Addressing Conflicts from Multiple Angles

March 21, 2008

In all the games that I can think of that are about human conflicts – Carry, Grey Ranks, Steal Away Jordan, Bliss Stage, Night Witches, Sign in Stranger – none of them, with the notable exceptions of Shock and Cold City, are set up to allow you to look at a conflict from multiple competing perspectives, representing different sides of the conflict and understanding better how such a painful knot of opposing interests came into being and sustains itself. Even in Shock and Cold City, that element is not quite as strong as I would like.

Shock is terrific at running games where you play members of competing interests who may not even be directly aware of each other, but that’s not what the game necessarily encourages you to do. Plus, the stated goal of using the game to tell science fiction stories is unfortunately limiting, since Shock, as a system, is terrific for handling all sorts of historical and contemporary settings. But I worry a bit about the potential for the praxis scales to oversimplify complex situations, especially when I think about using Shock to address the Angolan Civil War or the current unrest in Tibet.

Likewise, the setup of Cold City, where you play members of a multinational task force tasked with hunting down Nazi monsters, is a bit too unrealistic to allow for a really intense examination of Cold War issues, in most cases. Additionally, the system doesn’t really have the right emphasis for the kind of educational, explorative play I have in mind. The trust mechanics, adapted from The Mountain Witch, simplify something that I think would be better left to the “fruitful void.” The split between personal and factional goals, though, might be something worth borrowing, to make characters both exemplify their faction, but also be real human beings underneath.

Emily’s A Day in the War, an adaptation of Eero’s Zombies at the Door intended to educate people about post-invasion Iraq, is the closest thing I’ve yet seen to a game that is set up to illustrate how different groups of people with competing interests create or perpetuate humanitarian disasters. Characters are explicitly drawn from multiple competing factions and are not quantified in any way, aside from a general description that doesn’t even need to be written down, necessarily. They are only measured by how far they are to achieving their goal and, in the JiffyCon playtest, these were always personal goals, but influenced by the larger goals of your faction. Additionally, there was an independent marker measuring the general level of chaos and conflict in which the characters operated.

There are a few things about the game that could be adjusted, though it really depends on what the overall purposes is.

Currently, the level of chaos only goes up, not down. While this is good for showing how terrible things can be, it’s not necessarily reflective of how conflicts actually work. Sometimes, the peaceful times between stages of violence can feed the cycle, because people return to their lives or gather resources only to have both stripped away when the violence returns. Also, it seems like people aren’t always unable to achieve their goals because of the level of chaos and violence around them. Sometimes, the situation could be relatively okay, but the competing interests of those around you and one’s own bad luck could prevent success from being achieved. So perhaps this could change a bit?

Conflicts are also a zero-sum gain. If a character wants to get closer to their goal, they have to push another character further away from that character’s goal. I really like many things that this mechanic indicates: that competing goals often mean someone loses out or at least appears to lose out, even if that’s not what anyone intends. And this is really great if we’re mainly interested in educating people about conflicts and not many any statements about, for example, how people can take productive action to make conflicts not zero-sum for the parties involved. That might be the best approach to take, honestly, since suggesting, for instance, that the Israelis and Palestinians can easily solve their conflict by compromising and working together is more than a little presumptuous. Better, I think, to leave potential solutions to post-game conversations than suggest them through the mechanics of the game. So I’ll probably push for this to stay the same.

One Response to “Addressing Conflicts from Multiple Angles”

  1. Paul Tevis Says:

    Why does this make me yearn for Syriana: The RPG?


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