Monday, June 25, 2007

Two interviews with Joi Ito in the Macedonian Press

At the Creative Commons Macedonia launch last week, Joichi Ito gave two interviews for two Macedonian daily newspapers:
  • the first (pictured) on the spot, for Nedelno Vreme published this Sunday,
The first interview was supplemented by adaptation of the How it Works comics.

The Quest for Perfect Strategy Game

Can real-time strategy (RTS) games be used as a tool to learn strategy? Can the politicians and other leaders use them to learn how to better manage resources, envision moves, plan activities to the benefit of real states? Yes, but only if they use games which apply the accumulated wisdom in this field.

Filip Stojanovski

The basic challenge facing the authors of computer games is balancing the degrees of simulation and playability. The game should tend to reflect the real circumstances, but it also needs to condense and abstract the boredom inherent to war. A game becomes uninteresting failure both if it's too hard and if it's too easy.

The basic factor whether a game is good for learning strategy is whether it uses the knowledge accumulated by the classics in this discipline through history. Games that provide conditions for forcing gamers to apply these lessons are best learning tools.

All the ingredients

Sun TzuAncient Chinese general Sun Tzu teaches that "All warfare is based on deception." In his book The Art of War, he states a general should be familiar with five factors.
These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

• The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
• Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
• Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.
• The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.
• By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.
Basil Henry Liddell HartBritish military theoretician Basil Henry Liddell Hart, whose students included legendary generals such as Rommel and Patton synthesized the historic experiences from the last 2500 years in his book Strategy (1967). He reveals that:
...throughout the ages, effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponent's unreadiness to meet it. The indirectness has usually been physical, and always psychological. In strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.

More and more clearly has the lesson emerged that a direct approach to one's mental object, or physical objective, along the 'line of natural expectation' for the opponent, tends to produce negative results. The reason has been expressed vividly in Napoleon's dictum that 'the moral is to the physical as tree to one'. It may be expressed scientifically by saying that, while the strength of the opposing force or country lies outwardly in its numbers and resources, these are fundamentally dependant upon stability of control, morale and supply.
The concept of Four Generations of Modern War, developed by the American strategist and former marine William S. Lind provides another intellectual framework:

The First Generation (1648-1860) - the state established a monopoly on war, with a military culture of order, with imposed discipline and strict hierarchy, reflected in the way armies act on battlefield, using line and column tactics.

The Second Generation (1860-1939) brought reaction to the suicidal insistence of order against industrialized weapons such as machine guns, using mass firepower, most of which was indirect artillery fire, as a solution. According to Lind:
The goal was attrition, and the doctrine was summed up by the French as, "The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Centrally-controlled firepower was carefully synchronized, using detailed, specific plans and orders, for the infantry, tanks, and artillery, in a "conducted battle" where the commander was in effect the conductor of an orchestra.
The Third Generation resulted from the German reaction to the former two, developed during World War I and applied during World War II. Its basis is "speed, surprise, and mental as well as physical dislocation" of the opponent, focused on solving actual problems in the field, not blindly following orders. This resulted in development of the "first non-linear tactics. On the defense, the objective became sucking the enemy in, then cutting him off, rather than holding a line. On the offensive, the attack flowed like water through the enemy's defenses, always seeking the weakest point to penetrate, then rolling him up from his own rear forward. Operationally as well as tactically the goal was usually encirclement."

Besides states, main actors in the Contemporary Fourth Generation wars include irregular, guerrilla, terrorist and/or mafia networks, with additional complication of clashing cultures on tribal, ethnic, ideological, and/or religious grounds. Such wars represent "mix of ancient and modern," with obvious primacy of the indirectness and the morale, especially regarding developing loyalty of the population as opposed to accumulation of resources, numbers, and firepower.

Games of note, not of use

Popularity of a game does not imply its usefulness as a tool for learning strategy. When the gaming industry overcomes some set of technical limitations, it mainly improves the visual elements and scope of activities - for instance, moving from isometric 2D to 3D, adding more kinds of troops, etc. Unfortunately, most of the contemporary games have not moved from the concept of Second Generation War – their main goal remains solving the equation of inflicting/avoiding physical loses.

In these games, the winner accumulates more resources, increasing the size and firepower of his or her army. The soldiers act as machines, without fatigue or fear even in dead end situations, toiling while they have enough "fuel" or until they suffer enough damage. This concept is partially due to the historical success of games with robot-like units, such as Dune II (1992). They have absolute hierarchy of control, the information and resources travel instantaneously from point to point, and the player's role resembles an omnipresent and omniscient deity, not a flesh-and-blood field commander.

Classic examples of this kind include the serials Age of Empires, Rise of Nations, Cossacks, Warcraft, and Starcraft. These games limit their users to partial control of but two out of the five Sun Tzu's factors (distances, roads, and expenditures), and only the external factors pointed by Liddell-Hart (numbers and resources). Even in games that perfected these elements, such as Sudden Strike, gamers have minuscule or no control over morale or indirectness, and get an impression that they can take them for granted, or completely disregard them.

The key reason for this approach is that the mainstream of American culture remains stuck in the Lind's Second Generation of warfare. Air force has replaced artillery as deliverer of superior firepower, followed by invasion supported by superb logistics. Since the USA's resources remain far larger than any of its opponents, the losses get replenished until total economic collapse of the enemy, or until those who resist are exterminated, disregarding the high cost of lost human lives and overall destruction of the targeted lands.

Niccolò MachiavelliWinning Fourth Generation Wars require minimizing the losses on both sides, and also avoiding humiliation and destruction of the institutions of the opponent, because they will be needed in the post-conflict period to provide law and order against the chaos incited by the anarchic and criminal groups. Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli recommends similar approach in The Prince (1513).

In reality, striving to physically destroy all enemy personnel remains unfeasible due to decreasing of differences between warriors and civilians, and their usual intermingling. Civilian losses increases the will to resist of the targets, and it also increases the negative public opinion world over, and in some cases can lead to legal repercussions. The first two years of the current occupation of Iraq vividly displayed the consequences of such errors.

Regrettably, very few strategic games takes morale as a success factor, with most of them representing the soldiers as blindly obedient executors of players' orders; displaying constant high level of courage, regardless of consequences. Genocide over the "enemy" also remains one of the basic assumptions of games like these. This approach can dramatically mislead the future strategists, leading them to disregard of emotions and empathy, to forgetting that they deal with human beings, and resulting in catastrophic mistakes in interpersonal relations with the subordinates or the opponents.

Such elements remain more present in the city/state running simulations, such as SimCity, Caesar, and Sid Meier's Civilization; or strategy/adventures such as Dune I (1992), where economic factors and satisfying various needs of the population dominate. Still, these games most often concentrate on global (or grand) strategy, with minimum real-time tactical elements – out of focus of this essay.

Another especially unrealistic element of the games such as Age of Empires is building wonder – usually huge buildings such as pyramids or the tower of Babel, leading to swift victory. In fact, such projects prove too expensive and with too minuscule effect in contrast to capacity building of the whole economic and societal system: agriculture, industry, science, education, and defense.

Doing it right

Pioneer of taking morale as element of strategy is Centurion: Defender of Rome (1990), which divides the action in concord with Liddell-Hart's concept of strategy—high politics, diplomacy, propaganda, choosing allies, choosing enemies, decisions to move—lead on a map similar to Risk board, and tactics—positioning the army, maneuvering, and actual fighting. In this case, for instance, attacking from the back brings enormous advantage, while killing a leader can result in a rout of his troops.

In this sense, Centurion had no real competition until the appearance of Shogun, the first Total War sequel in 2000. This game followed the same principles, supplemented with lessons by Sun Tzu and the Book of Five Rings (1645) by samurai Miyamoto Musashi.

Total War introduced limit to player's omniscience, creating the need of intelligence gathering through espionage. It also replaced the isometric display of battles with full three-dimensional environment. Unlike most other RPG serials, which focus on improving the design, this franchise also adds more simulation elements with each new issue, retaining the interest both of more experienced players and history buffs. Such elements include soldier fatigue and terrain type, present in earlier sequels, and role of nepotism in choosing field commanders, introduced in the later. Total War is not (yet) perfect, as it still retains some elements of god-like perception for the player, such as instant transport of resources (money) from and to any point on the map. Adding the element of logistics, such as tax collection caravans and dealing with corruption of governors, and info lag - the time messages need to travel from distant provinces, can add more flavour and realism. At various levels of the game these features can be automated or left to the players to control them hands-on.

Most Fourth Generation War elements remain present in Total War, but not all, such as role of propaganda, victimization, and social engineering, partly due to its historical setting. One game which explicitly refers to them is September 12th. This is a simulation intended to show the futility of tactics of killing "terrorists" with disproportional force – rocket attacks which also harm civilians. In the game, the relatives of civilians who perish become "terrorists" too, so the only result gain is continuing the cycle of violence.

In the past, gamers eager to acquire strategic skills faced a choice: either popular, but not very educational titles such as products by Microsoft and Blizzard, or games requiring high investment in equipment and steep learning curve. Total War solves this dilemma by enlarging the repertoire of activities for solving strategic problems, using both direct and indirect means.

Like all other human skill, strategic thinking can be learned. In the past, the main tools for this included study of history and critical thinking, because they enabled learning from other people's mistakes. Computer games present a welcome enhancement, because they also provide painless learning from one's own mistakes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Imagine all the countries…

Can you imagine UN and EU to be persuaded by…
  • Mexico - to use the reference the Former British Colonies of United States of America for the USA, because the "America" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to the whole geographical area of America?
  • DR Congo - to use the reference the Former French Colony of Central Africa for the Central African Republic, because the "Africa" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to the whole geographical area of Africa?
  • USA - to use the reference the Former Spanish Colony of Mexico for the United Mexican States, because the "Mexico" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to south-western state of New Mexico?
  • USA - to use the reference the Former Soviet Republic of Georgia for the Republic of Georgia, because the "Georgia" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to their southern state of Georgia?
  • Azerbaijan - to use the reference the Former Ottoman Possession of Albania for the Republic of Albania, because the "Albania" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to the geographical region with that name in the Caucasus?
  • Macedonia - to use the reference the Former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro for the Republic of Montenegro, because the "Montenegro" (in original: Crna Gora) part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to the Macedonian region of Crna Gora Mountain?
  • Sweden - to use the reference the Former Russian Province of Finland for the Republic of Finland, because of the claim that Santa Claus is the "most famous Finn," while Sweden considers this cultural figure as its own?
  • France – to use the reference the Former Norman Possession of Great Britain for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because the "Britain" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to the geographical area of Bretagne?
  • Russia – to use the reference the Former Ottoman Possession of Bulgaria for the Republic of Bulgaria, because the "Bulgaria" part of the regular name implies territorial pretensions to the geographical area covered by the historical country with the same name along Volga River?
  • Macedonia – to use the reference the Former Yugoslav Republic of for Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia, because all of them were indeed republics in former Yugoslav federation, and it's unfair only one of them to carry this identity burden.

Then please raise your voice against the continuous discriminatory use of the "temporary" reference the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia by both UN and EU when they refer to Republic of Macedonia. Help putting and end to the surreally ridiculous, but very damaging "name dispute" instigated by Greece.