A gamified war

Is it like Afghanistan? Is it Vietnam again? Does it look like Serbia, 1999? Any connection to World War II? To the Cold War? Which one of them is it?

The answer is “all.” It is all of these and more than that. The war in Ukraine has a virtual component easy to notice if it were only for cyberwar and hackers. But it’s even more: Age of Empires. Civilization played by an aggressive guy. DOOM and Wolfenstein. The war in Ukraine is gamified.

Historical analogies

Afghanistan is the most obvious analogy of what happened at the beginning of 2022 in Ukraine. The kind of problem Russians created for themselves when trying to military subdue one of the former satellites. But what about Vietnam? Vietnam was a proxy war. However, while Ukraine is fighting for the Western allies, Russia seems to fight for itself. But what if it does not, in fact? There’s another unobtrusive participant in the conflict: China, which fuels Russia, both in diplomatic and economic terms. And is the only undeniable long-term winner of the conflict.

Then there’s WWII. No matter how much the Ukraine conflict belongs in the 21st century, with drones and cyberwarfare, the sheer size of land operations has been unaccounted for in Europe since 1945. Then, again, there’s Serbia. UN is simply not working as a peacekeeping mechanism because of Russia’s vote in the Council of Security. However, both states and international organizations are getting involved in a war, which is ethically justifiable but debatable in terms of international law, similar to NATO’s bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999. And finally, Cold War comes to mind because of isolation and lockdown from the other side, both in political and economic terms. Globalization breaks in two, SWIFT only covers a part of the world while the other uses something alternative, Splinternet may appear, Comecon may get reinvented with the convertible yuan instead of the convertible ruble.

Such an affluence of analogies already puts us into a postmodern territory, where words and precedents tend to shape not only the perception of facts but facts themselves. But also tend to channel the historical past into the near future by concentrating yesterday’s political outcomes into the following stages, possibly as self-fulfilling prophecies. Historical precedents turn into tropes to structure events like in game scenarios.

Gamification. The game characteristics of the Ukraine war

In its common sense, gamification is related mostly to marketing, more precisely to applying game mechanisms to something else than games, to make that “something else” more attractive and entertaining to a certain audience. Usually, it’s commercial products, but it can also be other things, such as education or Internet forums, where stars are symbolic rewards for active users. But in a broader sense, game mechanics spills itself into the world even without the deliberate involvement of any commercial brand or clearly defined entity. Such is the case of the Ukraine conflict, which has at least several characteristics similar to games:

  • A different kind of interaction. Offline war is mostly two-sided physical confrontation through weapons and armies. The Ukraine war involves much more than that. Let us think about private cyberarmies such as Anonymous taking part in it. Cyberwar adds a game-like component to the war, no matter how bad this sounds. It is hard to count sites defacing and other private hacker victories among real strategic advances. But they’re still victories, celebrated as such, in the wider sense of a wider war.
  • Game rewards. Private involvement in the Ukraine war is recompensed with Facebook likes, retweets, and other symbolic distinctions. This is common to general social networks dynamics, but it applies to a considerable extent to Ukraine. In social network terms, Ukraine is a treasure trove. Anything one says or does in Ukraine’s defense is highly rewarded, and it is easy to take Ukraine’s side.
  • A map. It is originally a real-world map, but one with close similarities to fictional game maps. The Ukraine conflict map is colored, figurative, and ornated by memes, videos, and all the infographics the media is fueling us with. It is dynamic, changes in real-time. And also fictional to a certain extent, since the deployment of troops and other things are mostly drawn according to unreliable one-sided reports. In another sense, the Ukraine war map looks and reads more like the very approximative but beautiful pre-modern maps of Antiquity and the Middle Age.
  • A “chat window”: the global media, primarily Twitter and other dominant social networks. The colossal online conversation complements and amplifies the wargame mechanics.
  • Avatars. One cannot neglect Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s past as a performer, i.e., an avatar in pre-Internet terms. This is not meant to diminish or deny in any way Ukraine’s president’s bravery and leadership. On the contrary, it means the only notorious case of contemporary leader bravery involves a performing/avatar component. In another sense, Putin is also an avatar, with his enigmatic reasons and goals – although an ambiguous one, because it consists of two different perceptions built up by his propaganda and the rest of the world.
  • Gambling. While not generally associated with gamification, risk-taking does belong in this category. Putin made a gamble when he attacked Ukraine, but also his Western opponents took energic – and risking – measures against the aggression, consisting of massive military supplies sent to the theatre of operations and severe economic sanctions. EU’s and US’s restraint, pragmatism, and sometimes cowardice have been replaced by fast, resolute political response. The world is applauding the decisive actions taken against Putin, and it is right to do so. But some consequences are yet to be considered.

Game (lack of) consequences

All or most of the characteristics above could be considered part of other interpretations, focused on Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, for example. However, thinking about the Ukraine war in terms of gamification is helpful to the extent that it evokes an uncomfortable and intellectually provoking perception, which is necessary today. Everything that looks game-like sometimes lacks consequences, while other times tends to disguise or conceal real consequences.

In terms of cyberwarfare or hybrid war, the Ukraine conflict is considerably more extended than the opposition of two national armies, with or without external support. In terms of gamification, the Ukraine war is already a world war between natural persons, where a massive part of humankind is privately participating. As game warriors on global social networks, we do have real and praiseworthy feelings and attitudes about the Ukraine conflict. Some of our actions, such as donations or direct involvement in the refugee problem, have concrete results, while our global cheerleading is an essential motivator both for the heroic Ukrainians and for the hesitating Western politicians. We are exempt from the physical impact of our actions; for now, the Ukrainians only feel this in the theatre of war. Nevertheless, being in a war does have consequences.

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