- Oil War — Iran Strikes, and: Persian Incursion, and: Battle for Baghdad, and: Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001–?
In addition to civil war in Syria, violence in Iraq, and the recent Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, the Middle East is the subject of another sort of conflict — this time of the ludological kind, expressed in electrons or cardboard rather than real-life death and destruction. This review essay examines four recent board games that address regional conflicts, from the “global war on terror” to a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
First, however, it is worth asking why one might devote serious attention to games, other than with regard to their entertainment value? The answer very much depends on the nature of the game. At one end of the spectrum, there are those serious crisis simulations and professional wargames that attempt to use game methodologies to explore current and future policy issues. Many such efforts are heavily classified exercises by governments on which little information is available, although in some cases a few details have been provided to the press.1 Think tanks and academic institutions also adopt such techniques from time to time, whether to critically explore policy options or advocate for particular policy preferences. The Middle East often figures prominently in these, with the Iranian nuclear issue being perhaps the most publicly “gamed” conflict in the post-Cold War era. As of the time of writing, more than a dozen Iranian crisis simulations have been undertaken by several universities, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute for National Security Studies (Tel Aviv), the Interdisciplinary Center (Herzliya), Newsweek magazine, and the Truman National Security Project, among others.2 Other recent serious simulations [End Page 133] have addressed such varied Middle East issues as varied as the Syrian civil war,3 the Palestinian refugee issue,4 and weapons of mass destruction and regional arms control.5
At the other end of the spectrum are most mass-market digital games, in which a Middle East setting is often largely incidental to the game play. This tends to be the case in “first-person shooters” such as the Call of Duty or Medal of Honor series, in which parts of the action may be set in the Middle East or southwest Asia. Here, the games are revealing not for the insight they generate (which rarely goes beyond “try not to get shot”) but rather for what — as a major, multi-billion-dollar element of contemporary mass popular culture — video games indicate about the way in which society views conflict and international politics. Then again, some digital games have also been more deliberately and explicitly political. Hizbullah, for example, has produced two computer games — Special Force (2003) and Special Force 2 (2007) — that seek to promote its view of the struggle with Israel, while Iran has encouraged the development of a domestic gaming industry to offset what it sees as the biases of Western products.6 Amir Mirza Hekmati, a former US Marine and former employee of Kuma Reality Games, continues to languish in an Iranian prison, accused (among other things) of having worked with the CIA to produce anti-Iranian video games.7 Some digital games have also been designed to promote peace in the region, such as the computer game PeaceMaker (2008) in which participants try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.8
The four games reviewed herein lay somewhere between the two poles of serious analytical exercises and mass consumption entertainment. All four are board games, albeit board games intended for dedicated conflict simulation hobbyists. As such, they are not necessarily indicative of cultural and political attitudes at large, but rather cater to a much narrower group of players for whom both a degree of historical accuracy and enjoyable game play are important considerations. Many designers...