By Hallie Golden
You are now the president of the United States. Iran has enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. You’ve promised the American people that this will not be tolerated and that the country will take military action. The fate of the country is in your rather inexperienced hands. So, what do you do?
Do you “Work through diplomatic channels to assemble a multinational coalition?” Or do you “launch a unilateral U.S. strike?”
In the Truman National Security Project’s new choose-your-own-adventure computer game "Tell Me How This Ends," this is the first decision players must make. From there, they open a Pandora’s box of chaos as they work through scenarios that eventually lead to one of six different outcomes that all carry serious consequences.
The game came out on the Project’s website on Friday, after being molded into a video game by their policy team over the course of three weeks. Its content is based on consultations with senior national security officials, who gave their best guesses as to what the likely outcomes of war with Iran could be.
According to the Project’s media relations director, Stephanie Dreyer, the game has already received 20,000 hits. The purpose of the game is to educate the public, she says. “If we are going to go to war with Iran, we need to understand the cost and consequence. The goal is to accurately simulate the choices we would be making.”
Video games can be an effective format to convey information, but they’re even more potent as an advocacy tool. Instead of feeding people news through articles or broadcasts, these games take people into the circumstances as active participants, which can make them truly care about the outcome. Games, of course, are not unbiased. The assumptions of the Truman Project shape the game, and the game’s name—a quote by General David Petraeus explaining how easy it is to start wars but how difficult it is to end them—reflects their particular bias.
When acting out a mock real-life scenario based on actual current events and information from experts, it is all too easy to take the information at face value. “Tell Me How This Ends” is a fun, interactive way to engage the public. It puts people in the mindset of the President but limits their choices and the possible outcomes, exposing the player to the Truman Project’s understanding of the situation. It’s a brilliant piece of propaganda, and this sort of computer game advocacy will surely be replicated elsewhere.
The stated purpose of “Tell Me How This Ends” is to “teach users about the cost and consequences of military action with Iran.” From the moment our facsimile country steps into war, all choices seem to cause overwhelming destruction. By the time I reached the final scenario and it said, “We have spent billions on military action but have no assurance that Iran’s nuclear program has been destroyed or ended,” my reaction was probably exactly what the Project was hoping for: “We never should have gone to war in the first place.” It is extremely convincing, and getting the chance to pretend to be the most powerful person in America is exciting.
By presenting a question whose answer results in a news briefing and newscast that detail the results of their decision, players truly feel like they are living the scenario. “It really forces people to consider the consequences of their actions,” Dreyer says. “People are going through this exercise and really getting stumped, which is exactly what we want.” Even if one questions the accuracy of the game, players will not be able to think simplistically about military action against Iran after engaging with a detailed analysis of its consequences.
Of course, the Truman Project isn’t the first organization to use game propaganda. Hezbollah created a game about five years ago called “Special Force 2” that depicts the actual clash between them and Israel. The player gets to be a holy warrior, and the more Israelis they kill, the more points they get. Hezbollah media official Sheikh Ali Daher told CNN in August 2007 that "This game presents the culture of the resistance to children: that occupation must be resisted and that land and the nation must be guarded.”
A few video games have transcended mere boosterism and worked to foster an environment where new ideas can emerge. Last April, the game Paths out of Poverty, a joint effort of the Institute For The Future and the Rockefeller Foundation, attempted to find solutions to global poverty by opening up the discussion to people across the world. The format resembled a card game made up of 140-character forecasts. It ended up attracting 1,600 people from 79 countries and generating more than 18,000 ideas to combat poverty.
By the time I get to the final question of “Tell Me How This Ends,” not only has my war resulted in countless American, Iranian and Israeli casualties, but national gas prices are astronomically high and unemployment is on the rise. The game asks me whether I want to end the war by dramatically escalating the U.S. troop presence, withdrawing completely, or isolating and managing the threat with a limited commitment. I pick the latter choice. But when I read that this means committing 20,000 active troops and $18 billion annually while bombing Iran every three to four years, I am ready to take a time machine back to the first question and not go to war in the first place.
Hallie Golden is an Editorial Associate at World Policy Journal.