This War of Mine
Years ago I had the good fortune of spending an evening talking movies with Roger Ebert. His knowledge of film was encyclopedic and matched only by his passion for watching them.
I’ll always be grateful that Roger urged me to see the film Grave of the Fireflies. It is anime, which is to say, Japanese animation. When he first mentioned it, I doubted whether watching a movie-length Japanese cartoon could possibly be time well spent. But his love for the film swayed me to give it a go. It is a gift and an antiwar masterpiece. I suggest avoiding reviews; they’re stellar, but you’ll get preconceived notions. Just track down the film and watch it.
After opening my eyes to anime as a form of expression I had categorically written off, Roger ironically committed the same error in a different medium. He went on record saying, “Video games can never be art.” If Roger were alive today, I would with the same heartfelt appeal he used to persuade me to watch Grave of the Fireflies urge him to experience a game called This War of Mine.
If you’re reading this on a Mac, Windows or Linux computer, you have a chance to do something wonderfully impulsive. Ditch this article and go play the game. You don’t need fast reflexes or gaming skills; just a mouse and a $20 vote of confidence for a small indie studio that has produced a masterwork that lovers of liberty ought to celebrate from the rooftops.
Not convinced yet? Onward then.
This War of Mine is not a war game. It’s a game about living through war. The objective is simple but far from easy. Survive. You the player are in charge of a few civilians hiding out in a war-torn city. You make decisions on their behalf, and in so doing, come to feel the anxiety, moral dilemmas, and crushing difficulty of the situations they encounter.
The game immediately opens with a bracing Hemingway quote that flies in the face of typical war game rhetoric about honor and sacrifice:
In modern war you will die like a dog for no good reason.
From there you enter the game world, a bombed out house where the people you’re charged with saving have taken refuge. They come from different backgrounds and are thrown together by circumstance after having lost their friends and family. The whole situation is unthinkably awful and relentlessly confronts you with the choice to step up or give up. Just outside you see this bit of graffiti on the wall:
This War of Mine imparts powerful lessons in economics. It’s one thing to read about economics. But experiencing an economic principle under dire circumstances gives you a much deeper understanding. By analogy, you can studiously read a book about swimming, but playing This War of Mine pushes you in the deep end of the pool.
Economics at its root is about dealing with material scarcity. And boy do you get a hands-on lesson in scarcity. Food is a precious commodity. But so is medicine. And bandages. And basic tools. And weapons to protect yourself from looters and bandits.
Back aching from sleeping on the floor? Simple comforts we take for granted like a chair or a bed must be fashioned out of scavenged raw materials. Thirsty? Collect snow and rainwater. Want to dig through rubble in hopes of finding something useful? Fashion a shovel. If only you had a bit of scrap metal…
It’s too dangerous to go outside during the day because there are snipers and roving bandits throughout the city. Nighttime is when you scavenge for food and materials.
During the day you’re in your shelter deciding what to do. If you’ve been scavenging all night, you need to rest or you’ll be literally slumped over from exhaustion. But the daytime is when others who slept can cobble together items to make life more bearable. Fixing a broken guitar, piecing together a basic radio – things like this cheer up your people and temporarily distract them from the nightmare they’re living through.
You can even build a still and get them drunk, though you’ll suffer from the hangover and have to sleep it off, losing the opportunity to scavenge.
The game sensitizes you to the nightmarish consequences of division of labor breaking down. You constantly have to make resource allocation decisions that have huge stakes. Which person gets to eat this meal? Two people are wounded – who gets the bandages? You’re out scavenging and can only carry so many things back home. It’s agonizing to leave behind materials you desperately need.
You’re continually monitoring the physical and mental condition of each person you’re caring for. Hunger, exhaustion, sickness, wounds, depression…all must be staved off or they will overcome you.
Things got so bad for one of my people that he committed suicide. This of course had a devastating emotional impact on the others. Often you can feel your brain extrapolating these events into real life, and you catch glimpses of how much of a constant horror war is in every facet of daily existence.
Crushing material scarcity gives rise to brutal moral challenges. While scavenging, one of my people came across a house on the outskirts of the city. An elderly couple was there, the wife suffering from acute dementia. The husband asked if I was a looter and begged me not to hurt them. Meanwhile they had some food and precious medicine.
With starving people back home and one of them seriously ill, what do you do? Take anything? Everything? Nothing? The couple was utterly unable to defend themselves from bandits and would almost certainly be victimized one way or another. It’s easy to preach non-aggression when the sun is shining. Not so easy when you’re starving to death. Your choices in a situation like this have a major impact on your people’s psychology. If they are racked with guilt or fall into depression, you can see the toll it takes on everything they do.
Other times the tables are turned on you. At nighttime the house is at risk of being raided. If everyone is asleep, they can be gravely wounded and have precious items stolen. You can keep one or more of them on guard throughout the night to stave off bandits, but then they’re exhausted during the day and more susceptible to illness.
There are periodic opportunities to be beneficent. Two young children knocked on our door. Their mother was sick and their father had been killed. Could we spare any medicine for her? We had only one bottle, and because nobody was ill at the time, I decided to give it to the children. That lifted everyone’s spirits in the house. But the cold nights and our lack of firewood soon took its toll, and I was wishing I had that medicine back when two of our people fell ill.
A core economic skill you have to master to survive is barter. Faith in political money has collapsed, and everything is up for trade. If you’re clever, you can scavenge materials which can be fashioned into useful exchange items – cigarettes, alcohol, medicinal herbs, etc. People will knock on your door looking to trade. They don’t drive easy bargains. It will often hurt to give up so much to get what you desperately need.
Want to feel grateful? After a few hours of This War of Mine, go to a mall and just walk around. I did and was overcome by the miraculous abundance provided by the market and its unthinkably complex coordination of people peacefully seeking to meet each other’s needs.
If you are willing to risk the life of one of your people, you can attempt a looting mission. There is a military base where the soldiers will trade from their huge cache of food and medicine if you have cigarettes or booze. They know they have you over a barrel, so they drive a ruthless bargain.
I was so broke that the few cigarettes and flask of alcohol I offered weren’t going to get the food and medicine I needed to source for my starving people. So I had one of them sneak inside the barracks and dip into their supplies. It was harrowing and certain death if she was caught, but she made it out alive and our group managed to cling to life because of it.
Creatively speaking, this game is a revolt against the status quo. Most war games are a showcase of warmongering propaganda and ideological deception. War is necessary. War is honorable. War is the ultimate sacrifice we must pay for freedom. And in its most Orwellian incarnation, war is freedom. The United States invasion of Iraq was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. These propaganda themes in video games are also common in war movies and mainstream media.
But war games do something even more sinister and insidious. They make mass murder thrilling, great fun. And judging by their stunning market success, they succeed. Young people are drawn to them by the millions and devote billions of hours to them. They are a powerful recruiting tool for the state, and they utterly blunt people to perceiving the realities of war.
Anybody who has played the technological tour de force that is the Call of Duty franchise can attest to the graphical realism, immersion and excitement of being thrust into no-holds-barred combat in a sports-like setting. Every high tech wondertoy devised by the military industrial complex is at your disposal. When you and your teammates kill your opponents or they kill you, you “respawn.” The agony of injury and disfigurement, the emotional damage of maiming and killing other people, the unforgiving finality of death…all are artfully glossed over with clever gameplay and audiovisual legerdemain. Head shot kills are like making a three-pointer in a basketball game.
War is nothing but regime-sanctioned mass murder. But in the realm of video games, war is recast as a pyrotechnic mega-sport offering a far bigger adrenaline rush than watching men run around a real field or court chasing a ball. The Call of Duty franchise alone has racked up over $10 billion in sales and counting.
After watching Grave of the Fireflies, I read Ebert’s review. Here’s the line that stood out: “Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” The same is true for This War of Mine and video games. I hope people who understand the stakes of liberty will send the market signal that this is the creative direction video games ought to take. Please spread the word. Support this developer’s antiwar message and buy this game.
Liberty is to life what sand is to beaches.