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Taking a Look at A Force More Powerful

December 1, 2005
 

On display in the Breakaway Games suite at the recent Serious Games Summit in Washington, D.C., A Force More Powerful was arguably one of the most intriguing products at the show. It was conceived and executed by a group that includes the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), documentary filmmakers York-Zimmerman and Breakaway Games, Ltd.


Breakaway Games' A Force More Powerful

Inspired by the York-Zimmerman documentary of the same name, which was aired on PBS in 2000 and narrated by Ben Kingsley, the game is a turn-based strategy game that currently consists of ten pre-built scenarios and an editing system that will allow players to create scenarios of their own.

Behind the game is a wealth of real-world and theoretical experience on the subject of nonviolent conflict, including Dr. Peter Ackerman, chairman of the ICNC and Ivan Marovic of Otpor, the Serbian resistance movement that played a critical role in the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic. The project supervisor is Steve York, who created the original documentary.

This is neither a review nor a complete look at the product, but a first impression, and, as such, I will not attempt to provide every detail of the game, but suffice it to say, I think this game looks intriguing and… yes… fun to play. Fun in the sense that it provides real gaming challenges while dealing with difficult and even more challenging real-world situations.

One of the first impressions I got was the graphic style of the game. Although there is an overview map that is done in a slick, modern SimCity sort of graphic, most of the game is played using what look like crude notebooks and whiteboards with handwriting, color highlighting and various methods of marking items such as circling in red or checkmarks. It looks something like a digital reproduction of a collection of handwritten notes. And at first glance, it looks like a prototype mockup.

But that is only the first impression. Very quickly, with a bit of orientation into the game's reality, it becomes clear that this is really far closer to what people in a (generally) under-funded underground political movement would be using to plan their activities. In short, it was a far more realistic environment than a bunch of slick printouts, windows dialogs and other more computer-like displays would have been. In fact, it supported the game's immersion beautifully and appeared to be highly functional, as well.

Of course, the interfaces do things that we can't do with paper – such as scrolling lists within the page or overlaying different data set information at the touch of a button. Yes, these are somewhat magical notebooks and whiteboards, but they still convey the atmosphere of the world of the underground movement.

As for actual gameplay – the game includes information about specific individuals – leaders of the movement and other important figures – and each significant faction. For individuals, there are a number of associated characteristics, such as the “violence unwillingness”, public influence, ambition, and will. For factions, there is information about their support of the various important elements of the struggle – for instance, do they have strong, weak or neutral support for the current regime? For the workers? For insurgency? Etc.

The game uses a consistent color-coding system, with green representing a positive value, yellow neutral and red, negative. It's easy to see at a glance, throughout the game, the relative positions and/or strengths and weaknesses of specific groups and individuals. Basic states, such as fear, enthusiasm, religious and ethnic affiliations, and policy preferences are pivotal variables for determining and predicting how certain groups and individuals may respond at any given moment in the game. Sometimes the goal is to raise a group's enthusiasm for change higher than their level of fear of reprisals. Of course, there is a variety of actions available to accomplish this goal. In fact, many of the strategies available to players were distilled from one of the seminal works on nonviolence, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by Dr. Gene Sharp (http://www.peace.ca/genesharp.htm). From a list of 198 possible actions, the game developers condensed the list to 84.

So how do you get things done to further your cause? Basically, AFMP employs a system that can be described as “subject-verb-object.” The way it works is that you first pick someone from your list of available agents, then pick an action for them to carry out, and finally pick a target for the action. A common example is to pick someone who has good fundraising skills or good relationships with a specific group, for instance, then pick the “fundraising” action and, finally, pick the group you want them to target for raising funds. You can set a time period for the action – say two weeks – and the game will track this and all other ongoing actions. On a specific screen of the “magic” whiteboard, you can track the progress of all ongoing actions.

This is a very simplistic view of how the game works, but because of the variety of variables, agents and other scripted factors – such as cultural attitudes among factions – contained within any given scenario, I suspect playing it will lead to all kinds of emergent behaviors, and players may adopt a variety of strategies for playing – some more successful than others.

Violence is never a direct option for people within the movement (players), but violence can erupt, especially if the agents who are sent into an action have not had sufficient nonviolent training, or if they are simply more predisposed toward violence. For this reason, one of the player's challenges is to pick the right agents and the right groups to employ within a given circumstances. For instance, insurgency groups may prove to be useful, but they can't be controlled as well and may resort to violence if met with significant resistance.

The game is rich in features and feedback mechanisms, and even contains real-time rendered cut scenes that show events that take place using parameters from the game state. The city map view identifies specific areas of the city, and overlays can quickly tell you their current state of fear, enthusiasm, etc. In addition, key locations are highlighted on the city map, allowing players to direct actions to those locations – such as government buildings, newspaper offices, etc. To thicken the plot even more, players can send infiltrators into the enemy system, but the enemy can do likewise.

In addition, there is the Resistopedia (with a tip of the hat to Civilization), which players can use to learn more about the elements and concepts that are included in the game.

AFMP offers a great variety of potential strategy, learning and gameplay, along with access to immediate information about the game state and the state of various agents and groups. From my brief look at the game, I was impressed that the elements of good gaming – challenge and long, short and mid-range goals, rewards, feedback and experimentation, to name a few – were all present. While many so-called “serious” games may be relegated to a small and focused audience, I think AFMP could merit the attention of any gamer who likes to think, be challenged and immerse him or herself into a rich world of intrigue with significant stakes. The fact that the game models important real-world situations and events makes it all the more powerful. And the addition of an editor to allow players to create their own scenarios promises a wealth of new content and interesting twists and plot variations from the product's users.

As a final personal note, I can attest from experience that this game accurately models many of the challenges and struggles of an underground or citizen movement whose goal is to affect nonviolent change and public awareness, in a situation with volatile factions and the true potential for violence. From that perspective, I kept saying “aha” when I received the demo of this game. Time and time again I recognized the situations, struggles and choices that had to be made in such circumstances. In short, this game rang true for me.

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