending their home from an invading power. Al-Qaeda is not doing this and cannot do this, because it has no home. It is an international organization and runs a very different game that you brought up. But then Al-Qaeda is different from the insurgencies found in Iraq. The different groups in Iraq hate Al-Qaida, but also want the US out. It is a tricky situation. I agree that terror is mean and end in and of itself, but the French Resistance and Iraqi insurgencies are comparable on princapal and purpose if nothing else, because there is an end goal: get the occupier out.

    Of course all terrorism is about power of some kind. Whether it's McVeigh's power to destory people or Osama's power of commanding a cult of terror. This type of atmosphere is where the crazies and the desperate come out of the woodwork. It sounds like Devlin fits the latter category. I'm not sure how much of a game they think it is rather than just wanting to "watch the world burn." But I like the analogy, especially given the mediuem it was portrayed in.

  2. I think it's a fantastic comparison to link the Saboteur to the public's current perceptions of terrorism. It really gives a sense as to what goes on "on the other side."

    In terms of terrorism being a means to an end, and it being the terrorists raison d'etre, I think this applies only in some circumstances. In my opinion this best fits the masterminds of these terrorist outfits. These are the folks that are very clever, both to organize these terrorist efforts but keep themselves removed from the actual, physical act. These guys are too intelligent to buy into a lot of the religious propaganda that can turn an otherwise rational man into someone who blows up a bus. The leaders of these groups certainly do see terrorism as a sort of game, I agree.

    But for the others, I think something needs to be said for experiencing the desperation of being trapped in a system you completely disagree with. The French were trapped in a Nazi system, and turned to terrorism. Who's to say that these other folks, even with the knowledge that they may never topple the federal government, or prevent America from eating cheeseburgers, are not lashing out because they have no other options?

    Likewise, from what I've read on terrorist recruitment methods and creating a suicide bomber, there is a payoff that goes beyond subverting an unjust or immoral system; life is going to be much, much better in heaven (for example) than it would be on earth, so why not try and make a ripple in the world you feel helpless in and then move on?

    In short, I think there's a lot more justification and less pure enjoyment of the act, especially by the folks that commit the actual acts.

  3. There was another 2009 title that dealt directly with revenge-motivated terrorism: Red Faction: Guerrilla. It, too, featured an insurgent protagonist. Furthermore, the game was built from the ground up to highlight its destruction. If you don't enjoy hitting a structure's weak points to bring it down, you won't enjoy Guerrilla.

    What gave me chills, however, was a mission that involved torturing an enemy officer for intermission. You don't actually control the sequence - you're driving a vehicle in which it occurs (unseen) - but the protagonist is still complicit.

    I find it fascinating that the game managed to include both sides of our "war on terror": the question of American torture practices and the insurgent warfare of Al-Qaeda.

  4. Yeah, if I hadn't seen the picture, I'd have thought you were talking about Red Faction: Guerrilla. Here's my guess as to why neither really had much of an emotional reaction - in both, you're an anglo-saxon male killing anglo-saxon males. I'm pretty sure the reaction would have been very different if other racial characteristics had been used instead.

    I also don't agree that terrorists see terrorism as an end in itself. Almost by definition they're marginalised and at some level there has to be a subconscious awareness of the immediate futility of their actions, but it takes a lot for someone to actively risk their life and possibly kill themselves for an action. Religion helps, but I just can't believe someone would kill themself and others without having a very strong philosophical motivation (even if it's simply hatred).

    What I find even more interesting, generally speaking, is gaming's obsession with clinically representative psychopaths. None of the characters we play exhibit any sense of remorse even as they slaughter hundreds of people. We rationalise this because they're "the bad guys", but our avatar doesn't even react. Typically, we don't even think about it. Drake's a nice guy, isn't he? Even as he merrily murders everyone?

    How messed up is that?

  5. Dear Commenters,

    Thank you for your well thought out and insightful responses to my post. It was by no means a bulletproof article and all of you raised some interesting points and counterpoints to my arguments. To see such well considered repartee in a comment section of a blog on video games and the arts is very encouraging.

  6. I guess I don't really share your critique of terrorism or the "war on terror". Terrorism is the intentional targetting of civilians. Is that what you're doing in "The Saboteur"? Are you really planting bombs in marketplaces where random civilians will be killed? That's what terrorism is. If the saboteur is planting bombs to kill enemy soldiers without any regard for civilians, that's not actually terrorism. I'm actually surprised how often people will misunderstand what terrorism is. Typically, they pair a misunderstanding of "terrorism" with a condemnation of the United States.

    I also think you misunderstand the motivations of terrorism when you say that causing terror is somehow the goal of terrorists. There's a wide variety of influences leading people towards committing terrorism. I think it's because they lack a strong objective in their life (committing yourself to a goal gives you a purpose that is "larger than yourself", can be intoxicating), they perceive an injustice in the world (which is typically hugely exaggerated), they blame and demonize one group of people (Jews, infidels) for the state of "their group or people" ("Arabs" or "Muslims"). They often have a sense of pride and superiority over other people who aren't within their own group. For example, when Saudi Arabia invited the United States to intervene in 1990 to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, Osama Bin Laden was absolutely furious. To him, it signaled that Muslims were not able to take care of their own problems (Osama Bin Laden wanted to get Jihadis together to kick Saddam out of Kuwait). It also meant that American troops were in Saudi Arabia - according to Muslims, the most holy nation on earth - defiled by infidel Americans.

    I think you've projected too much of your experience with "The Saboteur" onto modern events.

  7. Dear Brit,
    In the initial days of the Iraq war our military carried out a “shock and awe” campaign in order to cow the Iraqi military into submission before our invasion. Part of the benefit of those strikes was the destruction of military infrastructure, but their main benefit was their psychological effect on the opposing force (i.e. the creation of fear).

    The roadside bomber who destroys a military truck carrying laundry from one base to another does not do so for the express purpose of murdering a truck driver and burning some shirts, he does so to create a negative psychological effect in military forces (once again, the creation of fear).

    The Oxford English dictionary defines terrorism “a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims” just as you and many others have said. What I was attempting to do with my article is challenge that definition as I don’t believe that it is adequate to describe modern terrorists. I believe a more apt definition would be “a person who specializes in the creation of fear”. In modern times such a person employs a variety of tactics such as sending suicide bombers or planting explosives in a civilian area. I don’t believe that the main character in the Saboteur was a terrorist, but he certainly employed terrorist methods to accomplish his task, so the lines get very blurry. I talked about this at some length in my article.

    I don’t believe, as you suggest, that I misunderstand the current definition of the word “terrorist”. However, I find that definition to be lacking in its ability to describe the type of person who orchestrates such attacks. As such, I presented a case (not perfect case as some have pointed out, but a case) for a more constructive and definitive definition of the word. I applied some critical thinking to established norm, and that thinking came to me while playing the afore mentioned game. A video game stimulated some thoughts, and I shared those thoughts as best as I was able. That’s what our blog is about.

    Definitions of such hot button words are source of debate at the highest levels of intellectual and political discourse; I don’t believe I am out of place because I offered my two cents.

  8. Sorry, I have to disagree with you. The "creation of fear" is insufficient to label someone a terrorist. If that were true, then every school kid holding a spider in his hand to terrify the girls on the playground is a "terrorist". I also disagree with the use of the word "terrorism" in relation to attacks on soldiers. If a person drives an explosive truck into a soldiers' barracks and blows it up (as in Beirut), that's *not* terrorism. If he drives it into a civilian building to kill innocent civilians, that *is* terrorism. The attempt to create fear in a group of soldiers is not terrorism. In fact, if you use that definition, then all war is terrorism, since all competent commanders want to demoralize enemy troops by making them believe that they can't win; that they will die in their fight.

  9. Dear Brit,
    If you’ll please read carefully I think that you will see that the definition I offered explicitly said “a person who specializes in the creation of fear”. I would no more call a child with a spider a specialist in creating fear than I would call him or her an architect because they made a tower out of blocks. Selective reading and quoting information out of context is an inherently fallacious way to argue.
    By utilizing Oxford’s definition of terrorist (i.e. “a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”) one can assert that the individuals who carried out the barracks bombing in Beirut where terrorists. I agree with you that such a generalized definition is flawed because it fails to disseminate between the actions of the individuals just described and the actions of every military commander in history who, as you said, all have had an interest in demoralizing their enemies.
    I reject your assertion that we can rely on interpretations of a given target’s innocence to determine whether or not an attacker is a terrorist. Innocence is a purely relative concept and therefore an unreliable marker for creating a definition. Instead, I think it would be more substantive to examine an attacker’s intent just as we do for murderers in our legal system. By my proposed definition a terrorist is a person who commits an act of terror, be it violence or intimidation, for the principle benefit of carrying out the act itself and the secondary benefit of the psychological impact it has. A freedom fighter, solider, or insurgent may carry out the same act, but do so for the purpose of achieving a certain goal, be it political, spiritual, or whatever.


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