What do teenage fans of role-playing adventure games do when they grow up, and become politicians, journalists and media pundits? They create fantasy countries out of real countries, and fantasy wars out of real ones.
It began with Bosnia, perhaps not coincidentally at a time when the first generation brought up on text-based role-playing games was reaching maturity. Political and media elites managed to create a consensual hallucination in place of the real country, what historians have since called a “Virtual Bosnia,” with none of the messy complexities of the real crisis. Since then, of course, games like Virtual Rwanda, Virtual East Timor, Virtual Kosovo, Virtual Darfur and Virtual Iraq, all produce by Intervention Inc. have been very popular, although the most recent attempted blockbuster, Virtual Libya, has been a relative failure in the market. Indeed, there are signs, according to industry watchers, that these kinds of games are becoming steadily less popular, especially since, as has been the case since 2001, the sprites are starting to shoot back at the gamers.
Which brings us, of course to Syria, or rather, Virtual Syria. François Hollande, who must be devoutly wishing that he had not opened his mouth about military intervention when he did, has recently said that “the representatives of Syria are the democratic opposition, not the radical Islamists. We want to be sure that those who will take charge of the political transition in Syria are democrats”. Well, indeed, that’s what you might want. But as the weekly magazine Marianne noted on Saturday, the famous Free Syrian Army, on which so much faith has been reposed, amounts in practice to a tiny democratic and secular part of the opposition. Governments have “known” this for a long time, but they can’t admit it. Newspapers publish articles noting that it is so, but their comment columns still call for war against Assad. Playing Fantasy Syria remains preferable to seeing the world as it really is.
It’s not just that we are getting the wrong answer, and that many more people will die as a result. It is also that we are, once again, abrogating to ourselves the right to decide who represents a nation and who doesn’t. As always, we look for people like ourselves, and if we can’t find them, we introduce them as characters into the game. So it turns out that the real “representatives ” of Syria are a tiny number of people, who think like us, who were often educated abroad, and who share, we think, our ideas and values. (And stop muttering about what looks like convincing evidence of rampant vote-buying in French local elections, that came out this week).
But what about the rest: the, I don’t know, ninety or ninety-five per cent of Syrians who don’t think like us? The un-people, if you like. Don’t they get a voice in what the new Syria is going to be like? Apparently not. They are what’s called non-playing characters, shoved around by the active players, but not actually able to influence the outcome of the game. And of course there are other players who have hacked their way into the game, although they are not supposed to be there. Unfortunately, there’s little sign that the majority of these groups, Syrian or foreign, understand that they are characters in one of our virtual worlds. They think they are fighting for the freedom of their country, to defend their community, or in pursuit of their beliefs. And in the end, it’s the real world, not the virtual one, that matters. Virtual Bosnia is no longer available. No-one plays Virtual Darfur any more. But there are still real people in the real countries, struggling with the aftermath of real crises, some of which were caused by our own inability to tell real life from a video game.