2007-01-24: Reading Spione
I've been reading Spione, Ron Edwards' dark paean to cold war spying. Reading it has given me a wholly new and more finely nuanced understanding of the period. It's also given me some food for thought about history, games, fiction and gender that I'll work on a bit in this and my next post.
Thought number 1: Role playing games put history in the first person.
The game of Spione takes place in Berlin spanning the years following World War II. The text follows the rise of the various national spy agencies through the end of the cold war. Players tell a story taking place in one of the decades preceding the crumbling of the Soviet Empire and fall of the Berlin wall. (Will they refer to the crumbling of the US Empire the same way someday?)
Ron put years of research into Spione and it shows. He has crafted an excellent resource for anyone interested in the topic and the period. The text is a bit over half historical information and a bit under half game text. Each part of the historical section ends with extensive references to further reading. What makes the text stand out though, is not the mass of information but the analysis with which it is presented.
Texts are divided into official accounts, whistle-blowing narratives, fiction and conspiracy theory. The sources are analyzed for their biases and how much of the real truth they reveal. Fiction, ironically, was often most accurate since the use of fictional names and situations allowed writers to critique the agencies without revealing compromising themselves or others.
The various state intelligence agencies are outlined, with major groups such as the KGB and CIA traced back to their origins in World War I and II. Influential individuals such as Marcus Wolf of the East German HVA and "Wild Bill" Donovan of the CIA are profiled, as are major components of the setting such as the Berlin Wall. Each group involved had a mix of motives at odds with their putative mission, ranging from rivalry with other bureaus to ensuring their right to exist free of oversight from their own country. Individual spies brought with them the fear of loss of life and limb, and the actuality of betrayal of country and loved ones to this tangle.
The reader is not only initiated into the secrets of spydom, but also is given the power to understand the forces at work behind their investigative triumphs and dismal failures. There is a reason beyond simple quality and clarity of research at work in the presentation here. In order for the player to be able to embody an agent caught amidst these warring directions, knowledge of the setting beyond names and dates is required. Understanding of the fears and aspirations of the individuals, as well as the institutional pressures upon them are needed parts of portraying these characters.
History is often "he did this, she did this". In an rpg, the participants instead will say "I did this, you did this", and in order to know how to do so, they need to know why. Players are asked to put history in the first person, and this requires understanding and owning it in a deep and intimate way. Spione is as solid an example of a game that delivers this as I have seen.
2009-02-18 12:15:09 Number6intheVillage
the history in question is not over. Today, we are reaping the harvest of fifty years of cult wars. If a person thinks anything so banal as "the U.S. won the Cold War," then he or she is its victim.
Same old Liberal (in the modern sense) bs. If we had lost, you'd know it.
2009-02-19 00:53:27 Emily
Hi, John is it? That sounds pretty trollish. Thanks!
2007-01-24 23:59:09 John Kim
Is Spione available? How did you get it?
2007-01-25 00:47:03 Emily
I got a draft copy of the game that Ron had printed up for his Berlin conference. I don't know the status of the game proper.
Apparently if you'd like to get more information about it, the best thing is to email Ron directly.
2007-01-25 04:25:07 Ron Edwards
I'm actually a bit embarassed by that draft copy now. The real book is, well, it's a real book, that's all.
Regarding your thoughts on history and the first person, I think I'd phrase it a little differently ... that the history in question is not over. Today, we are reaping the harvest of fifty years of cult wars. If a person thinks anything so banal as "the U.S. won the Cold War," then he or she is its victim. Putting oneself as actor-author-audience into a given decade of the process, right into the thick of the war of shadows, is intended to highlight this point.
I'm interested in your further thoughts, and perhaps this can be thrown into the mill: just as spy fiction provided a medium for dissident content (and continues to do so), my goal for this project is for people to *discover* their own dissident voices by crafting such a story.
P.S. Picky spy history point: Donovan was never actually in or of the CIA, but rather headed its indirect predecessor, the OSS. No big deal.
2007-01-25 21:31:00 Emily
I look forward to seeing the final version. Is there a link?
If a person thinks anything so banal as "the U.S. won the Cold War," then he or she is its victim. Putting oneself as actor-author-audience into a given decade of the process, right into the thick of the war of shadows, is intended to highlight this point.
We are also the victim of inadequate coverage of history in primary and secondary schools. And then minimal coverage in the media and lack of any context for the events that are covered. To use myself as an example, I must admit to not having been aware that West Berlin was geographically isolated from West Germany. And I try to be informed.
Going by the superficial view of intelligence offered in the media, it's no surprise that the prevalent story of spying is the super-powered film versions of 007. It's heroic. It's clear. It's unrelated to the real structures of power and highly unsupportive of dissent. Though even James Bond is getting a make-over now—Casino Royale was as close as the Bond films have come to "spy vs. guy".
Getting the full picture, complete with the ambiguities and contradictions, allows for the potential of meaningful dissidence. The authors of the spy fiction wrote from informed positions based on their personal experiences.
Spione lets players do so as well. And the reason for the dissent lies within the contradictions of the situation, rather than some revelation about the rightness or wrongness of either side (though Allen Dulles' sheltering of Nazis does not do much to recommend the OSS).
2007-01-25 23:13:06 Ron Edwards
The link is available, but for some reason, I'm still more comfortable handling that interaction by email. I'd like people to arrive at the site because they care about Spione (and spies, and the Cold War as it relates to them as humans), not because I'm Ron Edwards who writes role-playing games in gamer culture. I mean, now is probably past the time when I should just come out and say it, but there's a little hump in my head I have to get past.
Anyway, I agree with your points most strongly, and look forward to the next thoughts. You mentioned games and gender in addition to history and fiction - what's percolating about that?
2007-01-29 03:19:58 Emily
I'm thinking about Marcus Wolf's successful Romeo gambit and how far that is from common conceptions of spying, and about the fact that emotional weaknesses are such a fertile opening for infiltration. I'll write that up in a separate post.