Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Peaceful Protester Scenario

 There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Elie Wiesel

Once again I’m distraught seeing militarized police using brutal force against peaceful, unarmed protesters. Certainly my sensitive imagination and unfettered anxiety makes it easier to empathize with those speaking out against oppression (as if I ever had the immense courage to do so). I recognize the gross injustice deploying such heavily armed forces against those peacefully protesting for liberal and humanitarian causes while police sit back and tolerate right-wing fascist demonstrators equipped for potential violence (however unrealistically). Maybe it’s because I come from a field that values freedom of expression, free speech, and civil discussion to address the problems we collectively face. Perhaps I’m discouraged that I’ve seen forces of the militarized state used against otherwise peaceful or powerless populations before, both in my time and in barbarous episodes of our history. When I process these events, deal with the emotions and hopelessness they evoke, I often turn to games...usually as an escape, but in this case to reflect on the issue through the lens of gaming.

I look at the situation in game terms, drawing on my readings about professional wargaming past and present. Wargames present situations (or “scenarios”) as models, with rules and player choice the simulation affecting the model from turn to turn. I’m inclined to look to Merriam-Webster for definitions of “model” and “simulation” (“examination of a problem often not subject to direct experimentation by means of a simulating device,” in my case using a game as a “simulating device”); but in this case I’m seeking something a bit more specific. “Models are proportional representations of the real world...but they lack a fourth dimension: time,” Matthew B. Caffrey, Jr., says in On Wargaming.* “Models are fixed representations, like a photograph.... When a model is examined over time, it becomes a simulation.” We model a situation — the static “game state” between turns, often represented by boards/maps and pieces — and act upon it through player choice and rules governing the interaction of pieces on the board.

As my work on Skirmish Kids nears its end (and publication...finally!), I thought I’d take a look at the clash between peaceful student protests and militarized police through the lens of this particular model and simulation (or “wargame,” as some might call it). This particular scenario isn’t necessarily meant as a game for kids, but more of a hypothetical and experiential exercise to help participants understand the perspective of those involved from a purely tactical standpoint. The process of modeling the situation in game terms and simulating how the situation might play out offers a learning experience, an opportunity for further investigation, reflection, and discussion. One could model this scenario and run the simulation according to the abstractions provided in other wargame rules; but I’d expect a similar outcome. Although my rules simulate a skirmish where each piece represents one individual, we can still use it as a baseline to model the experience we see playing out on news media in this current event. You might think it makes a terrible game — and you wouldn’t be wrong — but it serves to provide some level (perhaps a safe level) of involvement and invite us to discuss deeper issues from a more sympathetic perspective.

To “win” this scenario a single protester has to remain on the field after six turns; more than one means a greater-than-marginal “victory.” Police win if they remove all the protesters before six turns pass.

To create the initial scenario “model” I’d set up a three-by-three green felt mat depicting the “battlefield,” in this case a college green. (Yes, contrarians, you could also use a barricaded sidewalk, crowd blocking a street, or occupied building.) Maybe I’d place a few trees spaced apart for “cover,” perhaps a few tents in the center...not that they’d affect this particular action. I’d set up 10 student figures in the center, each no more than two inches apart. Then I’d deploy 20 police figures around those students, each no farther than six inches away; maybe they form a line along one side of the student crowd, maybe they encircle them.

With my wargame forces deployed on the green, I’d run the simulation governed according to player choice and rules reflecting their capabilities (albeit in grossly abstracted form). Skirmish Kids is an introductory wargame for kids and newcomers to the hobby; so the rules remain pretty basic with options to add greater depth. Players take turns activating individual figures, either moving or shooting, with movement into contact with an opposing figure resulting in close combat. For now I’m leaving out any ranged combat shooting, so each turn players must decide whether a piece should move (and where) or if it should pass that turn with no action.

Skirmish Kids uses some notations to model a figure’s fighting capabilities in the context of the rules:

Student Protester. Move: 6", Range: 0", Attack: 0D, Defense: 6.

Riot Police Trooper: Move: 6", Range: 0", Attack: 2D, Defense: 9.

(I’m resisting the temptation to assign the Riot Police Trooper the optional “Heroic” Trait of “Fierce: Gains a +2 bonus to close combat Attack die rolls.” Because that would just be overkill.)

Move” represents the number of inches a figure may move when it activates (if it isn’t shooting). “Range” remains zero, as I’m assuming nobody’s armed with ranged weapons (a wholly different yet frightfully possible scenario). “Attack” shows the number of six-sided dice a player rolls when shooting or engaging in close combat. A defender rolls their dice in close combat, too, as both stand a chance of defeat. “Defense” is the number an attacker must meet or beat to eliminate the target figure. Players remove close combat casualties immediately. Casualties in this case means neutralization, arrest, dispersal, not injury and death; this fight isn’t between elves and orcs with medieval weapons.

I have made a design choice here to model the “Student Protester” with “Attack: 0D.” Peaceful demonstrators, even if intending to forcefully resist, have little chance of defeating a single “Riot Police Trooper” in close combat...even if I gave students “Attack: 1D.” This essentially means that when police choose to move in and engage students in close combat, police will remove students from the field. Much as in real life. If this all seems absurd as a game, well, it wouldn’t be the first time for me.

This all makes for a short game (arguably a pointless one), even if it somehow continues the full six turns. Which means players can easily replay the game numerous times, switching sides for a different perspective with plenty of time left over for discussion...about the scenario set-up, rules, and larger thematic implications. Would you want to play this scenario? Would you want to play as protesters or police? What happens after one game when you replay the scenario and switch sides? How do you feel playing each side? Does the police player choose to not engage the students and lose? What constitutes “winning?” How do we simulate the role of campus administrators, donors, political personalities, outside agitators, the media? The game experience, as one-sided it it proves, can lead to a larger discussion of the issues at hand. What consequences do protesters risk through their civil, First Amendment actions? What consequences do police face for their behavior? Is the response to peaceful dissent — punitive administrative measures, brutal police tactics — proportionate to the protest activity?

Most wargamers play scenarios between two military forces; at the very least, each side fields soldiers trained and equipped for some form of combat, even if unequal (such as spear-wielding Zulus against rifle-wielding British soldiers and similar contests in colonial-era fights). A game pitting protesters against police involves not only asymmetrical power (unarmed peaceful students opposing an overwhelming militarized police force trained for violence) but asymmetrical objectives (occupation versus forceful removal) and asymmetrical methods (speeches, banners, chanting, and physical presence as opposed to body armor, helmets, batons, zip ties, etc.). When we stage vastly unequal “forces” against each other, the game loses any element of fairness for the clearly under-powered side, like pitting militarized police against peacefully protesting students whose only threat is their human presence in a space...with no means (or even intent) to realistically or effectively combat well-armed opposition. By introducing militarized police forces into these situations, authorities choose to escalate them closer to or over the brink of violence, from a civilian protest to a ruthless military response.

Some might think me callous for distilling this experience into a “game.” I hope I’ve illustrated to some degree how we can use games as a lens through which we can model and simulate real-world events, both for the vicarious experience it provides as well as the opportunity to discuss the issues at hand. As a means for reflection. A starting point for discussion, understanding, and cooperation in addressing the problems facing our society.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”


* Matthew B. Caffrey, Jr., On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped Hisotry and How They May Shape the Future, Naval War College Press, 2019 (pp. 262-263).

Further Consideration

I will freely admit the hypothetical game simulation I postulate above doesn’t make for a very workable “game;” not one that provides for any outcome beyond the obvious, as we’ve seen played out in real life. But other game experiences can help us look at the large picture beyond the brutality we see playing out in the media, exploring the issues that led our society to this point, when militarized police act as if they’re fighting armed, violent opponents when in fact they face unarmed, peaceful protesters. Games can provide a starting point for discussion, something we often lose as people jump to conclusions, shout stereotypical talking points, and otherwise furiously politicize the situation with broad strokes, angry insinuations, and little humanity.

Perhaps a different, better game-related examination of the power dynamics in this situation might come from a game simulating the tactics and influence of the various groups involved and how their actions lead to certain outcomes, notably universities listening to protesting students’ concerns and taking them seriously (as we’ve seen on rare occasions) or the seemingly inevitable intrusion of violence and police into the situation. A kind of escalation game between student protesters, university administration, and police forces, where each has a secretly determined “breaking point:” capitulation by protesters, authoritarian action by police, and administration balanced between agreeing to student demands and the decision to resort to authoritarian force. Players can affect the escalation level by choosing different tactics each turn with variable degrees of success...intensified, too, by the passage of time. Different actions might play off factors like media coverage, collegiate donor attitudes, politicians interjecting themselves into the conflict, and, of course, the trump card of power-wielding authorities, the “threat to public safety” or declaration of “unlawful assembly” which inevitably serves as an excuse for militarized police forces to move in and endanger public safety well beyond any threat protesters posed.

The matrix game format also offers a platform for simulating and exploring the protest environment. Although a more free-form approach, it can accommodate modeling the many different players and factors affecting the current situation. Such games rely on playes proposing actions along with reasons why they might succeed; other players offer their own assessments why they might fail. A die roll, modified by the pros and cons, foten determines the outcome and the degree of success or failure. The process relies on researching the situation, motivations, and methods of each faction and in discussing the viability of proposed actions, both as the individual player and the entire group.

Taking the time to learn about others in the community and exploring their interactions might help everyone not simply react to developments in real time, but respond to them in constructive ways. Such a matrix-game exercise might benefit university administrators, student organizers, municipal authorities, and others in communities when they all come together around the game table to explore, discuss, and seek to civilly address the challenges they face together.

When participants gather with open minds, a willingness to listen to other’s views, and mutual respect, we stand a better chance of weather crises together, to come to a consensus and work to address the challenges we face. Alas, authoritarian responses from those in power far too often lead to shutting down discussion — and civility — and sending in the troops to bully their way to a one-sided outcome. And while they might think they “win,” everybody loses.

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

Albert Einstein

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