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.”