Guest Column: The Known Unknowns of Subterfuge

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“I’ve done business, politics, and war. Now I’m trying my hands at mobile gaming.” That’s the way former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that he’d created a video game in a post on Medium. It comes off more than a little glib, like a man trying to put a bow on the Iraq WMD farce and Abu Ghraib even as his reputation remains hopelessly entangled with them. But as far as Rumsfeld is concerned, he’s moved on, to a medium where the closest thing to sectarian violence is Clash of Clans. Forgive me one bad mobile gaming joke—even the Washington Post couldn’t seem to resist using the occasion to try out an “Angry Kurds” pun.

Not that there’s much more to mine there. The game turns out to be fairly benign: A variant of solitaire that Winston Churchill reportedly played, passed down to Rumsfeld secondhand. And just as you’re unlikely to learn anything about the second Iraq War from George Bush’s paintings, I’m skeptical that you could glean much about Rumsfeld’s part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (or about Winston Churchill himself, for that matter) from a game about rearranging playing cards.

But there is a mobile game that’s evocative of Rumsfeld’s tenure at the war desk: Subterfuge.

Like Churchill’s card game, Subterfuge seems to be passed around mostly by word of mouth. It actually found its way down to me through Austin—I’d read a piece he’d written on the game that had this weird, anguished quality to it, like a sort of gamer Confiteor. I figured I wanted in on whatever game had managed to provoke that reaction, and for my sins, they gave me beta access.

Subterfuge is a real-time strategy game, built to succeed Neptune’s Pride (for anyone who remembers that one), and at its most basic it feels familiar: Capture bases to generate units; send those units to capture more bases. Convert units into a macguffin mine; mine enough macguffins to win. A hitch, though: Travel times between bases are measured in real hours, and scaling up from there, matches often take a week or two to finish. In the past half-year I’ve only managed about five full games, playing with a shifting cast of freelance writers and friends, plus the odd salaried staffer who jumps in to speculate an article. The turnover rate is high, with something like 50% of the roster dropping out from match to match. We get a lot of rage-quits.

There’s no mystery as to why—Subterfuge is a fiendish, Machiavellian game. Color-coded subs do the menial work of fighting, but the true play spaces are the game’s group chat windows, where conversation (and who’s excluded from it) is what gives life to alliances, deceptions, and betrayals. Words take on a heightened import in Subterfuge because of physical limitations the game places on players. There’s a sort of thermodynamic law of conservation to the map: In order to expand in one direction, you have to take heavily from somewhere else in your territory. The resulting asymmetry means that you’re always exposed somewhere—best that it be an ally’s mutual border. But the vagaries of your allies’ moods present a problem of categorization, because nobody’s really beholden to any deal. You want to sort friend from foe, but instead other players end up presenting a sort of Schrödinger’s dilemma, wherein they’re simultaneously bestie and Brutus. Few things are more ominous than the sudden unresponsiveness from an allied Subterfuge player that always seems to presage a double-cross. So you start reading things in the dead air between their texts. And maybe you do a bit of Rumsfeldian rationalization yourself—hey, “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” right?

“There’s a wonderful phrase: “The fog of war.” What the fog of war means, is, war is so complex, it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgement, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people, unnecessarily.” – Robert McNamara, interviewed for Errol Morris’ The Fog of War

Deception comes easily in Subterfuge, because so much of the game transpires beyond the victim’s periphery. Most strategy game players know this fog of war as a telltale desaturation out in the margins of the map, representing the limits of verifiable intel. Anything that happens in territory covered by the fog of war is a mystery until it’s explored or conquered. It’s the “Known Unknown” Rumsfeld was grabbing for when he evaded questions about Iraq’s phantom WMDs, the awareness that “we know there are some things we do not know.” You could easily point out that there’s a bit of inherent colonialism to the idea, and indeed, when Errol Morris looked for precedent for Rumsfeld’s saying, the earliest usage was about the divide between the civilized and the savage. “Here be dragons…” etc. etc.

If it were only a matter of knowing what you don’t know, that would be one thing. But Subterfuge goes a step further. There’s a dial prominently positioned, right where your thumb naturally rests. When rotated either way, it scrubs through time to show either what’s already transpired, or a Minority Report-style forecast of things to come. But critically, the feature renders future events only according to what the player is capable of seeing in that moment. If some variable occurs outside of the their bases’ circle of vision—out in the fog of war—it isn’t factored into the game’s predictive model. During one of my games, an invading player went all-in, committing near two-thirds of his full fleet to attacking me. He was clearly confident that he’d succeed; the game’s simulation would have shown him routing me easily, down to the minute details of each and every battle. But it didn’t account for a special unit I’d yet to bring to the field, and when I sprung my trap, his entire model proved fatally false.

When Computer Gaming World called for essays on the “fog of war” back in 1988, developer Ed Bever honed in on the difference between the virtual fog in games and the information dilemma that real military commanders face at wartime:

Computer wargames can achieve a higher degree of realism, then, when they present the player, like a real commander, with plentiful intelligence, intelligence so plentiful that the problem becomes one of sifting through the possibilities in order to determine what is real and what only appears to be real. The danger in war comes more often not from what you don’t see, but from what you think you see or what you want to see. Ultimately, the fog of war exists not on the battlefield, but in the commander’s head. It is as much a product of information as ignorance.

Since at least that far back, then, developers have known that their players will place their trust in tidy, systems analysis-style calculations, with charts and attack ratios and tabulated modifiers. And Subterfuge certainly provides them, between all the time-scrolling simulations, the stat tracking, and the impressively official-looking “combat previews” players can call up on command.

Still from The Fog of War by Errol Morris

But when we play a game like Subterfuge, we send sonar pings of subjectivity out into the murky depths: Petty vendettas, stubborn senses of honor and loyalty, subtle predilections towards action or inaction. The signals that bounce back come imbricated with the usual intelligence data that wargames provide, and as a result they look outwardly objective. But there’s a factor of human error hidden inside them, quietly corrupting. An “unknown known,” one that privileges our preconceived notions and anxieties. In my case, for example, I tend to know who I want to attack before a game even begins; it’s easy enough to self-select that data that best supports that conclusion.

Subterfuge holds these ideas in tension: The unknowns of the fog of war, steeped in fears and cynicism, and the knowns of verifiable intelligence. It’s what makes it such a misanthropic Secretary of Defense simulator. A good Subterfuge player—or perhaps it’s better to say, an “optimized” one—knows how to push and pull at the unknowns other players are preoccupied with. They raise the spectre of enemies in every shadow, and they pick only the battles they can win handily. The regulars from our Subterfuge game have really turned this into an art, perpetually sidling up to warn about some incoming attack, you know, “just to be a pal.” They’re really only selling their own cold self interest, but they’ll couch it in terms that sound like altruism.

Interestingly, it’s often during a victory in Subterfuge that you feel the most savage, like when you pick on a newer player, or abandon an ally who’s beyond saving. The knower of knowns can have his own kind of savagery: He knows what he has, he knows what someone else has, and he knows he can take it. It’s why peaking early in a game of Subterfuge is so dangerous. When other players see you rising on the leaderboard, they do the totally rational thing: They conspire to murder you in gut-wrenching, Game of Thrones fashion, taking turns propping you up so everyone can get their turn to stab you and whisper “For the balance.”

In one of our games, a player announced in public chat that he’d caught another player’s convoy dead to rights, carrying a Spanish galleon’s worth of assets. Cut to a few hours later when, struck by a sudden bout of sympathy, he suggested that he might let the guy get away after all. The chat channels lit up instantly, as the rest of us urged him to go through with the bombing. Eventually, evil won out, and we made a little celebration out of counting down the minutes to the explosion (the victim, our Piggy, or at least, our Nic Cage with the bee basket on his head, registered his protest in sad emojis).

Were we in the right? By the letter of the game’s law, maybe. But that’s a dark place to be, mentally. Subterfuge opens up the full psyche as a viable gamespace, and then bombards it with information while it’s vulnerable. And on some small, microcosmic level, maybe that’s how you find yourself justifying terrible wartime acts. Take the words of another former Secretary of Defense, in another Errol Morris profile. Robert McNamara in Fog of War—the documentary in which he calls himself a war criminal—offers eleven discrete life lessons. They include aphorisms like “Empathize with your enemy” and “Get the data,” but they end with the cold reminder that “You can’t change human nature.”

Nick Capozzoli is a video game critic and practicing architect, whose reviews have previously been featured on GameSpot. You can find him on twitter at @nickcapozzoli, and his reviews at Listen to Nick chat with Austin on the most recent episode of Giant Bomb Presents.