Taking Turns

The complexity of the fight against terrorism defies a board game’s ability to represent it

Labyrinth: The War on Terror (2001–?), a board game released in late 2010, is one of the few games, analog or digital, to present a comprehensive, abstracted model of the Western powers’ approach toward combatting terrorism — what George W. Bush’s administration branded the “Global War on Terror.” It differs from other, more popular video games on the topic — such as the various iterations of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six franchise or the Call of Duty series — in that players do not run around in a first- or third-person perspective, toting automatic weaponry and assaulting terrorist strongholds. One is not immersed in the war-porn immediacy of violence; instead Labyrinth players use cards representing capabilities or historical events — like the recent Paris Attacks, the revelation of abuses committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, or the emergence of al-Zarqawi in the Iraq war of the mid-2000s — to move wooden pieces representing troops and terrorist cells across a stylized map of the Western and Muslim world.

Board games, no less than video games, are synthesized reflections of the society from which they spring

This antiseptic approach, though it may not overwhelm the senses or simulate real-time action, allows Labyrinth to offer a greater range of narratives beyond the fixed scripts of video games: Each play-through sees a novel configuration of events spun into a narrative that nonetheless re-creates and reinforces how those incidents first engrained themselves in Western culture. Designed as a two-player, U.S. vs. “jihadist” war game, Labyrinth revolves around controlling how certain nations regarded as pivotal to the “war on terror” are ruled. In the game, the U.S. player seeks to change the way Muslim nations are governed by suppressing the presumed incentives for supporting radicalism, while the jihadist player seeks to destabilize governance, making it easier to further their agenda — in the words of the game’s designers, “the ongoing bid by Islamic extremists to impose their own brand of religious rule on the Muslim world.” Sometimes the jihadists win, sometimes the U.S. wins, though the process by which this is decided differs from game to game.

Gameplay involves a cycle of action and reaction between the two players. For example, the jihadist, attempting to access to weapons of mass destruction, may try to recruit underground cells in Pakistan; the U.S. player may then respond by moving troops there from nearby Afghanistan. The jihadist player in turn may then decide to lay down “plot markers” in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would then force the U.S. player to use precious resources to “alert” both plots and remove them from play instead of conducting disruption operations against underground cells.

The game’s mechanics attempt to represent not the visceral intensity of combat but the logic of terrorism and strategies of asymmetric warfare as they are understood from a Western perspective. But board games no less than video games are synthesized reflections of the society from which they spring. So also encoded in Labyrinth’s narratives are Western assumptions regarding the “true” nature of terrorism, and Western heuristics for understanding the cause-and-effect chain associated with terrorism are meant to be contemplated through play.

All commercial war board-game design must find the sweet spot between verisimilitude and playability. To produce a two-player game that can be played in two to four hours requires a balancing act between design abstraction and embedded narrative: Each must reinforce the other. The resulting model must not only present a streamlined historical sense of cause and effect but also a simplified and potentially satisfying ideological reading of the conflict: Labyrinth winnows what terrorism is and can become into forms instantly recognizable by its anticipated players. If the game design is successful, play acts as a feedback loop for the reality it purports to simulate.

Right up front, Labyrinth makes clear how it links Islamic extremism with terrorism, often precluding other forms of violence and other actors from being perceived as terrorism or terrorists. The West is represented as the only guarantor of liberal ideals, with Islamic extremism (i.e., terrorism) best solved by force or through alignment with Western ideological perspectives. Jihadism is seen as the by-product of poor governance in the nation-states that foster its existence. There is little mention of the often exploitative or destabilizing relationship between Western powers and the Muslim world.

Labyrinth winnows what terrorism is and can become into forms instantly recognizable by its anticipated players. Play acts as a feedback loop for the reality it purports to simulate

This narrative framing found reinforcement with the release of Labyrinth’s sequel. In the rule book for the 2016 Labyrinth: The Awakening (2010–?), designer Trevor Bender claimed that the new game provided “up to date” events that allow “the game to continue to serve as an effective strategic level model of the ongoing struggles in the Muslim world.”

More so than any other material component, the games’ event cards distill Western attitudes about the Global War on Terror. They feature not only particular incidents but portraits of personalities, places, and particularities of the struggle, anchoring and extending the West’s perception of itself and the “other” it imagines it confronts. The cards not only familiarize Western audiences with what is deemed important by the designer specifically and Western culture generally, but they also posit a range of dramatic potentialities for events without upsetting the established historical narrative. Cards such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (“Kashmir insurgency spawns jihadists”) and Al-Ittihad al-Islami (“Somali jihadists”) re-create within the game the same perception that authorizes it as a whole: the belief, most prominent in the rhetoric of right-wing demagogues, that global-scale Islamic extremism is the only force that produces “real” terrorism and that jihadis may spring forth from any Muslim nation.

Each card distills large, sprawling subjects and historical incidents into a miniature, poised for deployment to trigger a dramatic moment of gameplay. The event cards become concentrated moments of emotional intensity in the montage of incidents that gameplay unfolds. Game effects are fused with the emotional affect associated with terrorist acts in the real world. But the event cards also prompt an understanding of terrorism only within the logical and predictable boundaries established by the game’s design. This allows what would otherwise be a messy outpouring of emotion to be funneled into an ideological channel within a controlled narrative form.

To play Labyrinth or its sequel is to seemingly engage in the Global War on Terror at a miniature scale. And miniatures, according to historian Hillel Schwartz in The Culture of the Copy, allow subtlety “with the play-full-ness of character” and extend us “toward second chances, times ahead and remediable.” Labyrinth players place and manipulate their miniatures on the game board in an attempt to seek not only understanding but also control and a sense of transcendence over the conflict depicted. Play becomes both reassuring and palliative, a means by which to relive and comprehend the Global War on Terror without experiencing its accompanying sense of helplessness or futility.

As much as Labyrinth and its sequel have in common in how they depict terrorism, their differences suggest ways in which Western ideas and anxieties have shifted. New event cards point toward the evolving role of technology in terrorism, and changing attitudes toward technology’s potential in preventing it.

In the original game, the card deck cast technology as a complementary asset that suited the ideological perspectives of their respective users. Labyrinth did not classify any technology-themed event cards as neutral; they were associated with either the U.S. or jihadist side. The technology cards available to the U.S. — Biometrics, Predators, the Intel Community, and Wiretapping — emphasized the use of technology in the form of surveillance by federal authorities on entire populations. By contrast, the jihadist technology cards — IEDs, Clean Operatives, and Martyrdom Operations depict technology as an asymmetric tactic that leverages surprise and the media’s propensity to amplify spectacle. So where the U.S.’s technology is determining — that is, it can be implemented at will and automatically yields results (surveillance captures its targets and produces relevant intelligence) — the jihadists’ technology relies on chance.

Where the technology cards available to the U.S. are determining and automatically yield results, the jihadists’ technology relies on chance

Certain technologies are seen as a force for good and thus inherently antithetical to the jihadist cause. Wiretapping and Biometrics in particular are treated as guarantors, capable of faultlessly distinguishing a harmful jihadist from a regular citizen of the West. Jihadist technologies are cast as crude and indiscriminate in comparison, reliant on haphazard violence and emotional affect rather than planned militaristic effect. The Western powers may use bombs, but they don’t use IEDs — at least according to Labyrinth.

Labyrinth: The Awakening broke with its predecessor by having some neutral technology types that belong exclusively to neither side. So while some of the exclusive technologies for both sides have been updated, the game also includes cards that suggest certain forms of technology can both facilitate and combat terrorism. This was perhaps driven by a desire to represent ISIS and its more sophisticated use of Western-sourced media techniques. The neutral event cards Cyber Warfare (“Hacker penetrates key systems”) and JV/Copycat (“Radicalization of international jihadists using the darkweb”) suggest that the increased development and reliance upon networked computing and the emergence of the internet of things have made these tools broadly accessible and not the exclusive domain of state actors.

Two other new cards suggest an evolved sense of jihadist capabilities, showing how the perceived lines between the West and Islamic extremists have blurred. A card for Snowden points to the dual-edged nature of homeland security efforts, how the U.S. deploys intensive surveillance against citizens to ostensibly protect their freedom. And a card for Unconfirmed reveals the limits of anti-terrorism campaigns prosecuted through air power or use of Special Forces alone. In the game, the Unconfirmed card represents not just mission failure but also calls into question whether submission of the enemy can ever be confirmed. There are always more targets.

Perhaps most telling is the new card for Jihadi John. It resembles the Jihadist Videos card from the original card set, in that each depicts jihadists staring into the camera, suggesting an intention of using the internet to spread propaganda. But while the Jihadist Videos card is a jihadist event and has imagery, text, and game effect that suggests the videos in question are meant for a predominantly non-Western, Muslim audience, the Jihadi John card — a neutral card — suggests something different. No longer an anonymous/ubiquitous extremist, Jihadi John is depicted as a celebrity, in every grotesque meaning of the word, whose decapitations are tailor-made spectacles for Western audiences.

It is as if the West cannot help but be captivated by the appearance of Jihadi John, even as it finds his actions abhorrent. He cannot be othered, even if his purpose is to clearly demarcate one culture from another, because his YouTube presence calls into question what it means to be other in the first place. His perfect English, his background and upbringing in the birthplace of the modern liberal order, appears to contrast with his avowed beliefs and demonstrates the relative failure of Western modernity to shape and produce its ideal citizens.

Here the streamlined history and simplified ideological reading of the conflict serves only to highlight the murkiness of self-reflection prompted by the desire for verisimilitude. Seeking understanding of Jihadi John in the form of a Labyrinth event card reveals not only the limits of the game’s design but also the limits of board games as a whole as technologies of representation. Successfully addressing the joint issues of playability and verisimilitude makes ideological indoctrination seamlessly pleasurable, but not all subjects — such as the use of technology as depicted in Labyrinth: The Awakening — can transition into simplified ideological forms. When this tension between playability and understanding becomes apparent, as it does with the Jihadi John event card, it upsets the pleasure of play and muddies the otherwise clear view of history the game tries to let players experience.

“Our self-portraits now neither anchor nor extend us because we are no longer sure of ourselves as originals, no longer sure of what it means to be inspirited,” Schwartz concluded about the Western fascination with self-depiction and its connection to introspective truth. The Labyrinth event cards are also uncertain portraits — mirrors, or miniature “personable doubles” that in trying to define the “other” actually define Westerners in their uncertainty. Schwartz identified “an ache for continual ‘correctness’ in an industrial society increasingly anxious about the passage of time,” and the new event cards try to present this correctness within the game’s necessarily simplified terms. But a nagging sense of inaccuracy remains.

Indeed, the shifting depiction of technology use between Labyrinth and Labyrinth: The Awakening point toward a conflict that is becoming more ill defined as it enters its 16th year. Efforts to update events are meant to sustain the ambiance of accuracy for Western players. But, as Schwartz reminds us, “the more we have demanded correctness … the more we have finished in dissemblance.” Players may look to Labyrinth or Labyrinth: The Awakening for better understanding of the Global War on Terror, but they will find only more questions about themselves.

Jeremy Antley holds a PhD in Russian History from the University of Kansas and currently resides in Portland, Oregon. His most recent work on wargames and culture can be found at First Person Scholar and in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming.