Dungeons & Divisions

With draft-dodging alarmingly on the rise, the IDF is generally loathe to give potential recruits pointers in how to avoid the rigors of compulsory service.

dragon (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
With draft-dodging alarmingly on the rise, the IDF is generally loathe to give potential recruits pointers in how to avoid the rigors of compulsory service. Not long ago, however, army psychologists publicly divulged at least one tactic guaranteed to secure a cushy gig in a rear-echelon unit. The prospective shirker need only profess, according to "security sources" cited by the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot, a passion for fantasy wargaming of the "Dungeons and Dragons" variety. Afficionados of such pastimes, now a staple of computer and video gaming in Israel as indeed throughout the world, are deemed to be lacking in judgement, detatched from reality, and possessed of "weak personality." Letting it be known that your high school nickname was Gandalf; asking whether volunteering for the paratroops will generate greater "prestige points" than Golani; trying to cow your "Kaban," or mental health officer, with attack gazes, soul binds, heatstroke and other forms of spellcasting - these and other intimations of affinity for the more fanciful margins of geekdom will almost certainly win you three years in the rear peeling spuds, handing out kit bags or waving jeeps into parking lots. Wargaming, however - and D&D, despite its fantastic trappings and role-playing component, is a war game par excellance - has long enjoyed a special cachet within the Zionist enterprise. Indeed, between 1920 and the early '70s, some 250 locally manufactured board-die-and-counter, miniature and card-based war games were marketed to help connect Jewish youngsters (mostly of the male variety) to the geographic, historical and martial exigencies of nation-building and defense. Interest in the hobby diminished after 1973, as Israel's military predicament grew more complex, as attitudes towards the country's defense posture became fraught with ambiguity, and as the national saga fragmented into competing, sometimes mutually exclusive narratives. The advent of the personal computer during the early 1980s boosted interest in wargaming worldwide, with the Arab-Israeli conflict inspiring a small but enduring subgenre of titles available either as software packages or and map or board games. An Israeli company, Pixel Multimedia, teamed up with Electronic Arts in 1998 to produce a moderately well received flight and combat simulation called Jane's Israeli Air Force. Within the IDF, moreover, computer simulations have begun to figure in the training of pilots, submarine crews, and other tech-intensive occupation, while even the lowliest foot-slogging grunt can expect to train in small unit tactics with a mouse instead of an assault rifle, thanks to the recent deployment of mobile, mutlimedia battle-training labs. You can't, as yet, buy commercial versions of these applications at your local video-game emporium. But with the army, and in particular the School for Computer Related Professions run by MAMRAM, the IDF's Central Computer Unit, widely credited as a seedbed for software innovation within Israel's increasingly lucrative high-tech sector, you undoubtedly will. The products that do, eventually, wend their way into trigger-happy civilian hands, however, may surprise even the most seasoned of cyber-Napoleons. A few weeks ago, for instance, I finagled a copy of Peacemaker, the result of a collaboration between two graduate students at Carnegie-Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, one of them a former IDF Intelligence officer, the other, an American with a background in painting. The latest in a recent procession of "activist games," so-christened because they try to promote constructive engagement with real-world problems, Peacemaker offers gamers an opportunity to role play either as Israel's prime minister or as the elected chairman of the Palestinian Authority. In either role, your are charged with navigating the mine-strewn maze of Palestinian-Israeli relations, in the hope of turning an ongoing zero-sum tragedy into an accommodation both sides can find it in themselves to implement, preserve and endure. Like most garden-variety wargames, Peacemaker plays out on a map, this one graphics eye candy of the first order, broad and spread out, not at all like the spindly little dagger that used to adorn Jewish National Fund boxes. This is a turn-based game, not a real-time strategy job. With each turn, the player is presented with a blinking red circle on the map, indicating the site of the latest breaking crisis, a suicide bomb on a bus in Jerusalem, say, or a rampage by West Bank settlers. Your job is to guage public, professional and political sentiment not only in your own camp but in your opponent's as well, and within the constraints of competing domestic, foreign, international and other forces at play, respond to these cirses, and perhaps even pursue some kind of long-term policy. Do it with an eye only toward placating your own people, though, and you will make a dog's breakfast of matters just as handily as if you had forwarn their interests entirely for those of the enemy - no, scratch that -- your counterpart. Speaking to a Kadima Party rally in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert contended that "Israel needs to be run using the right combination of security sensibility, human compassion and economic and social responsibility." At the time, I thought he had made rather short shrift of what George Bush the Elder once disparaged as "the vision thing." Forget grand gestures. Israel, he seemed to intimate, didn't need a leader so much as it did a crisis manager, someone who could snuff out fires with reasonable aplomb while holding on to his corner office, his government issue Volvo, and his place at the head of the cabinet table. Peacemaker, however, seems to support Olmert's world view, though it does so largely by presenting the player with a limited palate of binary options that cannot possibly cover the full gamut of possible challenges-and-response contingencies available to real-world decision makers. Running through the various scenarios presented, I found myself wishing, if only in passing, that instead of, say, realigning the security wall to conform more closely to the Green Line, I could, instead, maybe throw in the ocassional rock-to-magma spell, you know, just to shake things up. It's not the kind of thing I'd confess to a "Kaban," of course. But t I'm not sure that the IDF's Psych Corps is going to like this kind of game any better than it does dungeon crawlers like, say, Diablo. I wonder what they'd make of my fondness for Star Fleet Command.