(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, check out the articles below:
So I called Michael C up and told him I wanted to write a post comparing video games about conventional war to video games about counter-insurgencies.
“Wait,” he asked me, “There are video games about counter-insurgencies?”
Since I started writing this blog with Michael C--who was a pop-centric COIN evangelist wayyyyyy before I ever started thinking about military theory or national security--I’ve taken a minor crash course in military theory. Since I’m a pacifist, I’ve naturally taken to (population-centric) counter-insurgency. (If a nation has to go to war--which is basically never--I’d rather they did it by rebuilding infrastructure and giving aid to locals, than, say, indiscriminately killing them.)
But if we’re being intellectually honest, if we really step back and look at population-centric counterinsurgency, we can admit to ourselves that both soldiers and the public hate it. Soldiers hate counter-insurgency. Hobbyist military nuts loathe it. The public--including liberal commentators--think it’s a waste of money. The military cannot run back fast enough to training for conventional war.
And I know why: counter-insurgency is boring.
It involves a lot of studying, and building, and creating alliances. Instead of moving units around on a map, you have to win over local populations and gather data. (Data isn’t cool.) Real war is much more straightforward. Bad guy is over there. Shoot and kill him. (Or the slightly more complicated formula of find the enemy--who might be hiding--then go kill him.) On the larger scale, enemy forces are over there. Shoot and kill them. (Meanwhile, pretend that nuclear weapons don’t obviate the role for ground forces.)
Just as the military prefers conventional war, gamers prefer conventional war video games. I could name off a dozen first-person shooters--Medal of Honor, Halo, Battlefield--that depict traditional warfare, particularly fighting in the street. Or you could look at strategy games--Starcraft or Command and Conquer--that again depict traditional warfare. Move units here. Fight enemy there.
(Counter argument: some of those games take place in insurgencies. Maybe, but do they look like any insurgencies you’ve seen recently? The games that supposedly depict insurgencies--Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Full Spectrum Warrior, Command and Conquer: Generals--don’t capture macro-level COIN, merely glossing a traditional first person shooter with the sheen of COIN. They use them as a setting. Check out this great article by Robert Rath for The Escapist for more.)
As I opened this post, I couldn’t name a single counter-insurgency video game. So I did some research and found one. Called Urban Sim, as the Atlantic describes it it’s basically “SimCity Baghdad”. To the nerd in me, this game sounds entertaining as hell. And it embodies, as I see it, the problems with making a video game on counter-insurgency.
First, this was the only counter-insurgency video game I could find. As far as I know, there are no mainstream irregular warfare strategy games. Mainstream video game publishers like EA aren’t making them. Even if some publisher did make a game I didn’t hear about, it isn’t popular, especially on the multi-million dollar opening weekend level like every other first person shooter I mentioned above.
Second, a COIN video game would divide the military. Who determines what defeats an insurgency? Any decision a developer makes will divide both COINdinistas and COINtras. FM-3-24-types would want the game to reward development; kill-centric advocates would want fear to change the most minds. For this reason, the larger military world, divided on this issue, would never embrace the game.
Finally, one large, looming problem remains: security. As Michael C and I try to mention in every COIN post, population-centric COIN is about building a stable government and enforcing security. Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other. Herein lies the problem: I guarantee that the security portion of any COIN video game would wildly out-entertain the counter-insurgencing part, in terms of enjoyment and sheer aesthetic gaming pleasure.
How do I know? Because I played The Oregon Trail. In The Oregon Trail, you control a small family headed out west in a covered wagon, navigating rivers, disease and starvation. It’s a sim game. You make choices every day about how hard to run your oxen, how much to feed your family. In all, very educational.
Except I didn’t play The Oregon Trail to ford rivers. I played The Oregon Trail to shoot bison...and rabbits and deer. (And bears in the later levels.) I went hunting. Every little boy did. Yeah, I couldn’t carry all that bison meat back to my wagon, but I shot them anyway and went out hunting again.
So what section of the COIN video game do you think soldiers will keep replaying?
All three points add up to the same thing: COIN is hard, complicated and confusing. It’s all fog of war, as much diplomacy as strategy. Hell, it requires studying as much as shooting. (Take the old On V recommendation: learn the local language. Outside of Northern Europeans, most people don’t like learning new languages because it’s hard.)
In other words, COIN is boring.