The idea seemed laudable. Create a computer game app on the Syrian civil war that is simple enough for the general public to learn a bit about a complex conflict. Thus was born Endgame: Syria -- which puts the player in command of the Syrian rebels as they battle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's regime. It runs on Android tablets, and it will soon be available on the Apple app store, promises British publisher Auroch Digital.
Except that Apple rejected it. The company said that its guidelines "forbid games that 'solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity,'" according to a statement by Auroch Digital. (Apple did not respond to several requests for comment.) Presumably this is because Apple does not wish to antagonize anyone, although it has no problem with games like Gangster: West Coast Hustle or Pro Sniper: Urban City Conflict, which might offend a few given recent mass shootings. At least it's consistent: Apple previously rejected a World War II game until the designers removed Japanese flags.
But what's really disturbing about Apple's policy is the implication for the future of serious games. Organizations are increasingly turning to games as a way to engage and educate the public through fun instead of pedantic policy papers. In 2009, there was Darfur is Dying, where the player assumed the role of a Darfurian refugee child braving Sudanese Janjaweed militias to forage for war. Endgame: Syria is part of Auroch Digital's "Game the News" project, which aims to quickly depict current events through games (the Syria sim was designed in two weeks).
But how can you design a game based on current events that doesn't mention a specific race, culture, government, or corporation? The answer is that you can't, which means it will be nigh impossible to produce a current events game that can be downloaded from Apple's very popular app store. Perhaps game designers will have to resort to euphemisms just as Chinese bloggers do: Instead of a game on Syria, we can look forward to a game on Sarnia, where rebels fight the brutal dictator Bashem al-Assault.
This is sad. It's not that Endgame: Syria is a particularly meaningful simulation of the Syrian conflict. It plays like the Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon fantasy card games that kids love. Assad's Shabiha thugs would make great monsters in Magic (and more than a few people would like to play the "NATO Flaming Sword" card on them), but the game doesn't really delve into the complexities of civil war, counterinsurgency, and popular uprisings.
That's not really the point, though. Many people would be hard-pressed to find Syria on a map, let alone know the factions that are fighting and the outside nations that are backing them. A simple computer card game may not be deep, but when players ponder whether to play a "Saudi Support for the Rebels" or a "Rebels Assassinate Key Regime Leader" card, they are making decisions, and that is how humans learn best. Perhaps it will spur them to learn more current events, or if nothing else, they may remember a few names and places, and who is fighting who. At the least, they will learn a lot more than playing Angry Birds on an iPhone.