Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Wargaming has a diversity problem: 98% white and male.
I propose there are two ways that people engage with wargames:
- To dominate, to win, to prove their mastery, to confirm what they already know.
- To experience a new perspective, to learn, to grow, to embrace the unknown.
Playing for domination leads to misogynist and toxic behaviour towards women and minorities. It leads to playing for indulgence rather than learning the meaningful lessons serious games can impart—which is bad for the outcomes of wargames, bad for the culture of wargaming, and bad for diversity and inclusion. Wargaming is literally meant to teach us to be better.
We need to stop pretending that arguing against diversity and inclusion is anything more than the masturbatory indulgence of straight white men.
Wargaming already has the tools to fix its diversity problem—it just doesn’t know it yet
There was a question from the floor at Connections UK 2019: who are we not reaching?
I keep thinking about the answers put forward. No-one in the two-hundred-strong, overwhelmingly white, male, Russell-Group-educated, able-bodied audience brought up diversity.
Maybe I should have stood up.
Consider me cowed by an apparent consensus against the idea at the time, and a career of being assumed subordinate when a man is in the room.
Allow me to say something now, about something else that happened at that Connections, and the shining heart of wargaming.
Aftershock is art
I don’t say that lightly.
I played it for the first time in the Tuesday games demonstration, facilitated by Rex Brynen, and it felt like stepping through the magical door in Mr Benn’s fancy dress shop. I laughed till I cried, shouted in frustration, felt utterly powerless, petitioned Rex for permission to operate a secret police hit squad to get the NGOs out of the press box. In short, I had a really enjoyable two hours. Rex’s cut-scenes, telling the stories behind the event cards, were definitely a highlight. I came away with an appreciation of the challenges of humanitarian relief, and profound respect for the way this game manipulates its players so deliciously.
Aftershock is a mostly-cooperative board game concerned with the humanitarian response to an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana, with inspiration drawn from real-world events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Play covers the first three months, from initial emergency to early recovery period. Players take on the roles of:
- Carana’s government;
- the UN;
- Multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force (HADR-TF);
They attempt, over the course of seven turns, to distribute resources across the five districts of Carana’s capital city to save as many lives as possible. Each district has a stack of at risk cards, stating the current needs for rescue personnel and medical, wash, food, and shelter resources. Resource-allocation to these cards is the aim of the game.
Sounds easy, right? You know how this sort of game works: there won’t be quite enough to go round, we’ll have to make strategic calls and sacrifice the few for the greater good, but ultimately we’ll make the best choices given the options available to us—as if everyone before us in the annals of humanitarian response didn’t also come to the table with the best of intentions.
What Aftershock does so cleverly is to disabuse you of this naivety straight away. There are no best choices.
The first lesson of Aftershock is that the real world is hard.
The team accrues enough resources to meet the needs of about one at risk card per turn—but the central mechanism of the game is that the players don’t get to decide when a district’s needs get resolved. Meaning resources sit around waiting in one district, while another is (surprise!) resolving this turn and you’ve not met its needs yet. A lot of people die early on in the game before you’ve had the chance to do anything about it. Just like in the real world, where thousands of people survive the initial disaster only to die in the following days from preventable complications of otherwise-survivable injuries.
Every turn brings another event card to keep the players stubbing their toes on reality, and with it the crushing realisation that everybody’s best intentions are sometimes the worst thing that could happen: celebrities come to be seen to do good, knocking out most of your already-stretched logistics capacity by parking their 737 on the runway for the day. The middle-classes buy up food, taking carefully-placed resources away from the other districts. Refugees from the slums pour into another district, unbalancing all your distribution efforts again. And all the while, the game is punishing you for your failures and only rewarding your success when the media is watching. It’s heart-breaking.
That’s the power of game design. Isn’t it magical? And humbling and thought-provoking and inspiring? That a game can present you with a mathematical certainty and moral dilemma and devastating insight into human nature in the same breath:
- Card A needs 2 cubes to resolve, we’ve got the resources required,
- Card B needs 4 cubes to resolve, we can’t do it this turn, let’s spend our resources elsewhere,
- A is the wealthy district, their needs are pretty small,
- B is the slums, they are desperately poor and dying of hunger and illness.
This is art.
“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
— Andrei TarkovskY
An interesting thing happened in the pub after the game
I was telling a handful of co-workers how wildly frustrated I felt as Premier of Carana, with all these organisations come into my country to help me—who proceeded to ignore almost everything I said as the elected representative of the population, and decided for me what was in the best interests of my country (which just so happened to be in the best interests of their token on the score track). There I was, conveying with much enthusiasm the immersive nature of the game and its humbling insights—and I hadn’t realised that also present at the table was one of the other players. His response? I was sore about losing.
Really?? Did we even play the same game??
How did I come away from that experience seeing all the frustrating failures of modern society, the way entire countries and strata of society are marginalised as a privileged few jockey for power—winning the game by maximising their media exposure, rather than maximising the health and stability of Carana—and thinking about my personal privilege as white and British in a world where that counts for much more than it should, and someone else can shrug and say I’m just banging on about it because my side didn’t win?
(I should add, we very nearly hit the victory condition of no winners at all because everyone else was scoring points at the expense of Carana, and there’s only a winner if Carana is in the positive at the end of the game—that’s how much the other players were screwing over my government for their own benefit.)
I feel like I learned a powerful moral lesson, and he learned…to move a counter on a score track. I feel like it was more important to him to Win The Game, to establish dominance, than engage with the content or the players. And you know, that’s an experience I have a lot as a woman in male-dominated spaces—as do other minorities: BAME, LGBT, and people with disabilities—to the point that I will often lie about my background or job to spare myself the BS. The experience goes like this:
Man, on hearing I am a rocket scientist, feels his status is threatened, and takes action to restore his lofty position by doing one or all of the following:
- Proving to me and anyone who will listen just how knowledgeable he is about rocket science. Hint: I’m not interested in a pissing contest about space trivia, or having my degree Explained To Me.
- Trying to justify the equal importance of his own specialist subject. Hint: I never said my degree was more awesome than yours. I studied what interested me; I assume you did the same? It’s kind of weird you acting like you need my approval!
- Shouting at me.
- Commenting about my sexuality behind my back in an effort to reduce my status in everyone else’s eyes. Hint: a reasonable number of people will call you out for this BS and then you’ll look stupid.
And you know the most ridiculous thing about it? He’s busy feeling threatened because he assumes my sole reason for existence is to get my dick out and assert dominance as unquestionably the smartest person in the room. Which makes me laugh so hard I could pee.
Not only because I have literally no interest in being the smartest person in the room, or in even measuring who is the smartest person in the room, but because most of my educational experience was being, unquestionably, the dumbest person in the room.
I’m dyslexic. I was nearly expelled from school for doing so badly at maths. You’re looking at the person who has to count-on when moving her piece in Monopoly, 1-2-3-4 for the first dice and then 1-2-3 for the second, because the challenge of translating dots into numbers, adding them together, and remembering that total while counting the squares is too much for me. (And people who just know where to land on the board without counting on each square? That’s straight-up witchcraft!) Rolling for DnD with actual dice makes me cry.
This is all a long way from Aftershock, though?
Not really, because I get this a lot at work. I go into a meeting thinking how can we collaborate on something great, he comes in thinking I need to be the smartest person in this room. I’m thinking about how we can use our different strengths to create something bigger than both of us. He’s thinking how can he get his dick out and swing it around enough to keep me small.
I end up having to defend my right to take up space in the conversation because it is more important to him to Win The Game, to establish dominance, than engage with the content or the players.
Which is not to say that playing a game to win is a bad thing. But let me bring it back to Aftershock by quoting Film Crit Hulk:
The one question
“Jonathan Gold was a Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer and probably the best critic of any medium in the entire world.
His work made a number of lasting impressions on me, but there’s one quote I think about all the damn time when it comes to the field of criticism. The moment actually comes from a deleted scene from City of Gold, the documentary about his life and influence on Los Angeles, and the offhand quote is this: “[In criticism,] the only question is why.”
As in, why this dish? Why this ingredient? Why this bowl? Why this colour? What do the answers to those questions all come together to do or say? And I’ve learned that if you have a good, strong answer for the “why,” then you probably have a good, strong, cohesive result.
At the same time, if you have a bad or short-sighted answer for the “why” that’s incongruous with your overall goal? Well, then you’re probably making a bad choice. And the crux really can be that simple.”
— Film Crit Hulk
What’s the overall goal of Aftershock? It’s not the deliciously manipulative victory conditions, it’s the lessons they impart. It’s not the point of humanitarian aid and disaster relief for the NGOs to be seen to do good at the expense of the country being helped. It’s not the point of the UN and HADR to be kind of racist colonialists, by rocking up as guests in a foreign country and abusing that invitation to impose their standards and priorities over and above the elected representatives. Unquestionably the goal of Aftershock is to disabuse you of any naivety you have about how all we need are good intentions and we can fix the third world, simples!
The CSF battlestaff ran through #Aftershock, a Humanitarian Crisis Game where agencies work to tackle chaotic events that follow a natural disaster.
A good planning tool, relevant and helpful for our role ready respond to Hurricanes in the #Caribbean. pic.twitter.com/zrYhDczFGf
— RFA Argus (@RFAArgus) November 3, 2020
So what does it say if your takeaway is still but look how well I did at gaming the system for personal glory? It says you’re probably making a bad choice—and one that speaks to how we can have games like Aftershock, with its stunning ability to make you take a perspective other than your own, and still operate in a wargaming culture where nobody thinks that an overwhelmingly white, male, Russell-Group-educated, able-bodied audience is failing to reach people.
It’s the difference between playing for the experience of a new perspective, and playing for the indulgence of winning and domination.
Some people play games to feel powerful.
Others play to experience diversity.
Now you can argue that of course I would say this—dyslexia makes me suck at winning, so I’m bound to be enthusiastically behind other ways of enjoying a game.
And it’s true that I can look at a Risk or Game of Thrones board and have pretty much no concept of who has the numerical advantage in a given fight, so count on me to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with a bad decision.
And it’s true that the dominant experience of dyslexia is being at odds with the world: sit down and shut up, you’re wrong. My earliest memories of school are being aware everyone else around me gets something I don’t—an instruction, a concept, the meaning of those shapes on the page. Right from the start I was watching and listening, learning to pass myself off as like the rest of them. Questioning my default position because there was a good chance everyone else knew something I didn’t.
And I say: how is this not a good thing? Isn’t this what we use serious gaming for? To teach judgement, critical thinking, perspective-taking. To learn something new. To make the world a better place through our subsequent actions—in small terms by being better at a specific role, and in grander terms by being better human beings.
Isn’t that exactly what the Chilcot Report found wanting in our “propensity for ‘groupthink’ – when a group of people conform in their thinking to the extent that their decision-making has an irrational or dysfunctional outcome – reflecting insufficient challenge and a lack of diversity of thought” ?
There’s a guy I work with. He’s very smart.
The joke is he’s always right; even when he’s wrong, he’s right.
And this is what diversity brings to the table:
This guy had never been less than the smartest person in his class, had never got less than an A, had never failed at anything. He’d never faced a situation where he didn’t have all the answers. He’d never been asked to do the impossible. And when given a wildly stressful wargaming deadline, it all fell apart. He didn’t have the answer so it couldn’t be done. He couldn’t see the solution, so it wouldn’t work. Even though he was wrong, he was so convinced he was right that he became the roadblock, not the task before us.
It took someone who’d experienced the impossibility of university without reasonable adjustments to stand up and say, “You know what? We might fail. But if we do nothing we certainly won’t succeed. Let’s see how far we can get.”
Diversity is good because it’s the anti-even when I’m wrong, I’m right.
Diversity is what gives us a perspective we haven’t considered before—and as a culture of red-teamers, shouldn’t we be seeking out that different perspective in everything we do?
Here is another simple question to consider:
““Am I making art? Or am I making pornography?”
This may sound extreme, but Hulk is talking about the great spectrum of media experience. On one end there is pure art, which represents the values of giving people the ideas they need to confront inalienable truths. On the other end is pornography, which represents the individual’s indulgence of strictly base needs, regardless of import.”
— Film Crit Hulk
Some people play games to feel powerful. Others play to embrace what they don’t know. To learn. And that’s beautiful.
Aftershock is art.
Sally Davis is a professional wargamer and co-author of the Derby House Principles for diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.