Saturday, August 16, 2008

Of Rebels and Selectorates

This summer I’ve spent a lot of time reading and researching irregular warfare, especially in terms of presenting an operational level game that deals extensively with the subject, namely Millennium Wars Advanced. As much as I believe MWA is a breakthrough design, it’s also made apparent to me some of the limitations of trying to approach the subject from a two-player near-peer adversarial perspective.

One interesting book I read through this summer is The Rebel’s Dilemma by Mark Lichbach. The book is decidedly academic in approach, but it makes some interesting points. I looks at the formation of rebel groups from two theoretical perspectives. The first is a psychological one, as exemplified by Gurr’s Why Men Rebel. The gist is that perceived inequalities form cleavages which magnify into revolt at some point. The other is the Collective Action approach, in which rebellion is analyzed from the game theoretical perspective of prisoner’s dilemma. The first overstates the likelihood of rebellion, the other understates it.

The rebel’s dilemma is a simple one: how does he overcome the free-rider problem of collective action, whereas the government’s problem is to increase the difficulties in overcoming that hurdle.

This is an interesting starting premise for a game, one in which two players might vie, through cards or whatever, to increase or decrease the chances for rebellion. Interesting as that may be, it’s still fairly abstract with respect to actual issues on the ground. But more importantly, it fails to account for other issues.

Dr. Richard Andres makes an interesting point in his article The New Role of Air Strike in Small Wars: A response to Jon Compton. He states that, “counterinsurgencies are not won by U.S. armed forces, ground or air; they are won by indigenous governments.” While ultimately this statement is, I believe, true, the principle tool for dealing with insurgency must be military, at least in the short term. The proper handling of insurgency via military means can just as easily decrease chances for victory as poor political policy choices. So what we have is a three player perspective game: insurgent, political policy maker, and military operations control.

But there are further constraints. Rebels are not just constrained by the political capacity of the government they wish to overthrow, but also by the socio-economic and physical environment as well. Both the Rebel and the government can affect this environment, but it must be accounted for in a meaningful way. Is their capacity to recruit increased or decreased by the rising tide of expectations? The presence of more police on the corner? The strong-armed tactics employed by autocratic rulers?

But lest we think that the policy setter can set any policy he likes, we face yet another constraint, that which Bruce Bueno de Mesquita would call the selectorate, or the body of supporters who keep the regime in power. Typically the more autocratic ruler, the smaller the selectorate, the easier it is to gore their oxes with any reforms that may be put into place. So now we have four perspectives and an environment: The rebel, the policy setter, the military controller, and the selectorate. What a complicated web we weave.

So here’s a unique setup for a game. We have three separate decision making actors on the side of the status quo: the policy setter, the military controller, and the selectorate. Ultimately the game looks more and more political. The Policy maker must adjust policy to maximize the free-rider problem of the rebel, yet do so in a way that keeps the military loyal and the selectorate tolerant. The military commander must manage the rebels operationally in such a way that they don’t actually increase rebel support, while still doing enough proactively to demonstrate that they are in fact doing the wishes of the policy maker. The selectorate (which could include the military controller) must insure that the policy maker is maximizing their benefits at all times by applying pressure (the threat of support removal). Meanwhile, the rebel player must act to set one group off against the other, while manipulating the environment in such a way that it becomes less and less hospitable to the government.

Sounds like an interesting multiplayer game that I have no idea how design as a board game (as a computer game I’m full of ideas).Our treatment of this topic in the wargame industry has been sparse, and I think we might consider taking this topic more seriously. So who’s up to the task?

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