Surviving The Night

Image: 11bit Studios

The following review of the video game This War of Mine was written by Adin Dobkin, CEO of The Kant Institute:

“In modern war… you will die like a dog for no reason”

– Ernest Hemingway

 As Pavle creeps into the dilapidated house, I see an unnatural light making its way across the open doorway. I hope that whatever force is watching him (I have the distinct sense that it might only be me), it will at least allow him to die as his own species rather than another.

Our motley crew of four face hunger, fatigue, and various forms of illness. Marko and Katia were wounded in the last raid by people no different than us.

Pavle’s success this night will only give us a couple more days, but those days could mean the world. After all, who knows how long it will be until a ceasefire is negotiated and we will be able to once again venture outside without the threat of snipers.

What confronts us upon entering the house might force a weaker man to his knees, but few have time for that sort of sensitivity in this city. The starving old man gets up from his seat near the fireplace and walks towards us, deliberately shielding his wife from Pavle’s view.

“Are you trying to rob us?” he asks.

Pavle doesn’t respond, but continues pacing slowly around the house. He looks around for the ubiquitous piles of things left behind by those unable to carry them–even scrap wood now plays an important role in the boarding up of our compound’s shelled walls. Nothing is wasted.

“Please, just don’t take my wife’s medicine. She’s ill.”

Had the conflict been going on for longer, perhaps Pavle would not have listened. Perhaps he would have destroyed the remainder of the house in the search for supplies. Perhaps he would have thought it merciful to kill the occupants of the home like dogs, fulfilling Hemingway’s prophecy.

Ultimately, it matters little; by the next week Pavle had left along with Marko. Rebels killed Boris within the next few days. Katia remained at the compound: wounded, starving, and depressed. I cut my losses and close the screen.

Surviving The Night

The motto of 11 Bit Studios’s This War of Mine is “in war, not everyone is a soldier.” Although one playing the game might encounter the guns, combat, and death of modern video games, you are neither a soldier, nor criminal, nor masked vigilante. You are a civilian in what is perhaps the most basic of life’s situations, survival. The game, created by a team out of Warsaw, Poland, loosely follows the Siege of Sarajevo. The real siege lasted over 1,200 days. Mine lasted 16.

As an American playing This War of Mine in Washington, DC, I found myself in a situation that characterizes the civilian conundrum of the United States during times of war. While I could not be closer to the most important decisions made about war, statecraft, and diplomacy in the world, I could not be farther from the realities of those decisions. When considering the oftentimes exceedingly high cost of modern war on civilians in today’s and tomorrow’s wars, it is a privileged if disquieting position in which to find oneself.

Excluding the terrorist attacks that have shaped our military strategy over the past decade and a half, most American civilians have not felt the prolonged effects of war like those in many parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. To those American civilians, war and occupation are abstract concepts, existing in statistics, history books, and the media. War is studied, not experienced. Replicating this unfathomable civilian experience can create positive change. By bridging this domestic-foreign civilian gap, war might become more personal for us. It is through this personal connection that we can become more thoughtful with decisions regarding future conflict, more sure of ourselves, more cohesive. If regular citizens and decision-makers alike can begin to understand the civilian experience of war, will that understanding help drive decision-making in future conflicts?

It is with these notions in mind that I began to closely examine This War of Mine. Not as a gaming enthusiast, or a thinker on national security and military issues, but as an American civilian. It is the first game of its kind to focus on the non-combatants at the heart of war: not seeking glory or political gain, but survival.

The conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan alongside strikes in neighboring countries have violently claimed at least 174,000 civilian lives. As of the beginning of February, approximately 200,000 civilians have been killed in Syria, with refugees numbering in the millions. Recently, a single attack by Boko Haram in Baga, Nigeria left as many as 2,000 civilians dead over the course of less than a few days. The future of armed conflict portends more of the same for civilians around the world.

Fight AND Flight

Playing through This War of Mine, with each experience dramatically different than the last, did not excite me — at least, not in the conventional gaming sense. After Hemingway’s bleak outlook on modern war greets the player, a two-dimensional side view of a shelled compound takes up the entire monitor. The only distractions from this grayscale hovel are small cards to control characters and interaction cues for the various debris piles and barred doors found throughout the premises. A small clock ticks down the time remaining until night.

Image: 11bit Studios
Image: 11bit Studios

At night, players can choose to sleep, guard the compound, or scavenge. It was during this scavenging that Pavle met the decrepit old man and his wife, Boris was shot by rebels, Katia attempted to recover from her illness and injuries, and Marko killed a man whose mother wept over his body. Of course, scavenging is not without purpose. Medicine, food, and important parts can all be found or stolen from various locations around the city. However, these successes oftentimes feel like a return to the new normal rather than a breakthrough. Characters frequently come back even more tired, injured, or hungry than before.

When I play a combat-themed videogame, the most common experience is that of a mild adrenaline rush, excited frustration, and relief at the end of a level. I did not experience any of these emotions while playing This War of Mine. Over the course of the day I would become frustrated that a character’s depression made it impossible for them to work. I questioned myself at the decision to pick up spare parts rather than food the previous night. I grew anxious about whom to send out scavenging that night, who should receive medicine, who should sleep in a bed.

Leveling Down

Did This War of Mine allow me to understand the experience of a civilian during wartime? Of course not. My computer screen tempered my emotions. My losses signaled the restart of the game. My wins sometimes generated relief, but had no long-term impact. After all, there is no score in This War of Mine, no next level, no secret characters. After a random number of days, a ceasefire is reached and that iteration of the game is complete.

Image: 11bit Studios
Image: 11bit Studios

But is it all for naught? I hesitate to take the orthodox “yes” when it comes to writing off the game as simply an unconventional source of entertainment. Alternatives to experiencing a situation such as war are largely non-existent in our society. The likelihood that any artificial experience can bear resemblance to “the real deal” is exceedingly remote. What is clear is that This War of Mine does not seek to be solely a source of adrenaline or video game prestige. Rather, it forces one to make difficult and often moral decisions. In my experience, it more often brings one down than builds one up. All in a medium originally designed as entertainment.

As I closed another session of This War of Mine, I rejoined my civilian life in Washington with a sense of relief. I managed to not irreparably sink the most recent iteration of the game (it autosaves after every night, making mistakes permanent). That did not mean I could leave the game behind.

Lying in bed that night, I began a thought exercise of sorts (my own mild version of Medical Students’ Disease). I looked back on the events of that day and added the element of crisis to them. Each decision was a matter of life or death. I wondered if I could make the choices that I had made in the game, or if I could survive a night with Pavle. As I began to doze off, I was left not with despair, but with the distinct sense of hope. Hope that individuals in our society would soon be able to experience the lives of others in a meaningful way.

Dobkin is a national security and defense technology analyst currently serving as the CEO of the Kant Institute, a bipartisan 501(c)(3) organization dedicated toward fostering national learning and the creation of public discussion surrounding key policy issues. The Kant Institute recently launched its 2015 Veterans Initiative to bring about substantive discussions in the field of veterans affairs. He can be found on Twitter @AdinDobkin.