Recently, Kotaku took a look at Ready or Not, the Kiwi-developed SWAT-like. Luckily, they touched upon the politics angle, which I had entirely missed whilst watching Controlled Pairs play it. Maybe it’s because he didn’t zoom in on boxes of redpills – though a crack den designed by whoever dreamed up Taliban hideouts for Newsweek in 2001 did seem odd. Nevertheless. the discussion about it – and the article itself – makes one thing clear: leftists need to make wargames.
For me, this isn’t an entirely new stance, it just took some time to crystalize. We’re already weary of regular game devs milkshakeducking themselves. But the field of wargames is even more annoying to navigate. With every new game, you have to guess whether the dev is a) a boomer you screamed at on Twitter or b) some kekistani anime av you also screamed at on Twitter. For all the nonexistence of cancel culture (or, rather, it’s impotence against anyone with any real power), not even a whiff of it exists in this field. After all, it’s very literally a good old boys club – emphasis on “old” and “boy.”
It doesn’t have to be, though.
But as it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, so too, it seems, is impossible to picture a leftist hardcore milsim. And that is curious, isn’t it? Why have we almost entirely abandoned the field to those least likely to learn any lessons from it?
A note on what a wargame is
For the purposes of this article, a wargame is any game where you have to be really interested in military and war to play, so stuff ranging from Ready or Not to Squad to Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes to Distant Worlds 2.
Over the course of the post, I’ll also mention Call of Duty and other non-hardcore games, mostly because I’d love to play out some outright power fantasies as well.
Leftists should make historical wargames
“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy,” wrote Walter Benjamin. And in the field of hardcore military games, “this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
There is a history of oppressed people struggling, and there is a history of leftists fighting, both of which are entirely absent from gaming (video or miniature). Therefore, the public’s already shaky understanding of history is molded into worse shapes by every new title. The enemy is victorious, and the dead are reduced to NPCs – if even that.
This can be as simple as Force of Force scenario descriptions being dismissive of any military achievement of the North Vietnamese or the sneering at people fighting against the US in Iraq. It can be as complex as representing any insurgency as a faceless force. It acts like a force of nature, uncaring for casualties, supplies, or anything else that isn’t a straightforward destruction of the player’s forces.
So while the legacy designer may parrot a line about the Notwhitese just don’t caring about their lives, a leftist game should do them justice. Demonstrate just how intolerable the oppression is that you keep marching on despite death you can hardly prevent raining from the sky. You fear, your hurt, you see your friends die, but you march on, because leaving it all as it is intolerable.
That idea is something that you can find from slave and gladiator rebellions to peasant uprisings, to modern post-colonial struggles. If you just leave these people to be NPCs – or just never represented in games that would rather refight The One Battle of The Period Appearing In Every game – you leave their struggles unremarked upon, just a sideline in a history of cool kings and their awesome conquests.
It’s doubly important for non-European struggles since the market is held essentially by westerners who care about western history topics. Struggles that don’t involve the near and dear colonial powers have a snowball’s chance in hell to be recreated in pixels.
We should change all that. By doing that, we would also strike at the prevailing narratives and stereotypes that allow the victors to talk about “human wave” assaults. Much how we let the Nazis dictate the narrative of the Eastern front, so do we currently listen to the retellings of, say, Korean War or the Vietnam War. How many games strive to do what Korsun Pocket did? How many show appreciation of fighting an enemy with air and artillery superiority, the difficult infiltration tactics that developed under those conditions? It is for us to absorb the why and how Charlie ruled the night – and put it in the video game form.
Furthermore, there are feats of logistics that were thought up by brilliant commanders and carried out by their dedicated troops that are no less exciting than anything a first-world nation ever pulled. After all, you don’t besiege Dien Bien Phu without planning out and then dragging disassembled artillery and AA guns up the mountains and positioning in dug out tunnels.
Supply and support is also a matter of politics, and an accurate portrayal of that in games also strikes a blow at nationalistic myths. After all, how many people are surprised to realize how big of a role the French played in the American War of Independence? How about Spanish Civil War and the international support to the Republican side? There’s a lesson there as well – your struggle doesn’t have to be localized.
It doesn’t have to be large, either. You may not make a 4X game out of fighting the Pinkerton-types as striking workers, but there’s value in telling their stories, intertwined, as they always are, with both the personal and the political.
There are also lessons leftists can learn about ourselves, too. We joke about leftist infighting, but a good Russian Civil War game would show what happens when that fighting becomes very literal. It’s not only about the Red Army adapting to fight over multiple fronts over vast distances, but also the fact that maybe crushing Anarchists in Ukraine for being a different shade of red wasn’t a good thing.
After all, if we wanted to ignore history, there’s already a political position for that, and we’re to the far left of it.
Leftists should make present day wargames
Back to the Ready or Not. Can you make a game that realistically depicts a SWAT raid while still making it quote unquote fun? You can incorporate the fact that you aren’t some special cop force operator, but some meatneck doofus with access to tactical vests and M4s. You can also show it’s never a hard-core group of 4 dudes clearing a house held by a company-strength criminal element. Go on, make it into something realistically closer to that “FBI, open up” meme to show how overwhelming the power is in those situations – and how little accountability exists in the aftermath.
Funny, because a lack of accountability is already baked into SWAT-likes. Sure, you get penalized points for not calling arrested suspects, but with more explicit campaign mechanics you can play with stuff that shows how the trooper that threw a flashbang into a crib gets suspended for a mission while everyone at the base claps them on the back.
Reskin that and you basically have the Australian SAS in Afghanistan simulator. The wanton violence, zero accountability, outward lies in the reports, and the degeneration of any discipline due to grinding tempo, the endless mission focus on kills… All of that can be gamified to teach that same lesson better than any BBC article can.
Granted, games don’t have to be all stick, no carrot. Look into the present leftist fighting forces and see how they deal with things. Even telling the story of YPG or Rojava forces does history good, because those are indigenous leftist factions with good female representation in the armed forces.
See? We’re already hitting at least two or three good examples you can show in the games. And if you’re feeling silly/have a lot of budget/great ideas on how to shepherd your resources, make an FPS game where you’re a female Rojavan private and you’re no-scoping ISIS, Assadists, and Turkish Army dudes left and right.
Such “lack of realism” doesn’t concern the creators of Call of Duty or Battlefield (which had you fight Iran in the third iteration) – so why should you be any less brave? Come on, I want my level in a rusty stolen T-62, blowing up ISIS strongpoints and aerosolizing VBIEDs.
And speaking of realism… Act of War was a special RTS for many reasons, but also because it had POWs as a mechanic. You can put it in your games as well – and ask people to consider things like caring for captured enemy combatants. It’s probably not very leftist to parade them like trophies, cut their heads off on YouTube, or disappear them in far off torture dungeons. And yet they draw on your resources. What do you do?
You can both challenge these assumptions – and raise interesting tactical questions at the same time. War doesn’t happen in a plain field that belongs to no one. But both RTS games assume it does, with no civilians around – and no concern about damage caused to the houses, infrastructure, and so on.
So how do you fight when you can’t just JDAM a city block away? How much property damage can be covered by the fact that you’re fighting an invader and oppressor? And even then, how do the worsening material conditions of the civilian population impact your war fighting capability – and the moral authority to do so?
See, we can already raise questions and dilemmas – and we haven’t even moved to the entirely wild field of speculative future games.
Leftist should make future/sci-fi wargames
The future is now, old man. If you go by the Osprey reprint of Tomorrow’s War, it’s the Cold War all over again, with the good white people fighting off the dastardly browns, but in space. That’s a niche example, but look at the rest of the games: there’s always a Space US fighting Actually Interesting Factions. So why not mix it up a little with a leftist take on the future of warfare?
What a wonderful exercise in imagination that would be, as the left often has plenty of criticism of the now, but no image of the future to inspire people. We’re literally not going any further than saying “well, it won’t be like now.” And we should. And hardcore military wargames set in future, near or not, are a way to do it.
For example, I think there will be long stretch of time before fully automated luxury gay space communism where we’ll have to kick doors and wage war; heck, there may even be a need for armed conflict even in those undreamed-of ages. After all, human history isn’t a curve of progress ever going upwards. There will be detractors, saboteurs, and violent malcontents under any system.
So working with that idea, what SWAT 2042 But The “S” Is For Socialism would look like? It doesn’t have to be about thermal sensors and suicide taser drones. Start from the lore that doesn’t directly affect the gameplay much. For example, maybe the gay socialist SWAT is a specially trained state asset rather very special cops who get big boy guns.
Maybe you don’t get assault rifles, maybe your arsenal is much more focused on taking people alive, maybe you actually get penalties more weighty than points for shooting a suspect. And who are the suspects anyway? Recalcitrant militia members, SmashBro’s houses that opened fire on the vanguard social workers, dealers in Something Worse Than NFTs?
Every element you put in the game paints your image of the future, one where unloading all the taser, pepper, and beanbag rounds at a serial killer’s ancient mom explicitly isn’t permissible.
You can scale it up from there to socialist ARMA. As the author of this post, I think that leftist military interventions will be a thing. I don’t see any justification to let an ISIS or a Khmer Rouge happen because we’re about non-violence and self determination. I’m more than ready to see how future war would be shaped by the need to preserve civilian life above all. What procedures and tools would be developed?
And if the game is more plot driven, how would the troops deal with the burden of placing the lives of locals above their own? That is a tremendous transformation to achieve mentally in warfighting, but it’s a necessary one to make. Otherwise, we’ll just recreate the rainbow drone strikes of today. So think about those ROE challenges and bake them into a game; suddenly, Trans Clancy’s Future Anarchist becomes that much more challenging to play.
This applies to RTS and strategy games of sorts. Maybe your Afghanistan ’11 is actually about Pacific Coast People’s Union’s stabilization efforts in Nevada, where your attempts to bring socialized healthcare for all are opposed by Racist Bob’s Racist Militia (Racist Faction). Or maybe you’re still fighting the guerilla war against the Ancien Regimes of the future, dealing with the fact that they’ll bomb schools and that your organization’s #2s get vaporized weekly.
How will you strain against self-imposed moral conduct of warfare? How different would StarCraft II be if your Siege Tanks had to account for the fact that they can’t bomb civilians – but Operation Enduring Hivemind doesn’t?
Or just finally gives us a strategy game – an RTS, a 4X, whatever – where the main posterboy human faction is a happy melange of humans and aliens that’s fighting human purists, human separatists, and human discourse lovers just there to ask some questions.
In either case, there’s going to be war in our future, and it’s on you to both temper it with understanding of moral dimensions that elude typical gun-size obsessed genre fans, and to paint a vision of the future where the left has won, and now we’re fighting Sigma Grindset Uncles hand-in-Unggoy-claw.
Leftists should make wargames, period
Currently, wargames are a sphere entirely abandoned to the “wow, cool robot” demographic. The left is still largely hooked on the liberal “actually, all violence is bad” line, disregarding military action as something the bad fascists do. It has never been that way, it isn’t that way, and it won’t be that way. Time for our friendly game developers to realize that, slip free of their bonds, and follow the brave examples set out by RPG creators (but not these).