- Fighting Tyrants, Real and
Thursday, December 22, 2005
- By Reena Jana
- Designed to train activists, A
Force More Powerful is a strategy game involving nonviolent
conflict and civil disobedience.
Imagine a computer-game villain based on a combination of some of
history's most brutal dictators -- say, Slobodan Milosevic and
Augusto Pinochet rolled into one. A Force More Powerful, a strategy
game set for February release, pits players against a character with
the traits of such notoriously oppressive and violent rulers. The
catch: Gamers can use only brains, not brawn, to overthrow their
foes. A Force More Powerful is designed as the first PC game
with nonviolent conflict -- like peace marches and labor strikes --
as its ultimate goal.
"We didn't set out to reform the game industry or make a statement
against violent computer games," says Steve York, the Washington,
D.C.-based documentary filmmaker who initiated the project. "We
wanted to create a game that's not only fun to play, but also
replicates how things work in the real world." York emphasizes that
nonviolent conflict shouldn't be confused with conflict resolution. "Our subject is waging conflict, not resolving it. Conflict and
violence are not the same thing -- conflict without violence is a
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. Developed by York's production company, York
Zimmerman, and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC),
and designed by Hunt Valley, Md.-based Breakaway Games, A Force More
Powerful consists of 10 fictional scenarios, such as forcing a
government to hold free elections, freeing a dissident from prison,
or promoting the cause of organized labor. The narratives are based
on true grassroots movements in Chile, Denmark, India, the
Philippines, Poland, and other countries -- including the U.S.
Though devoid of flashy 3D animation a la Call of Duty, the game
features intricately detailed urban landscapes in which players
stage acts of civil disobedience. Players progress by analyzing and
selecting fictional characters to join their cause. Then they choose
from a list of 84 possible acts of protest to execute.
The game's artificial-intelligence (AI) engine decides whether to
arrest, shoot, or ignore the protesters. A player's progress is
measured by the number of characters who join or abandon the
movement -- and whether the oppressive regime is overturned. The
game also boasts scenario-editor software that allows customization,
such as plugging in elements like scanned maps of real countries or
cities, or importing photographs and biographical data of actual
"LEARNING BY DOING." Although A Force More Powerful is primarily
intended for real-life activist training, York believes it could
find popularity as an innovative strategy game. According to the
latest statistics from industry researcher NPD Group, strategy games
generated $249 million in revenue in the 12 months prior to
November, 2005. While this is a dip from the $274 million generated
in 2004, the Entertainment Software Assn.'s most recent published
statistics state that 27% of all PC games sold are strategy titles,
representing the largest sales across all categories of PC games. By
comparison, shooters make up only 16% of the PC-game market.
A Force More Powerful has its roots in a three-hour PBS documentary
series of the same name, produced by York Zimmerman and broadcast in
2000. The film's creative team followed up with a book, published in
2000, and a second documentary on the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic,
called Bringing Down a Dictator. They also founded the ICNC, which
is based in Washington.
"The films were never intended to be used for training activists,
but audience members informed us they were used that way," says
York. "We thought there must be another tool that would be more
effective. The best method is learning by doing, and a video game
lets people engage in actual conflict or struggle," York adds. So
York Zimmerman began developing the game in 2002.
VIRTUAL DESPOTS. One challenge was to design a game capable of
simulating complex social interaction. "That meant coming up with a
game engine based on economic, social, and political factors," York
says. He went out and bought turn-based strategy games like Age of
Empires and Tropico, which feature historical battles and drawn-out
scenarios, to see how long, slow processes had translated to the
computer screen. York Zimmerman then hired Breakaway Games, the
company that developed Tropico, as well as a number of "serious
games," such as emergency-response simulations used by schools and
Another challenge was to come up with governmental nemeses that were
believable. Having made films about a variety of dictators, York
Zimmerman compiled data from its research. "We came up with a pretty
comprehensive catalog of dictator behaviors, based on how they
impose rules or how they react to opposition against their reigns,"
In order to inject the game with a sense of authenticity, York
brought on Ivan Marovic -- one of the founders of Serbian student
movement Optor, which helped to topple Milosevic in the 1990s -- as
a "design associate." Marovic has been a self-described gamer for 20
years, since he was a 12-year-old with a Commodore 64. He now works
as a consultant for pro-democracy groups around the world.
SMALL VICTORIES. Marovic solved two vital game-design issues. The
first was how to bring the aspect of emotion into game play. "I
added the ideas of fear and enthusiasm," says Marovic. "I learned
from experience that if enthusiasm is low, people are not willing to
join a movement."
He adds, "Support doesn't mean much if fear is high. If they think
there will be violence, protesters will stay at home. I wanted to
bring these ideas into the game."
Marovic suggested that the designers could increase enthusiasm by
offering players small victories on the path to the final objective. For example, a player can organize a protest in front of a civic
building and recruit more allies, so enthusiasm -- measurable by the
number of new recruits -- goes up. The AI engine playing the role of
the oppressive regime usually plays on fear and starts arresting or
killing protesters at the next event. Protesters then can retaliate
and gain enthusiasm by staging a candlelight vigil for the victims.
"A REAL BRAIN CRACKER." The other game-design problem that Marovic
addressed was making sure the AI was believably irrational. "At
first, the AI was pretty good and could give you a hard time, but it
was more logical than most dictators," he says. "So we added
irrational things, like a ruler wasting money even if he is a greedy kleptocrat," says Marovic.
"You don't want dictator AI without traits that are irrational," he
says. "Otherwise, the game play is too mechanistic. Now it's a real
brain cracker." And Marovic, the gamer and grassroots activist,