Play Nice

A peaceful video game’s virtuous reality

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IMAGINE that you are a resident of the subtropical nation Infeliz, suffering under the brutal reign of a dictator named Michael Kosanic. You decide to launch a nonviolent resistance movement to force him out. You’re seeking a brilliant, charismatic leader who can pull it off. My advice: Don’t pick me. That is, unless you want your movement to end up scattered, bankrupt, and imprisoned, while Kosanic crushes the nation in his ever-tightening grip. In that case, I’m your man.

That is my lesson from a week spent playing A Force More Powerful—The Game of Nonviolent Strategy, a SimCity-like computer game that pitted me—as the strategic brains behind a grassroots democracy movement—against various evil and repressive governments. AFMP, the brainchild of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, is advertised as a training tool for “people who want to use nonviolent action in their own struggles for rights and freedom.” Players choose from 10 possible scenarios, urged on by on-screen quotes from Margaret Mead and M.L.K. Jr. It shines with the luster of noble intentions. Noble intentions, however, do not an exciting video game make.

As the leader of a group challenging the ruthless Kosanic, I’m given a team of pixelated activists to inspire. And while I’m happy to leave tactics like “mass execution” and “ethnic cleansing” to the dictator, I’m guiltily disappointed to find that “destroy property” and “intimidation” are off-limits to me. Fundraising and handing out literature may be crucial in the real world of politics, but here they just seem like chores.

But in my hands, the pro-democracy movement is closer to a British football riot than an Orange Revolution. My attempts at marches, vigils, and building occupations collapse into spasms of violence. On the upside, the game’s only half-interesting graphics appear whenever my animated supporters go berserk. After several virtual months have elapsed, all my chief organizers have been arrested and my members are “despondent.” I can’t blame them. It’s the perfect time for a Hail Mary play, like assassinating the dictator. But alas, my only secret weapon is…taking a poll. My candidate comes in at 0 percent.

After starting over a few times, I begin to improve my results, if not necessarily my own enjoyment. Playing AFMP, at least, feels more socially conscious than blowing away nameless mercenaries in Halo 2. If nothing else, A Force More Powerful will teach aspiring activists that even seemingly organic movements are built on a multitude of thankless and pedestrian tasks. But who said nonviolent change was supposed to be fun?

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