Endgame: Syria Informs You As You Play

By Craig Pearson on January 8th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.


I’ve had a quick game of Endgame: Syria, a game that came to my attention after being rejected by Apple for the app store because it dares to include decisions about a real world conflict. There are no such restrictions on the PC, obviously. Apple are queasy about any game that “solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity”, which is basically the remit of developers Auroch Digital. They’ve been making news-based games over at GameTheNews for a few months now, rapidly prototyping games that deal with world events. In this case, Endgame: Syria is about the unfolding horror in Syria.

I’ve been in a bit of a news bubble for the past few months, and the vagaries of the Syrian conflict have passed me by. There’s a definite knot in my stomach when I start the game. Endgame is a two-stage card game: you’re cast as the rebels countering the regime’s political and military choices. As you’re fighting for points to raise your support and lower the regime’s, you’re also learning what decisions are available to the sides.

The political stage can deal in anything from words of support from foreign allies to troop movements. It’s the simpler section, with each card only giving a single section of points towards your overall support level. I counter the arrival of Russian tanks with a collection of money from exiled rebels and words of support from Turkey, which gives me a surprisingly large boost of support. Would this be true in the real world?

It’s the military stage that’s offers something more approaching a game. Each card has six stats to consider: Attack, Resilience, Type, Fallout, Civilian Casualties, Support. It’s still not hugely complex, but there’s a definite need to contemplate the numbers as the turns take hold. The cards also represent more detailed information on the conflict: do I really want to send the Palestinians against the Shabiha Military? In doing so I learned the regime’s troops are probably responsible for a number of civilian massacres, and that the rebel fighters are particularly young. I double checked with a few news sources and the information is reportedly accurate.

Interspersed between the political and military actions are events that can significantly alter the level of support. So I ended one turn placing cards with statements of support from France and Turkey, only to have the conflict go ‘viral’. The events are covered in such a way that I lose 10 points. Another event reveals that there’s a new war elsewhere in the world and that the media are now focusing on it. As a result I lose more support. It’s an interesting twist, and it makes me feel fairly powerless: as the underdog the media’s power is terrifying.

Endgame works as a starting off point for those that might be curious. I’m not going to say I’m now an expert on the Syrian conflict, but I am aware of some of the details. I know a little bit about what’s going on, where in the world it’s taking place, and a few of the countries that have a stake in it. There’s a list of the sources that can help for further reading and fact-checking. Nothing Endgame: Syria does is an egregious use of the information it presents, but I do worry that being put in the position of the ‘rebels’ is editorialising. Can you be considered a news source and only portray one side? Apple’s decision seems incredibly mealy-mouthed after playing it, and such rules simply hold back the medium.

As Developer Tomas Rawlings points out: “As game developers, games are a natural way for us to express our thoughts on the world around us. Games don’t have to be frivolous or lightweight; they can and do take on serious issues and open them up to new audiences.”

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63 Comments »

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  1. BobbyDylan says:

    Games wont be a truely artful forms of expression while such agressive censorship takes place.
    It’s a pitty that games are not afforded the same latitude as Movies, TV programs or Music

    I bet the moment Hollywood makes a movie about a Brave American Reporter working in Syria, it’ll be on Itunes in a flash.

    • Teovald says:

      That’s why while I have a macbook and appreciate it (grossly overpriced but good hardware, linux terminal & mainstream software like photoshop) I will never invest into any iOS terminal as long as you need Apple approval to publish an app on this platform.
      It is far too threatening to freedom of speech and innovation.

    • Redd says:

      @BobbyDylan
      I don’t know. Censorship pretty much validates it as such to me.

    • Nate says:

      Actually, music is just as vulnerable. Retailers make decisions to stock based on whatever criteria they choose (at least in the US). When those retailers are large enough, it affects the media that gets made. Walmart has had a particularly powerful effect.

      Thanks for reminding me why I worry so deeply about monopolies and near monopolies.

  2. Didden says:

    It is interesting isn’t it. People died in WW2, but its okay to make hundreds of games about it. But anything relevant? Somehow its suddenly poor taste. We are a strange species.

    It is interesting listening to the developer using the game to explore the ‘issues’, because Syria is a war that isn’t clearly outlined, people are confused and unclear on its causes (Frankly the media isn’t that clued in either), and its history and what the reasons behind it are. Its not simple and it is not clear cut, in the same way, say Libya was, so therefore the media have given it far less coverage because they can’t really easily paint us a simplified picture, where one side is the evil baddie dictator, and the other side are the glorious freedom fighters.

    • mr.black says:

      …(Frankly the media isn’t that clued in either)… my cynical mind re-parses it as “the western media/media’s owners don’t have a direct stake in the conflict”, whereas Iranian (khmoilkhm) and Afghan (mmkhpipehkh) forces were clearly bad, intolerant, antidemocratic and therefore Evil. It’s just another conflict, some peasants are dying.. COD has better effects!

    • Greg Wild says:

      It’s definitely mostly a result of history being written by the victors; there’s a defined story, with a good side and a bad side. Syria (as most modern conflicts) only really has bad guys. That’s including the “enlightened” western powers, as far as I’m concerned. It’s such a mire of claim and counter-claim that it’s basically impossible to maintain a position of neutrality, no matter how much you might try.

      WW2 isn’t historically ambiguous (to most. I myself see it in a much murkier light than most, especially if you read it in light of the wider historical flow), let alone presently ambiguous. Therefore, it’s absurdly a perfectly acceptable setting. I’d love to see it get the Spec Ops treatment.

      • sinister agent says:

        It’s interesting, sure enough, and while WW2 was about as monochrome as war gets, it’s hardly goodies vs baddies. Upholding the political/economic status quo vs challenging it just happened to coincide with the challengers being fascist genocidal arseholes.

        It puts me in mind of the conversations I was having last year, when people were discussing foreign intervention in Libya. I remember some people couldn’t get their head around the concept of “Yes, it was the moral thing to do. No, that’s not why we did it” (disagreeing is fine, of course. I’m referring solely to people who seemed to think it wasn’t possible to support intervention while also acknowledging that our government was only doing it because there was something in it for them).

        It would be fascinating to see how history portrays World War 2, though. Will it one day be considered a terrible, stupid thing with all involved as bad as each other for killing millions over Imperial sibling rivalry? How will the Russian perspective influence the record 200 years from now? Or will it be something most people don’t even know anything about, much less care (poor Napoleon. Usurped by an angry little Austrian coprophiliac as the go-to continental villain)?

        Um…. so anyway, Syria, eh? That’s … that’s certainly a thing that’s happening, I’m sure we can all agree.

        • Greg Wild says:

          Agreed. When you consider WW2 in the context of the wider world, and preceding events – especially the Russian Revolution, Spanish Civil War, independence movements before and after the war etc. it’s a far, far more complicated moral picture. Hell, when you consider that India suffered 3 million dead due to a famine which Churchill irascibly refused to ameliorate and may have caused due to excessive exports during the war (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/soutikbiswas/2010/10/how_churchill_starved_india.html), you sort of can’t help but see that in the world theatre Britain wasn’t all that much better than Germany.

          I certainly don’t buy into the Churchill myth anyway. The man has an utterly sordid history.

          • sinister agent says:

            One of the finest moments of the British people throughout all their colourful history was when they thanked Churchill for his leadership during the war, and then immediately voted him out of office.

          • goettel says:

            “Britain wasn’t all that much better than Germany.”

            As long as we’re making simplistic, off-hand judgement based on reading something on a website: I’m sure more than six million systemetically exterminated people might disagree with you there, bud.

          • sinister agent says:

            @goettel

            North America called. Also Africa left a message, something about not even bothering to keep track of how many black Africans died in British concentration camps, iono, I wasn’t really listening. Oh, and the Chinese left a picture of an opium pipe, said you’d know what it was about.

          • Chandos says:

            @sinister agent
            Great response. I laughed.

        • Michael Fogg says:

          To me, WWII was a murderous struggle of two tyrranies, while the free countries had little choice but to support what they saw as a slightly less evil tyrrany.

    • Kobest says:

      Oh man, the Libyan scenario was everything but simple…the biggest difference was that they (obviously Western-backed interests) pit the different Libyan tribes against each other, so the whole thing ended much faster than it is doing in Syria. Perhaps because they are not as easily divided as…the ones who think “evil baddie dictator is killing its own people?”

      • Greg Wild says:

        Definitely. Libya was an utter clusterfuck. Sic Semper Tyrannis and all that, but it’s certainly not without complications.

      • SooSiaal says:

        No the biggest difference is,Libya has oil, Syria doen’t have oil.

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          beekay says:

          This is a particularly stupid assertion which I really wish would die off. If the West is invading countries with the intent of somehow stealing their oil, we’ve done a really shit job of it. The price of oil skyrockets every time.

          (And yeah, Syria famous for its total lack of oil exports.)

        • Greg Wild says:

          Syria doesn’t have (much) oil, but stability in the region hinges on the Syria conflict not getting out of hand and spreading elsewhere. Don’t underestimate the oil-factor playing into consideration by the wider world when it comes to Syria.

        • Lanfranc says:

          Except it does, with a production of some 385,000 barrels a days and reserves of ca. 2.5 billion barrels. Add to that a highly strategic location in terms of regional energy production, with several important oil and gas pipelines passing through the country.

          Trying to explain everything in the Middle East with “It’s all about oil” is both stupid and narrowminded, and ignores 95% of the issues. (Sorry, but it’s true.)

        • sinister agent says:

          While the oil certainly helped, I think the reason we got involved in Libya was, basically, because with most of the middle east undergoing popular uprisings, our bluff had been called. Suddenly all our harping on about democracy and representative government and all that horseshit was shown up for propaganda.

          So, suddenly there’s an uprising in Libya, a somewhat paraiah state, where the dictator was absolutely the villain (that some other players might also have been arseholes notwithstanding), and with whom we have relatively loose ties. We had to get involved somewhere just to save face in the region, and Libya was the expedient option. If it meant a nice oil deal somewhere down the line, hey, bonus.

          Compared to intervening in any other country in the region at the time, and to sitting back and letting everyone know we were full of shit and that any despot down there can do whatever he likes (with weapons we sold them, of course), it was pretty much a no-brainer.

      • Subject 706 says:

        Eh, while Libya sure was (and is) complicated, Syria is way more so. While Libya was very religiously and ethnically homogenous, Syria has turned into a sectarian battleground with a much greater potential for conflict spillover.

        • Poliphilo says:

          Please remember that the Assad regime is actively trying to turn this into a sectarian conflict, and unfortunately this is a narrative that most Western media find irresistible because of its simplicity and familiarity (despite it being untrue). Furthermore the Assad regime has throughout been employing public relations (some London based) firms to talk up this version of events in the media.

          So just because Assad’s regime is somewhat successful in turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy by manipulating the media, doesn’t mean it bears repeating. Please read Adam Curtis’ excellent piece on Syria for more historical context, it’s quite a shocking and riveting story;

          The Baby and The Baathwater

  3. Dr_Barnowl says:

    Almost read this as “Informs on you as you play”.

    Which, sadly, is probably already true of many games.

    • lordcooper says:

      Probably not.

    • serioussgtstu says:

      Oh definitely. I was playing Torchlight 2 last night when Steam told on me for staying up too late. I immediately got a disapproving email from President Obama and my parents were quickly informed that I was being very bold indeed.

  4. MOKKA says:

    I applaud the effort of the developers in at least trying to tackle some more complex issues. What’s important however now, is how well they are in executing this. I’ll give this game a shot once I’m home and hope that I don’t have to be rude afterwards.

  5. WinTurkey says:

    Seems biased if you can only play from the perspective of the rebels/insurgents/Al Qaeda.

    • Premium User Badge

      beekay says:

      Biased in what sense, exactly? “You can only be one side” isn’t bias. “We’re going to pretend that the rebels are a pure and untarnished force of Justice and Freedom,” or “the government is fighting to control the nation in the face of sinister Western intelligence agencies who are drugging the water” – that’s bias. Is there anything like that you’ve spotted here?

      Then again, given that you’ve decided the Syrian rebels are “Al Qaeda,” I’m not massively optimistic for a decent response.

      • Kobest says:

        The developers said that they wanted to engage players with a more serious, recent event. What you’re writing is your choice how you play the game.

        I’m not sure if you follow the news but have you watched Hillary Clinton admitting that they’re arming extremists to go against the Syrian government? Or the news were these “rebels” were tearing each other apart? Or when they were killing off entire villages, raping women, because they were of a different religion? Guess not…

        • Premium User Badge

          beekay says:

          That’s a ludicrously simplified view of things, and I could respond equally that the government has spent the last year engaged in constant unending atrocities which far overshadow anything the rebels could physically achieve.

          And no, the Americans haven’t said they’re arming the rebels, at least yet (and considering the touchiness of the current administration with being seen to intervene in foreign countries, it’s quite likely they’re not; they can leave that to various EU and Arab countries). Nor have the rebels been lifted from Star Wars – they’re not one coherent entity – and infighting/civilian massacres are certainly not a matter of policy.

          I’ve now played the game and, while I finished pretty fast, I saw no slant in either direction. The sum of its speech was “the rebels are supported by the West and various Arab groups; the government is supported by Russia, China, Iran, and misc. other countries. Both sides are willing to engage in collateral-tempting action.” Perhaps you got some other events.

          • Kobest says:

            What? Arming one-side of a conflict to help out with wider interests is oversimplyfing? It’s rather the oldest trick in the book! :) There’s nothing new under the Sun, so I recommend reading some Sun Tzu.

          • Premium User Badge

            beekay says:

            That might be an old trick, but there’s a newer one we’ve come up with which goes along the lines of “don’t just throw weapons into a volatile and unpredictable conflict when a) there’s a good chance it’ll come back to bite you in the commercial district, and b) it’s a fantastically unpopular proposition among the electorate.”

            If you think nothing has changed since Sun Tzu, you’re staggering wrong, along with most armchair generals of the internet.

          • Kobest says:

            I can feel Sun Tzu rolling in his grave…

        • sinister agent says:

          Do you really need to follow the news to know that the US/UK (delete as appropriate) are arming anyone who opposes their current inconvenient regime du jour? It’s been standard practice since before the USA even existed. Hell, the French helped arm the American revolutionaries just to fuck with Britain.

          • Premium User Badge

            beekay says:

            Yes, the French also armed the Libyan rebels. However, it’s not even slightly clear that the Americans did so, and it’s silly to just assume that they did. And now we’re talking about a conflict which is even more diplomatically explosive, after the West has already expended its very limited political capital on the ‘no-fly zone.’

          • Kobest says:

            Just let him search for those WMDs still, maybe he’ll find them.

    • Baines says:

      From a gameplay perspective, it looks like the Regime has the all-around advantage. And, honestly, that probably makes sense, because it isn’t necessarily easy for rebels to topple regimes.

      I played through twice, and both times I ended up in peace talks. Both sides were losing support at roughly the same rate, but the Regime starts with more support. Rebels seem to get stronger Support cards, but that advantage is quickly eaten into by the costs they end up paying in order to react to the Regime’s stronger military cards.

      The Rebels *might* have an eventual advantage in chipping away at the Regime, but the game appears to force peace talks after a while. (I rejected one, only to have it mandatory when it came up again a few turns later.)

      My guess is that, at least in current form, a human playing the Regime could crush the Rebels with immediate overwhelming force. The Regime’s starting support advantage is pretty major when you have a limited number of turns. Though I could be wrong, particularly if the Rebel is lucky with Political cards that limit actions, and has viable counters to Regime attack cards when necessary.

  6. Kobest says:

    This piece news simply enrages me for the simple reason that these kinds of games and information are the reason that I developed some politics-based games back in college. In my games, the point was to understand the perspective of those natives to Libya and to call out on the mass deception utilized by mass media in order to convince the dumbass public that there regimes are better of changed.

    This might be a step in a better direction i.e. having games tackle more recent events in world history, but the portrayal is laughably one-sided. The Free Syrian army as the noble freedom fighters against the evil govermnent troops supported by the Russians and the Chinese? Oh come on…

    Perhaps if the developers look for sources other than Western-based (i.e. the ones who want to get rid of the government) articles, then the portrayal aspect could have worked better. Sure, the gameplay could be nice, but their vision was seriously clouded.

    • Greg Wild says:

      Agreed here. I’m no fan of the Assad regime (quite the opposite. I hope they receive the Mussolini treatment), but the game certainly needs to pay attention to the narrative coming out of the other side, rather than simply accepting the rebel’s.

      It would have been better if you chose to play as one of a number of rebel groups, with different aims and objectives. At least then it would have demonstrated the complicated nature of the rebels, who are not without their own sinister agents at work.

      • nil says:

        “Jabhat al-Nusra beheading video goes viral on YouTube! Lose ten points.”

  7. Stevostin says:

    This is propaganda and IMHO there should be no review of such without some journalistic work on “who’s financing this ?”. Some elements of answer on their website:

    “GTN is a project by Auroch Digital Ltd, one of the world’s leading video game consultancies. Having worked with partners from Wellcome Trust, UK Parliament, UKIE and many more, Auroch Digital has delivered a range of gaming services from production to gaming strategies. ”

    So they seem to earn their money with governement contracts, at least partially : you can expect their game to get along with what the brit foreign ministry says.

    Now everything is propaganda (at least cultural) up to a point and it’s fine by me to do that kind of game. That’s why we need gaming journalist here: to remind this, then test the game. But if that game doesn’t let you fund islamic groups with qatari money and try to eradicate alaouites, you can know for sure it’s not here for “the facts” : only some of them.

  8. thaumoradiance says:

    I am feeling a very mixed bunch of emotions and thoughts here. At the lower levels of my brain, the thought of turning a recent event which has caused still-raw wounds in millions of poeple seems if not downright sickening, then at least disturbing. On the other hand, I am all for educating the masses – but isn’t that what news, blogs, expert analysts are all for? At the end of the day, perhaps people should make more attention to pay attention to the world they live in, instead of being consumers of edutainment/whatever they favorite YouTube personality serves.

    It actually surprises and baffles me how little many, if not most, people still know abbout this absolutely horrid, blook-soaken quagmire of a civil war.

    I guess that instead of writing a long rant, I will conclude my thought with the “do not f*ck up the addressal of touchy, serious, important subjects”. It seems that a single card-game doesn’t really do much justice to the tragedy off millions.

  9. Rossi says:

    Anyone thought that there has been no intervention because Syria has a military that might actually be able to fight back with some vigor?

    Plus the rebellion is now just a mash up of all kinds of different groups who all want a piece of the action. As soon as this is over and Assad is removed from power then the civil war will really start and it will be down to local Arab states to wade in and sort it all out. It’ll go on for 20 years im sure.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      >>>Anyone thought that there has been no intervention because Syria has a military that might actually be able to fight back with some vigor?

      Do you think it would fare any better than Libia against an ‘airspace denial’ kind of action? There doesn’t seem to be a way to really defy the NATO air superiority.

      • Rossi says:

        Syria has significant air defense systems and would require a concerted effort by multiple allied forces to take down. A no-fly zone would be a good step in the right direction but thats not possible if Syria has the means to easily destroy allied aircraft. Plus Russia wouldn’t like it.

      • Premium User Badge

        FhnuZoag says:

        Libya took several months even under airspace denial. The worst case scenario for Syria is some sort of ongoing Operation Rolling Thunder style operation, with no end in sight. The real problem for Syria, as I see it, is that there’s no real gameplan for how this conflict will terminate with things working out alright at the end of it. The Obama admin really needs to avoid making the Iraq Mistake here.

      • Rossi says:

        Yes Syria is quite different to Libya. With Libya I (from a person watching telly perspective) could see there were two clear groups and at the head of each, a leader. With Syria all I see is the Assad regieme and the ‘rebels’ or ‘Free Syrian Army’. There has been no contact from the FSA (afaik) to ask for diplomatic recognition (as did the Libyan Rebels) and their political objectives are extremely obscure. They don’t seem to have a clear mandate as to what they want to achieve. Yes Assad is a bad man and should be removed but I’m not sure the rebels are any better. Having a clear and concise mandate for the future of their country, the Libyan rebels now govern and are well on the way to becoming stable power in the region. I don’t see this happening with Syria anytime soon.

      • Lanfranc says:

        Syria’s air force comprises several hundred (possibly up to 600) combat aircraft, including modern MiG-29s. Gaddafi’s air force was mostly old MiG-21s and -25s that hadn’t been maintained for years and were mostly grounded, plus a couple of Mirages which defected to Malta almost immediately the civil war broke out.

        Not saying that NATO can’t establish air superiority over Syria – it could certainly be done given sufficient resources, but it’s an entirely different and more difficult mission than over Libya, and it’s not going to happen without losses.

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    • Kaira- says:

      Not now, brave spambot. Let’s not bring religion into this, it’s volatile enough as it is.

  11. U-99 says:

    With only 1 side to play this is obvious propaganda. They should have given player the choise of sides to make it less obvious.

    • Baines says:

      Which side is it propaganda for?

      The Rebels, who might rely on Assassinations or civilian casualty operations to overthrown the Regime? Because you sure aren’t going to manage it with the no/low consequence units alone. (“I *could* send these infantry against that attack, but I’ll lose support when they get wiped out and gain nothing. Or I could send this shady, unpopular, slightly homicidal unit. It’ll look bad, but its no worse than losing the fight, and I’ll inflict damage on the enemy.”)

      Or is it for the Regime, which did something to displease the Rebels in the first place, and uses overwhelming force (with its own consequences) against the ragtag but not necessarily “innocent” Rebels?

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