War Games

Despite their popularity years ago, it's hard to imagine board games coming out today in which the IDF's military strategies are revealed.

There's something naive about the graphics seen in "The Lightning Strike Game," "Three Wars - Three Victories" and "The Victory Game" - all marketed after the Six-Day War. It isn't just the obsolete style of black and white photos of Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan placed alongside a convoy of tanks and the symbol of the Israel Defense Forces, or the illustrations on the cardboard boxes of David Ben-Gurion standing beside both the Israeli flag and flags representing Arab countries.

It's hard to imagine games of this sort coming out today, detailing the combat strategies used in the Second Lebanon War or operations like Defensive Shield and Cast Lead. What would it be called? Which tactics would be depicted? And anyway who, in this age of computers, would buy a board game, not to mention one which describes controversial military operations?

Dr. Haim Grossman, a researcher of Israeli culture, will deliver a talk next week on board games that centered on the theme of Israel's wars between 1943 and 1973 and how they reflected the place of the IDF in Israeli society. The lecture is part of a session entitled "Battlefield Design," which will open the "Pictures of Victory" conference taking place next Sunday and Monday at the Tel Aviv Museum and at Beit Ariela in Tel Aviv. The conference comes at the initiative of the Shenkar Forum for Culture and Society and will examine questions of war and how it is represented in Israeli culture and media among artists, designers, researchers of culture and the general public.

The image of the handsome and victorious soldier, for example, taken from the board games, became something that appeared on gum wrappers, candy, notebooks and more. "It was part of an entire culture adults wanted to instill in children," says Grossman of these games, which tried to replicate war battles and were usually accompanied by maps. "There were those who thought military campaigns were something children should know about, and this trivialized war. It looked less dangerous, less complex, much easier and more glamorous. This also manifested in the cards used in the games, in which the greatest difficulties were 'You have sunk in the sand' or 'Cake has arrived from the committee for the soldier, lose a turn.' This transforms war into a pleasant, inviting and trivial experience, neither complicated nor scary.

"This culture of course also stressed that this is life, this is the reality, we have to be strong, the army is necessary and so on," Grossman continues. "It's hard not to wonder to what extent these products shaped the arrogance and the braggadocio of the generation that went to fight in the Yom Kippur War, which also brought the era of board games about war to an end."

What kind of influence does this image have?

"Tremendous. The image teaches how we perceived our strength vis-a-vis the other side's weakness. The image of the Israeli soldier was always the image of a handsome soldier, a hero and a victor and over the years this image became even more glamorous. This is manifested in the graphics - which include a lot more color, are a lot more blatant. In the board games about the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign, everything was much more modest. In the board games on the Six-Day War, there were already photographs and burnt-out Arab artillery pieces and the graphics were more colorful."

What happens in other countries?

"There, too, similar items could be seen after World War I and World War II, but this didn't continue for very long. Here it continued until 1973. All at once the image of the soldier disappeared because the consensus had cracked - not concerning the soldier, but rather those who gave the orders... The applied arts gave him up because he no longer sold.

"Since then, board games about Israel's wars or victory albums have not been produced," Grossman says. "I found one victory album published after the Yom Kippur War. This material culture shrank and disappeared. I also found a computer game called 'Burning Earth,' which was apparently produced in the 1980s and dealt with the Yom Kippur War. But in this game there was already something new: The strategies aren't determined in advance, so it isn't certain your side will win; there's a possibility the Arab side will win."

Renard Gluzman, who heads the computer games design and development program at Beit Berl College, will be the second speaker at next week's session. He plans to discuss computer games which have a different political agenda from what is seen in popular games. Specifically, Gluzman will focus on anti-Western games and other games for children on Islamic Web sites.

These games generally reverse the typical roles seen. For example, instead of an American soldier combating terror organizations, the hero is a Palestinian freedom fighter resisting the occupation. The games are seen through the eyes of the player, who holds a weapon and goes around shooting people, and are set in Gaza and Hebron, where Israeli soldiers harass the local population.

However, if the impression is that the role reversal serves the Palestinian ideology, Gluzman claims it does not. Though their creators consider these games an important contribution to "digital liberation" in the Middle East, he believes they continue to serve the Western ideology.

"In computer games," he says, "the picture is less important. Critical study of computer games does not deal with the graphic representations or images, but rather with the rules of the game - the algorithm or the code. The images are important, but they are just a small part of the game's value, of the learning processes during the course of the game and the message it transmits. Therefore, parents and teachers often get caught up in the images and representations of violence in computer games, because they themselves do not play them.

"The story turns you on and gets you into the game," Gluzman continues, "but from the moment you're in, it no longer makes any difference whether you are an American soldier or a Syrian soldier. Even the makers of these games have acknowledged that, as the game becomes more advanced, people disregard the representations. From their perspective, there are figures you need to kill and that's it. This is one reason extreme Islamic elements have been critical of games like these."

Therefore, though the picture of victory ostensibly is reversed when the narrative is changed, according to Gluzman, these games reinforce the same Hollywood formulas and formulas of global Western thinking concerning individualism, achievement and so on. That is, "It's impossible to replicate an existing game and create something significantly different. In order to subvert the genre, it's necessary to change its rules," he says.

If Grossman and Gluzman discuss war games, industrial designer Yoav Tikochinsky, the session's third speaker, will finally talk about the "real thing." When the Israel Military Industries decided to replace the Galil assault rifle, it published a local tender for the design of a new weapon. Tikochinsky, along with Tamir Porat and Hagai Karp, won the tender. The three were responsible for the overall casing and ergonomics of the Tavor, the service rifle that in recent years has been replacing the M-16 and the Galil, which had been used by infantry soldiers. During his lecture, Tikochinsky will discuss the aesthetics of weapons, their influence on consumer products and the ethics entailed in designing them.

Ostensibly, the least important thing about a weapon is the way it looks. What could be more important than the fact that it works and is easy to use? But from Tikochinsky's remarks, it emerges that appearance is just as important. He gives as an example a newspaper photo of two IDF soldiers apprehending a wanted man. One soldier is holding a Tavor at the ready while the other soldier's weapon, an M-16, dangles carelessly from his shoulder. He believes this is not by chance: One of the aims of the design of the Tavor was to cause the person holding it to send a message of alertness and readiness.

"As a soldier who fought in Lebanon and the territories, I believe in preventing confrontation by means of threat," he says. "When you are entirely exposed and passing through villages, you know the MAG is protecting you. You evince alertness that will cause those watching you to think twice about pulling the trigger."

Moreover, he explains, every soldier has a deep emotional relationship with his weapon. A study done on the infantry brigades found that the soldiers of the Golani Brigade claimed the Galil, the weapon they used, was the most reliable while the soldiers of the Paratroop Brigade claimed it was in fact the M-16, which they used.

Though his work deals with guns and weapons, Tikochinsky has no ethical problem with his role as designer. He says he has refused to design weapons for dispersing demonstrations or pistols for civilian use.

"I have designed lawnmowers, pool cleaners and vacuum cleaners, but let me design a medical implement and I'll throw all the rest in the trash - no matter how sexy they are and how well they photograph. Those are classical consumer products we could easily do without. As a reserve soldier who knows that I, with my body, need to defend myself and my family, if I know how to design a better and more accurate weapon it's important to me to do that in the best way possible.

"A weapon is there to protect the soldier who is using it. A soldier who doesn't know whether he will hit the target will open fire in an uncontrolled way and use up his ammunition faster - and is therefore left vulnerable. This sounds cynical or like I'm whitewashing something, but I believe it's about a weapon that saves lives."