Armchair nonviolent activists who have been following with envy the “People Power” uprisings elsewhere now have a couple of new ways to channel their frustration:

One is by reading Ira Chernus’s book American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea, which is now available on-line.

And the other is by playing a video game, of all things. This new game is in the war gaming tradition, but with a twist:

A pro-democracy group has sponsored a free video game designed to teach political activists how to plan and execute strategic non-violent warfare.…

“It lets them try different things on the computer before they try them in the real world,” said Ivan Marovic, a consultant on the game, and a former Serbian student leader who helped organize the protests that ousted Slobodan Milosevic. “I wish I’d had it.”

Sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the game, called “A Force More Powerful,” resembles a cross between a political science model and one of the popular city-builder games. The player represents the chief of staff of a non-violent resistance movement. He gives orders to various characters within the movement, who will attempt to carry out actions such as making speeches and organizing demonstrations.

The non-player-characters are rated for factors such as willpower and ambition. “There is a balancing act between the different egos and wills of the individuals involved,” said Bob McNamara, a producer at Breakaway Games… “They will always attempt to carry out your orders, but if they don’t like the task, the chances of success will be modified. We wanted to capture the dynamic of the fact that you’re in a movement of volunteers, and they won’t always do what you say.”

The game’s artificial intelligence controls the members of the targeted regime, who can be persuaded or bribed to become neutral or even defect.

“Governments are not monolithic,” said McNamara. “Suppose you have a regime character who is intolerant of violence. If that person were to see the regime use violent repression, he might become disgusted. Or suppose the regime is conscious of its international image, whether for aesthetic or economic reasons. If one of the regime members is a businessman with a lot of international business ties, then going to the international community to put pressure on him might work.”

“A general will not shoot demonstrators if support for the regime is too low,” agreed Marovic, who has advised pro-democracy movements in Georgia and Ukraine. “This happened in the Ukraine, where the security forces changed sides.”

While “A Force More Powerful” sounds like a more sophisticated version of political entertainment games such as Tropico, where players impersonate a dictator, or Revolution, where they try to overthrow one, what makes this design unique is its emphasis on methodical military-style planning. Indeed, the process resembles how U.S. military commanders war game a situation by considering various alternatives and their consequences.

When a player begins a scenario, a series of menus force him to create a strategic estimate. First, he chooses his goals from a list that includes regime change, altering specific regime policies such as racial discrimination, persuading security forces not to intervene and gaining the support of the media. “You can devise a strategy based on what you feel is the best way to proceed,” McNamara said.

Next comes choosing tactics that range from strikes to protests. Finally, the player divides his plan into phases and which objectives he’ll try to achieve in each phase. At the end of the game, an evaluation screen will inform him how well he did versus the expectations of the scenario designer.

The game’s extensive scenario editor enables users to tailor the game to their own nations. Scenarios can range from building up support in a single neighborhood to waging non-violent conflict across an entire nation, said the Breakaway designer. The game is designed to be as open-ended as possible, with players able to choose multiple tactics. “We don’t give a player two choices at some point in the game, and say, ‘pick one,’” said co-designer Ananda Gupta. “The player has tremendous free-form control over the strategy and options.”

“A Force More Powerful,” which is designed for low-end computers, will be available for free in . It will be distributed on CDs and on the Internet. Versions are planned for specific regions and languages. While repressive regimes will attempt to suppress the game, McNamara and Marovic are confident that it can be distributed to pro-democracy groups.

But will the activists even want it? Some may dislike it because it’s just too practical, said Steve York, senior producer with York Zimmerman, which produced the award-winning television series also titled “A Force More Powerful.” York said it’s easy for idealists to forget that successful activists such as Gandhi and King devoted a great deal of time to preparation and organization.

“A non-violent movement has to take a lot of time and prepare. They have to know their strengths and weaknesses and those of their opponent. People tend to forget that non-violent resistance has a hard-headed, practical side.”

“This game means they don’t have to learn the hard way,” York added. “It’s very difficult to wage a conflict using these techniques. They can learn without harming themselves,” he explained.

Marovic, the former student leader, said that many of those who planned the toppling of Milosevic played computer strategy games. “Out of 10 people in the leadership, five played strategy games, such as ‘The Operational Art of War,’” he recalled.

But lack of experience and expertise in strategic mistakes hampered the protesters. “We weren’t trained at the higher military schools,” Marovic said wryly. “We couldn’t have the structure that the military people could.” This led the Serbian protesters to move too quickly to confront the Milosevic regime in . “We entered the engagement phase too soon, without entering the buildup phase. We should have gotten more public resources, more human resources, more members, more supporters.”

The consequences were more than student arrests. “We lost politically,” Marovic recalled. “That was the main loss. Milosevic managed to avoid the worst scenario for him, which was to step down, and through some legal manipulation, he managed to politically diminish the protest.”

By , the opposition had learned its lesson. “If you look at the media, it looks like people just fill the streets,” Marovic said. “The game will show it’s not like that.”

Well, what can you do when you’re born with a name like Bob McNamara?

But seriously, folks… nonviolent conflict seems to have finally gained some official respectability, and good cash money to go along with it — from private groups like the Soros Foundation and even from the U.S. government, which occasionally finds its motives running parallel to those of “People Power” movements, and gives them a boost.

But though realpolitik is naturally at play here, I can’t be too cynical — it seems to me that “People Power” uprisings have a much greater likelihood of generating long-term positive change, even when funded by self-serving governments from outside, than do the alternative techniques of bombing the bejeezus out of everybody until the dictator finally falls. There’s something very healthy about establishing the precedent of getting together with your neighbors and throwing the bums out.

And on that note, let me recommend Claire Wolfe’s new article: “Twelve Tips for Toppling Tyrants”

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