« Exhibit A.1 Where Are… | Home | The New On Violence B… »

COIN is Boring or: The Real Reason Kids Liked the Oregon Trail

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, check out the articles below:

- Ice Road Truckers, Afghanistan: Coin is Boring Pt. 2

- Capturing Australia! COIN is Boring Pt. 3

- Full Metal Boring: COIN is Boring Pt. 4

- Actually, COIN isn't Boring Part 5: What COIN Media DOES Work)

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.

ten comments

This is why the military ought to partner with churches and missionaries for pop-centric COIN. Churches are based on the concept of winning hearts and minds and it’s typically the main passion for the people that work as clergy. Missionaries are sent out from the church with the purpose of winning hearts and minds in other countries through building projects, preaching, teaching etc. I grew up as a missionary kid in New Guinea for 15 years and reaching the heart and minds of locals was what our organization was created for. The one thing we did very poorly was security. Our missionary compound was repeatedly raided by bandits and criminals and our goods stolen, our women raped, and our men beaten or hacked with machetes. If one were to combine the purpose of missionaries to reach people’s hearts and minds and the military’s ability to keep wolves at bay—you could potentially come up with a winning strategy for just about any pop-centric COIN. But, to say the chances of combining the two is laughable would be an understatement. It makes for a great theory, but that’s about it.

Just to clarify, I really don’t think the military should partner with churches. It’s the concept and mentality of reaching hearts and minds that churches have that should be adopted for COIN.

Definitely the most interesting theory I have read on this blog.

Here’s a thought – given that COIN is typically a very long, drawn out affair that is decided at the political and strategic levels, there aren’t many ways to properly train for it, especially at the tactical level. But if it’s something you insist on getting involved in (and since you are on the topic of games), then perhaps an approach would be an force-wide open-ended mostly-text/map-based computer game. Every day commanders would sit at their desk-top computers for a few minutes and take a couple of actions – a meeting here, a patrol there, raid this, fix that etc. There wouldn’t be an end date because unlike other exercises the point wouldn’t be to ‘win,’ but rather to show cause and effect, and to show commanders different perspectives of the campaign as they progress through their careers and fill different positions. It won’t please everybody, but then SimCity doesn’t please every urban planner (especially if they dislike Jane Jacobs’ theories). But it would serve to educate leaders, while freeing up training time for more generic skills.

ALW-actually I am pretty sure that the phrase “hearts and minds” comes directly from Church teachings. It just became popularized under Templer and then metastasized in the following decades to include the “witty” phrase of the VN era, “if you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Ah, as usual, I have nothing to contribute to the discussion… BUT, I feel I must delurk, just to post this, since I couldn’t bear NOT to bring such an on-point game parody to the table :



Kevin, that’s a classic.

Chris-You’re right. And that’s kind of the backbone of my theory. Grabbing someone by the balls doesn’t truly classify as “winning” their heart and mind, in my opinion. It works great for individuals who feel the need to get what they want through fear, intimidation, and destruction of human life. But, when it comes to the general population who want nothing more than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness you have to actually build a relationship before you can win the heart and mind. The person you are building a relationship with has to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you are there to help them build a better life and not use them for some other personal gain. Many missionaries are actually trained to do this and it works. They understand that relationships are the doorway to every aspect of society and you can’t always kick it down. Our soldiers are not trained to build relationships, so asking them to go against what they are trained to do is akin to asking a square peg to fit into a round hole. And, being soldiers, they’re likely going to try it with as much force as possible because that’s what they know.

Thanks for this post. Yes, Urbansim is about the only video game that covers the important points of counterinsurgency, and it was not intended for civilian use. Evaluation and criticism of it can be found here: http://paxsims.wordpress.com/?s=urbansim (recommend this blog).

I am a civilian wargame designer and have designed numbers of games about counterinsurgency, from the Tupamaros of Uruguay to several on Afghanistan (check URL for ludography). I know full well the scant regard most of hobbyists hold for this topic, but I still think it’s important to design in this area to spread knowledge and interest in contemporary issues.

COIN is perhaps a bit better portrayed in board game format because of the abstraction possible by the variable time and number of actions possible during a turn, and also perhaps by players’ understanding that a manual game is a more sedate experieince – the pieces they use to play do not wiggle, roar or shoot things on their own.

This can be addressed by the time-compression option found in some computer games, or the idea of playing a turn within a turn. Your post also reminded me of a computer game on non-violent change called “A Force More Powerful”, now called “People Power” : the criticism of this game is that again, it is slow and boring because it is true to the slow pace of civilian resistance, but you can speed up the passage of time in the game somewhat.

I apologize if I have covered things you have already discussed in your blog; I just discovered it and will take some time to read it. Thank you!

It’s not worth putting too much thought into what a COIN-oriented first person shooter (FPS) might look like. Given the medium, it’s likely to fail, just as they fail at depicting conventional warfare. There’s no combined arms doctrine, no command and control, no operational strategy…Nothing but people shooting at each other. At best, a game like Ghost Recon might rise to the level of squad-level tactics, but the squads could appear in practically any war, from Vietnam to World War II. In fact, there are games on those particular topics, and other than equipment and terrain, there’s little to distinguish among them.

If you want to simulate COIN in a video game, you need to look at other genres, like turn-based strategy and real-time strategy. They might not give you the same adrenalin jolt as Call Of Duty, but it’s not an exclusive choice between excitement and boredom. There’s something in-between: suspense.

Gamers already are willing to play mass-market games like Civilization, and niche games like Europa Universalis, that take dozens of hours to complete. There’s some excitement in the short-term decisions, such as fighting battles or spying on your rivals. What keeps people playing, however, is the question, “What happens next?” Fretting over whether you can mobilize your nation before Montezuma invades your territory is the kind of suspense that keeps players coming back for more. That kind of suspense is certainly possible in COIN.