Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Why we need games that aim to build peace

Since the tragic school shooting in the German town Winnenden in March this year, computer war games have again been a frequent item on the Swiss news; some cantons are now considering whether to ban or regulate so-called ‘killer games’ that reward cruel violence against humans. This got me thinking about what I associated with the ‘good’ aspects of war games – the challenge of thinking strategically. While I grew up with games of chess and risk, I imagine that thousands of keen minds are calculating their next moves in complex interactive computer war games as I write. Thousands more will be addressing domestic ‘governance’ dilemmas in games like Civilization or SimCity. I don’t, however, think that many are engaged in virtually building peace after war. Although the use of the information and communications technology for peace (ICT4peace) has been well documented, and is the subject of a new blog, I have not found examples of games that simulate peacebuilding or post-conflict state-building.

This is a pity. It is a missed opportunity for gamers because the peacebuilding challenge is a great test of strategic skill, combining the challenges of governance with those of war-fighting. If war to Clausewitz was ‘politics by other means’, then peacebuilding is to the parties to a conflict often an experiment in ‘war by other means’. In other words, it is based on a rational calculation by the parties that they will benefit more from the peaceful pursuit of politics. The objective of a virtual peacebuilding game would be to achieve a just and sustainable peace. You would loose if a significant number of the actors revert to violence as a means of pursuing their interests. Your score would depend on the extent that you manage to marry stability with reform. For instance, you will get extra points for also navigating the challenges of ‘right sizing’ the army, reforming the civil service, holding elections, and luring in development assistance as well as private and public investment. Beginners could choose a simple version with a small number of actors and hints in the form of a comprehensive peace agreement, and a plan for its implementation. More difficult levels of the game might increase the number of parties to the conflict and divide external actors, giving each somewhat different preferences. It might also introduce factors such as the presence of high-value natural resources that raise the stakes of being ‘in’ government. The most difficult levels might model peacebuilding in the midst of war – where war-fighting games are combined with peacebuilding ones. Whether this was designed for a single player with the ability to manipulate all actors, or multiple players each assigned to one party, it would present the player with engaging dilemmas and strategic calculations of risk.

Gaming peacebuilding does not only have entertainment or brain-teasing potential however. It also is of academic interest; it has the potential to improve our understanding of the strategic interaction between domestic and international actors in post-conflict situations. This has been done to great effect by Barnett and Zuercher in their article The Peacebuilder’s Contract: How External State-Building Reinforces Weak Statehood. In it, they model strategic bargaining between international actors, state elites and local elites in post-conflict contexts. Their model assumes a post-colonial context in which states (even before the conflict) had little legitimacy or capacity and where regime stability was underpinned by patrimonial politics. In this model political and economic survival of the state elites depends on the ability to co-opt or deter challengers from the periphery through an (expensive) patronage system. It is assumed that state elites want to maintain their power. External actors are unified and desire first and foremost stability and secondarily liberalization. Rural elites want autonomy from the state and to maintain their power in the countryside.

The potential results of the ‘game’ include: co-operative peacebuilding, where local elites accept and co-operate with the peacebuilding programme introduced by the external peacebuilders (where there interests are aligned as, for example, in majority-Albanian parts of Kosovo); co-opted peacebuilding in which both peacebuilders and local elites have compromised their strategies to accommodated the preferences of the other (as in Tajikistan and the majority of other cases); captured peacebuilding where local elites are able to redirect the distribution of assistance so that it is fully consistent with their interests (typically in situation of instability where aid workers and peacekeepers are dependent on local warlords to carry out their mandates or access populations at risk); or conflictive peacebuilding - the threat of use of coercive tools by either international or domestic actors to achieve their objectives (where local elites obstruct the peacebuilding programme and peacebuilders are faced with considering coercive options or withdrawal, as has been the case in Northern Kosovo at times).

Barnett and Zuercher show that when you play a ‘simple’ game between peacebuilders and state elites co-opted peacebuilding is the equilibrium solution in which neither actor has an interest in defecting. A game involving peacebuilders, state elites and local regional elites is more likely to end with co-opted peacebuilding between peacebuilders and state government and captured peacebuilding between peacebuilders and local elites. The outcome that rational strategic bargaining tends to result ‘co-opted’ or ‘symbolic peacebuilding’ but not fundamental state-society reforms, resonates because it matches the empirical record. There is strong evidence that the presence of international actors has helped promote stability and reduce return to violence, but the record also shows that international interventions have been far less successful at building ‘positive’ peace based on the liberal model of the strong state (see Doyle and Sambanis for statistical rates of success).

This simple model also rings true when considering individual cases. Take the one that the West is currently most engaged in: Afghanistan. Barnett and Zuercher argue that in Afghanistan the peacebuilding ‘game’ was first characterized by co-operative peacebuilding between the new Karzai government and the peacebuilders (based on a weak government and an extraordinarily strong and generous external intervention) and captured peacebuilding between the rural elites peacebuilders (based on relatively strong elites and the fact that the US was also dependent on their co-operation for counter-insurgency purposes). As the power of the rural elites grew (in part as a result of the US war on the Taliban) state elites became increasingly reluctant to implement the liberal reforms that might alienate rural elites. Peacebuilders accepted these conditions because of their preference for stability.

Gaming the strategic interaction of peacebuilding also has operational value. Of course those who are party to a conflict at the strategic and operational level are well aware of the complex politics of peacebuilding. Most peacebuilders that ‘work on’ the operationalisation of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration of former combatants (DDR), Security Sector Reform (SSR) or financial and administrative capacity building and reform should also be acutely aware of their intended and real impact on the dynamics of the peace process. But this is not adequately reflected in policy discourse. Rather, at the international level, policy discussions about peacebuilding are first and foremost linked with efforts to address how the international community should get its act together so as to maximise its leverage in peacebuilding contexts. These typically involves debates about how best to mobilise financial and human resources, and how to promote ‘unity of purpose’, including through strengthened international leadership and improved co-ordination. These are important issues, but they do not address the domestic politics of peacebuilding. Instead, the ‘demand-side’ of peacebuilding is effectively side-lined by invoking the principle of ‘national ownership’ – a conceptual place-holder for the domestic politics of the peace process. Similarly, the call for external aid ‘alignment’ with national priorities obscures much more than it reveals. Worse, much of the language of aid implies that building national capacity or aligning international aid priorities with domestic ones is a technical issue, when it is clearly political. We need policy frameworks that recognise the conflictual nature of peacebuilding rather than ones that suggest it is a co-operative exercise. If not, the danger is that the international community support those actors with whom its interests most align, without sufficiently considering the possible reactions of the actors who stand to loose by this alliance.

Perhaps it is unhealthy for teens to be playing too many ‘killer’ computer games. But I suggest that it may improve the lives of those living in states ravished by war if those that are thinking about intervening in their country spend more time in front of a screen thinking about the different motivations and choices of actors with a stake in the war/peace. Gaming might provoke more consideration about the underlying assumptions we make about how to build peace. It would also be a useful complement to traditional leadership training. These games may even be fun and make money. To all those gaming industry bosses who are reading this (not): Can we have some peacebuilding games please?

This is a guest blog by Catriona Gourlay. Catriona is a Marie Curie Fellow at UNIDIR, currently working on a project on EU-UN cooperation in peacebuilding.

Photo Credit: ‘Day 75: Liam playing Axis and Alies' by puremango on Flickr.

Michael Barnett and Christoph Zuercher, The Peacebuilder’s Contract: How External State-building Reinforces Weak Statehood. Available here.

Michael W. Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis, Making War and Building Peace, Princeton University Press, 2006.


PMC said...

What a great idea!

In the most advanced versions of the game, you could also introduce the temptation to accept (and make) bribes and also make it necessary to try to stop the black market flows of weapons to the warring parties.

The ultimate game development, though, would be turning it into a multi-player, real-time, virtual experience where the peacemakers/builders/keepers and the parties to the conflict could sit in front of computer screens testing the feasibility of possible solutions rather than blowing each other up.

I hereby make the commitment that if ever such a game is developed, I will buy one.

There, I've created a demand. Gaming industry, please respond.

Janet Hudgins said...

I think this is a winner and we need it in the worst way--everywhere--especially for future leaders.
What do we have to do to get started?