Wednesday, 4 February 2009

USA in Pieces: the Perspective of Games

Having had to have my computer restored back to basics last week as a result of the viral attack, once I got it back I decided to take the opportunity to install different games on it. Like many people I am prone to shopping as a counteraction to upset or stress. Whereas women are purportedly supposed to go shopping, I go out and buy cheap computer games. This means I always have more than I can play at any one time and sometimes they sit unwrapped on my shelf and become incompatible with my current computer. I am also awaiting the arrival of 'Empires Total War' the latest in the Total War series which I have been playing since 'Shogun Total War' came out in 1999. I sometimes have issue with historical accuracy, but this has been an excellent series of games covering the Middle Ages and the start and end of the Roman Empire. There are loads of free fan-created downloads out there too if you tire of the vanilla version of the games. Anyway, 'Empires' is now due in March 2009 and features conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th century. For the first time in the Total War series you can actually fight naval battles ship-to-ship; they seem to have borrowed the only good part of 'Imperial Glory' (2005) an earlier attempt at Napoleonic wargaming for the PC with terrible land battles but good sea battling.

The games I have loaded up this time round include 'Faces of War' (2006) a squad-based battle game set in the Second World War, starting in Summer 1944. You can play as the Germans, Soviets and Anglo-Americans. Liking counter-factual I went for the former. Failing to blow-up the bridge at Nijmegen led to the war in Europe ending in January 1945 rather than May. I am now on the Battle of the Bulge, but facing 101st Airborne Division forces (made famous by the 'Band of Brothers' (2001) TV series) my squad keeps being eliminated the moment they get off the transport truck. Despite the AI (artificial intelligence) being vaunted on the box, the soldiers have none and run right up to the enemy and simply get shot to pieces. The sniper shoots someone then goes right to the corpse to check the soldier is dead. Very macho Americans without helmets or coats (despite the battle being in the midst of the Belgian winter and a very cold one) keep charging the German positions basically immune to bullets. Again I rather feel that US pride has prevented a realistic game. I know the Germans will lose but they do not have to be suicidal. Interestingly the German troops were reckoned to be 20% more effective in battle than US opponents, something not replicated in this game.

Anyway, putting these games aside, brings me to the key focus for this posting. This was stimulated by the game 'Shattered Union' (2005) which I picked up for £4.99. It is a turn-based wargame available for different systems, but I am concentrating on the PC version. What interests me about it is how it portrays the USA. You get an idea from the toppled Statue of Liberty and damaged Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. It is set in 2009 when rather than Barack Obama becoming president we have David Jefferson Adams after a tie in the electoral college (memories of 2000 there) and a decision by the House of Representatives. He is incredibly unpopular and uses Bush's Homeland Security legislation to declare martial law. In 2012 all other presidential candidates are disqualified and Adams gets a second term. However, the detonating of a tactical nuclear device during inauguration kills Adams and most leading politicians. In 2013 California then Texas secede from the Union (as I have noted before they are the 7th and 10th wealthiest 'countries' in the world on their own anyway); the European Union invades the DC district and Russia annexes Alaska. The different factions that develop are interesting. Unfortunately I cannot find a decent map of them and may have to create one, but for now these are the ones:

Independent Commowealth of Hawaii - well, this does what it says on the label and does not really feature in the game. With continental USA in conflict, I suppose these islands lying 3500 Km (2200 miles) from San Francisco would have to make their own way in the world, presumably making agreements with other island nations of the Pacific.

California Commonwealth - California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. This is possibly the most likely breakaway in reality though perhaps not that large; also trying to reconcile the Mormons of Utah with the gambling state of Nevada might be a challenge for the President of California.

Pacifica - Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. In reality I think this would be two states as the liberal Washington and Oregon are at odds with the four far more right-wing other states. However, the populations of these are pretty low and might be dominated by the coastal states.

Great Plains Federation - Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas and Nebraska. This is the unit I would envisage Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado adhering to, but for gameplay reasons I imagine they are apart. I also would expect a difference in this bloc between Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana and the others, because they have far more of an urban and industrial focus than the other primarily rural states.

The Confederacy - Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. This is the bulk of the CSA from 1861-5, though of course without Texas. In the game this is a surprisingly progressive bloc, but given what we know about the enduring racial tensions in these states and the heavy emphasis on robust Christianity, I think in reality we would see a 21st century version of the CSA for real.

The Republic of Texas - Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, parts of Arkansas and Missouri. This seems to be a feasible state and possibly Texas would seek secession, it is in a far better position these days than in the 1840s. Its wealth and political outlook might attract some of the southern parts of the Great Plains Federation.

New England Alliance - Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and parts of Ohio. This is the most densely populated bloc and I would envisage not only all of Ohio but the industrial states of the Mid-West adhering to this. This kind of bloc is not likely to happen these days but is the kind of set-up that may have appeared if French or even Dutch control in North America had persisted longer.

The European Union Occupation Zone - Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Well, one can only speculate on why the EU would feel it necessary to invade the USA and effectively create a kind of capital territory, though if they did, this area seems a sensible one.

Having looked at the 'what if?' of this game I was interested in other potential ones. Another game, not available for the PC but on consoles is 'Fracture' (2008). It has been panned for its poor audio and gameplay, but I am interested in the vision of the USA it sees. It is set in 2161 and envisages as USA split both physically and politically. Global warming has led to the rise in sea levels and a crack North-South running across the country (though I am not certain, this seems to come from the level of the Great Lakes rising and flowing South). Given flash flooding in the region, despite the shrinking of the lakes due to over-use, this seems quite feasible. In prehistoric times the USA had a curved sea stretching across the plains down to what is not the Gulf of Mexico. Anyway, the East-West split with the Atlantic side in co-ordination with the European Union emphasising new technologies especially cybernetics whereas the Pacific side in co-ordination with Japan-China are working on developments with genetic engineering. The Atlantic side has weaponry which can manipulate the landscape. Overall it sounds like an interesting cyberpunk set-up but clearly is simply there to provide a US civil war of a different kind. A novel first would have been interesting.

Focusing on the fragmentation of the USA has not only been the work of game designers but of political commentators. There is some discussion of the November 2008 claims by the Russian Professor Igor Panarin at: This blog refers back to 1991 when Russians predicted a fragmentation of the USA along the lines of what happened to the USSR. However, these neglected the fact that parts of the USSR had only been joined on late (the Baltic States in 1940) and had a far greater ethnic diversity across them but greater homogenity within states (I recognise many have numerous ethnic minorities), e.g. Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkistan, Tadjikistan and Kirghizistan; some states had high Muslim populations. Parts of Central Asia were only gained in the 1870s-90s, after the American Civil War had ended. The population of the USSR was close to that of the USA (around 225 million) but it covered 22.4 million square kilometres compared to the USA's 9.2 million square kilometres. In contrast to the USSR, the USA, for all of its rising Hispanic population, tends to have a greater mixing of ethnic groups and Christianity and still English are uniting factors, though the rise of Spanish challenges this. Thus, the USA has more 'glue' than the USSR had. However, these days it might be correct to consider that economic factors would be the greatest contributors to secession.

I have colour-coded it to make it a bit easier to see the different states envisaged. The key is as follows:

1 - California Republic 2 - Mormon state of Utah 3 - New Mexico 4 - Indian Territories5 - Texas Republic 6 - Louisiana 7 - Florida 8 - The Confederation of the Southern States9 - South Canada 10 - Upper Michigan 11 - Maine 12 - New Hampshire 13 - Vermont14 - New England 15 - Free City of New York 16 - New Italy 17 - New Africa
18 - United States 19 - The Midwest Federation

Alaska and Hawaii not shown here are also envisaged to gain independence. Panarin also envisaged terrorist activity provoking a division. However, all of these commentators forget that such activity tends to bind states together. It is wealth in some areas and poverty in others which leads to tension, for example Yugoslavia and Italy. As with other scenarios California and Texas are seen as leaving first. A Mormon state of Utah is another easy one. Though as with 'Fracture', the ethnic tensions lead to splits, for example, with the area seen as Latino South of California leaving the rest of the state. Mexico would apparently expand North into Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. The revived Confederacy would apparently lead to blacks fleeing to southern Michigan which would become 'New Africa' and people from Italian backgrounds would lead to New Jersey becoming New Italy. Washington DC would only be able to assert power over some neighbouring states, the rump United States. There is no explanation why the Greater Lousiana would not adhere to this or the Mid-West Federation or why there is so much fragmentation in the North-East. If Upper Michigan would be close to Canada in political terms, why not New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine? Whilst I could see Washington and Oregon becoming part of Canada, again Idaho, Montana, etc. are different in outlook and their right-wing attitudes would jar with Canadian liberalism especially on guns. As for New York City becoming independent that is just like 'Escape from New York' (1981) and that implies a widespread meltdown. I think whilst the peripheral states California, Texas, Utah and possibly Washington, Oregon and the North of New England might go the bulk of Mid-West and South-West America would stay together. There are racial tensions in the USA but no state has yet a sufficiently homogenous ethnicity to allow a clear association with the state. Similarly the mass migration to southern Michigan is unlikely. Black migration has always been towards urban areas and why would blacks not go to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles as in the past?

Panarin did also outline a simpler fragmentation into six parts - '... the Pacific coast, with its growing Chinese population; the South, with its Hispanics; Texas, where independence movements are on the rise; the Atlantic coast, with its distinct and separate mentality; five of the poorer central states with their large Native American populations; and the northern states, where the influence from Canada is strong.'

The Americans always have a difficulty facing people not seeing the shape and size of the USA as it currently is as some kind of 'manifest destiny'. Look back at all the fuss over the Absolut vodka maps. Paul Goble's comments on Panarin at the link above begin to fall into this trap dismissing this as a misplaced sour grapes by the Russians upset at the loss of their empire. What he and others miss is that the rest of the world can see the fragmentations in US society along economic and ethnic grounds. They may not lead to the actual breaking away of states, but they have already led to the fragmentation within cities and states, something more akin to Neal Stephenson's 'The Diamond Age' (1995) with mini-states and nations to which people are affiliated represented in districts of different towns. It is interesting that these popular culture references about fragmenting USA look at this happening on a geographical basis but in fact the USA itself needs to consider the social fragmentation which is unlikely to be this tidy.

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