It's dawn, July 4, and the entire north-eastern region United States has collapsed. A zombie virus has wiped out most major cities and the US Army only barely has it contained. I am the Secretary of Defense, and I'm walking back from a briefing with the Pentagon when I find my fellow White House players clustered ominously around a computer screen. The Secretary of State looks up at me with a mixture of pity and amusement. "We'll visit you in federal prison," he smiles.
With a knot in my stomach, I look at the screen. The message, in enormous letters, reads: "BREAKING NEWS. White House and Secretary of Defense illegally ordered governor's arrest." That's the moment I know, zombies or no zombies, that my career is toast—along with this whole administration.
This is, of course, a game—a megagame, to be precise—and the governor, her captors, the press and generals who deny all knowledge are among 600 real players participating from around the world. Over the past three years these giant events, featuring dozens of people bargaining with and threatening each other, have blossomed in popularity, and along the way I've become obsessed.
Waypoint has covered megagames before, but this one is unusual. Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos is the first "wide area" megagame, unfolding simultaneously across 11 venues in five countries on two continents, all connected by the internet.
Hence, on July 1, I turn up at an old converted warehouse in the London docklands wearing a politician's suit and tie, determined to be part of the experiment—and then to tell the story of this bizarre, globally distributed dress rehearsal for the end of the world.
It's going to be a very long day.
Turn zero, and America is a mess already. The news media is stream of fripperies: state fairs, prize fish, and players announcing presidential runs. The President wants a Fourth of July picnic, so I stroll to the Pentagon's table to see if they'll put on an aerial display.
In rented spaces in Leeds, Birmingham, Brussels, (and soon after in New York, and Austin, Texas), zombie counters are placed on giant map tables representing American cities. Over the next six hours of real time, simulating four fictional days, these maps will bristle with fires, casualties and barricades. I, however, will never see them, because I'm just one cog in a complex machine.
Megagames come from a military family. They have roots in the Kriegspiel played by 19th century Prussian officers, and are close cousins of crisis simulators used to train officers and officials to this day. If they have a father, though, it is Paddy Griffith, a lecturer at Britain's Sandhurst army academy who drew on the large wargames he ran for students to develop a series of increasingly sprawling and theatrical "megagames." Among his disciples was Jim Wallman, a soft-spoken former Ministry of Defense civil servant (and son of, appropriately, a stage magician) who now designs megagames for government and corporate clients—and recreational ones for the public.
With UN:SOC, Wallman wanted to subvert standard zombie media, which tends to follow small groups of survivors after society has already broken down, focusing instead on the efforts of governments and institutions as they try to stem the undead tide. Megagames excel at modeling hierarchy: Instead of one player per faction they have multiple levels of authority, from front line officers up to high commanders through their go-betweens, where everyone reports or delegates to someone else. This means that communication is imperfect, and that sometimes the "right" choice may still lead to a negative outcome.
"The thing about a board game, particularly a wargame, is that you're in complete control of everything," Wallman tells me. "You have the numbers and the counters and they all move when they tell you to move. But in a megagame the pieces argue back, or do something else even though you've told them really clearly what you want them to do."
Each city map has police and emergency services players who report to an elected mayor. They are trumped by governors, who control the state police and National Guard. Above them all, trapped in a (real) room in London, but connected by email to liaisons in every (fictional) state, is the federal government, answering to the President and her cabinet. Outside this structure are corporations, the press, survivalist militias, and finally "Control"—umpires who flit about enforcing the rules. Finally there are the"zombiemeisters" who direct the undead hordes. Each of these players—from zombie lord to local sheriff—is given their own paper briefing, with their own unique objectives for the game.
Here's the problem: Higher levels of government can only intervene where lower ones declare a state of emergency, and each layer has material incentives not to. "If I declared a state of emergency, I would lose votes, raise the panic level, and we would basically lose control of the state," says Maria Osa, who played the governor of Mishigamaa (a stand in for real-world Michigan, played from London). "We didn't want to hand it over because that would be the end of our government."
So even as I receive the first confused reports of "pathogen outbreaks" and "civil unrest", the only people with any real resources are forbidden to intervene.
News spreads quickly across multiple games: All flights in the continental United States are indefinitely grounded. Susquehannock (Pennsylvania, played from Nijmegen, Netherlands) declares the first state-level emergency. Then, only minutes of real time later, I'm told that the capital city of Ouisconsin (Wisconsin, played from Bristol, UK) has "fallen" to the virus.
At the city maps, the zombiemeisters have realized their units multiply exponentially, but most local police have not. Instead of containing the hordes they attack them, feeding them, until the virus spreads far enough and fast enough that it becomes impossible to stop. In this it has a predictable ally: partisan politics.
Most positions in UN:SOC are elected. These players have briefings designating them as Democrats or Republicans, and know they will face re-election just before the game's end. The result is obstruction and blame-shifting.
"Three police officers in my home city had goals to make sure the current police chief didn't get re-elected," says Noah Crow, who was governor of Kanawha (West Virginia, played from NYC). "We saw everything from outright refusal to place and move cops to 'forgetting' roll with them."
And my briefing? I want to protect the Republican Party and my family in Washington DC. Which is why, the moment the first combat brigade becomes available, I plonk it down on the Potomac where it sits doing very little for the rest of the game.
As the crisis escalates, the "wide area" aspects of UN:SOC start to be felt. Swarms of infected are crossing state boundaries, passed from one game to another by Control, in some cases pushing cities into collapse. Zombies and refugees flood over the border into "Northland"—real-world Canada, played by actual Canadians at McGill University in Montreal.
We players only have a murky view of all this due to megagames' trademark fog of war. It's epistemological mayhem: information flows in distorted and incomplete form, subject not only to a natural game of telephone but to all the wrinkles of rivalry and hierarchy which give players reasons to twist the truth. Much of the skill here is in aggressively filtering incoming reports to distinguish between fact and wild fiction.
In Kanawha malicious rumours started by politicking police officers develop into a "zed scare" in which players accuse each other of being infected and subject each other to blood tests. "The state government boarded itself up in the back room and refused visitors other than Control, believing we were the only humans left," writes Crow.
Wide area play deepens the confusion: Wi-Fi cuts out in some venues, further limiting the already restrictive communication methods. At one point, the in-game press website, coded by megagame designer Becky Ladley over three days in hospital, crashes due to hundreds of people refreshing it at once. "There was even more confusion than in a normal megagame," says Pieter Chielens, who ran the Adirondack game (New York) in Brussels, Belgium, "because now you've got confusion in places you can't even see."
This is all realistic according to Rex Brynen, the McGill professor and wargame theorist running Northland, whose course puts real future UN peacekeepers through intense seven-day megagames to prepare them for the real world. "You have students who read endless UN best practices guides and it all looks very easy," he tells me. "You don't have the problems of communication, coordination, differing agendas, imperfect information—the fog and friction effect of things never quite working out. People generally don't realize how easily stuff goes wrong for perfectly understandable reasons."
I am staring at a map of US states while a general explains to me which ones can no longer be saved. The Pentagon wants the President to authorize Operation Iron Curtain, which will reserve all further aid for "border" states and abandon the rest. She agrees, but within an hour we are forced to debate, and approve, the pre-emptive arming of tactical nuclear weapons (whose rules are contained in a literal briefcase). We are plunging blindly down an ethical ski slope in which previously unconscionable options become routine.
My job now is to convince all the priority states to declare emergencies, which is far from simple. The governor of Shawnee (Kentucky, played from Birmingham, UK) is an experienced megagamer and extorts a campaign endorsement from me in exchange. Then I'm told that the state of Wabash (Indiana, played from Cambridge, UK) has experienced a coup d'état. It takes me multiple phone calls to get even a vague idea of what has happened: A cabal of Democratic mayors has convinced the National Guard to arrest the governor by accusing him of forging documents (a story is brilliantly told in this video).
Events like this are difficult for Control. They have a split responsibility: to guard the integrity and plausibility of the game's fiction, but also to uphold and reward player choice. Part of that duty means coming up with new rules on the fly. So when Darren Green, who is running Wabash, contacts Jim for advice, Wallman sends back a list of people who must support the coup for it to succeed. All are on board. "I don't know whether we made the right decision," Green tells me, "but there was so much player demand in the room that it would have been very difficult to say no." Eventually the President sends special forces to restore the governor to power (the mayor's frontman is mysteriously shot). But too much time has been lost; Wabash is doomed.
And so we all slip over the cliff-edge. In Iliniwek (Illinois, played from Southampton, UK), Control roleplays plaintive phone calls from players' families as their neighborhoods are overrun. The born-again mayor of Cincinnati announces a "crusade" against the infected. Some cities fare so badly their players give up and leave early, while one game considers diverging from network—fully disconnecting from the other international games and simply playing out their own—in order to rebalance things.
Blackhawk helicopters ferry government commandos over burning cities; F-16s scream past on bombing runs; America's weapons, so painstakingly built up, are being unleashed against its own people. An increasing number of states are demanding that we nuke them.
Then, just before noon on July 3, a single level 1 zombie counter reaches the General Mitchell airbase in Ouisconsin—only to be met by 20 counters' worth of the 82nd Airborne which have just dropped into the state.
Over the next few hours the forces we release from London finally show up in the rest of the world. One army counter on our countrywide map translates in each state to more forces than the whole National Guard. "It was quite something to see the look on the military players' faces when, just as they thought all hope was lost, I arrived with 20 new counters and dropped them on the map," writes Tom Parry, a Ouisconsin control. In Iliniwek, players chant "U-S-A!" as they appear—though in Ahao (Ohio) they are stopped by a mayor who insists they cannot enter his city because he has not declared an emergency. Even in the face of this crisis, he does not want to relinquish control of his government.
Not all UN:SOC's wide area aspects work so well. States deemed lost by Iron Curtain understandably feel isolated. Worse, players who engage in the science side-game—through which captured zombies and virus samples can be sent to research centres in other states to develop cures or weapons—complain of objects gone missing or misdirected.
Still, seeing news reports which originated in venues hundreds of miles away creates the electrifying impression of a wider world. "Knowing that something came to Kanawha because a person or a group of people making it happen rather than a random card draw was incredibly exciting," says Stefan Salva Cruz, the Kanawha game control.
Control has one more curveball for us. At dusk we receive an email: "NORAD TOP SECRET FLASH MESSAGE." A flight of Russian bombers is airborne and intelligence suggests they are nuclear-armed; our own unsubtle preparations have provoked a response. "Madame President," I say after some debate, "I think it's time for the red phone." There ensues a surreal but exhilarating conversation between a Control pretending to be Vladimir Putin and the President assuring him that everything in America is completely under control.
Midnight ticks into the Fourth of July, and country is still— just—standing. Iron Curtain has succeeded at dizzying cost: the quarantined states hold almost 40 per cent of the US population, 125 million people. An array of player-developed cures have been deployed, with very mixed success, and our lawyers are urgently considering the legality of dropping unguided munitions on crowds of now treatable US citizens. The clean-up will take years; the political recriminations, a decade.
The end of a megagame is sudden and bittersweet. There is rarely a sense of closure or climax. You've got all these schemes in motion, all these goals and hopes; just five more minutes and you can put that aid package together or secure that crucial deal. Then Control yells out "GAME OVER!"—usually at an unexpected time, to avoid "last turn madness"—and you're left there blinking like a nightclubber after the lights come on.
The fictional world just freezes where it is, and players must form their own conclusions about who "won" or what would have happened next. Through the formal post-game debriefing and extensive discussions in the pub you may eventually get a clear picture. But you've been on a massive high all day, and it takes time to come down.
"…our unscripted pyrrhic victory was exactly the kind of "disjointed and chaotic" outcome he'd hoped for."
Immediately after UN:SOC finished, Wallman posted on Facebook that it had been "the most unenjoyable megagame experience of [his] career." Hundreds of stressful hours in preparation and rehearsal, and the feeling of powerlessness as he watched far-off games go wrong, had left him "physically and psychologically drained."
By the time I talk to him, though, he is happier with the outcome. He designed UN:SOC to prove a wide area megagame could work—which, on balance, it did—and our unscripted pyrrhic victory was exactly the kind of "disjointed and chaotic" outcome he'd hoped for.
The problem with Hollywood, he laments, is that there's always just one hero—"never a team, never a collective." But in the real world problems are solved, and outcomes determined, by groups and institutions as much as by individuals. So while Wallman says that UN:SOC has no "big social message," it was intended to "challenge lazy thinking" about how crises are dealt with, and to ask how society might collectively respond to a zombie apocalypse.
Wallman sees megagames ultimately as a narrative medium, whose rules exist to generate stories. If so, these are the stories not of individuals but of systems, of institutions, of interdependent actors whose decisions conspire to produce a result few of them desired or predicted but which all of them collectively author. And what so fascinates me about megagames is that they do all this while emphasizing, as a necessary outcome of their structure, the role of imperfect information, divergent interests and institutional dysfunction—not chance, but chaos—in shaping history.
That, finally, is how I end up taking the blame for a coup in Mishigamaa which I knew absolutely nothing about.
Monday dawns, and voters go to the polls. I've done everything I can, but forces are already in motion which will seal my political fate.
At 3:54pm, just before midnight Sunday, the White House received an email from Maria Osa, the governor of Mishigamaa. "Please can we contact you on Skype?" it said. "Military are performing a coup."
Maria had been under severe pressure to declare an emergency. After hours of holding out for a cure, her mayors gave her one more turn to either find one or declare. Yet before she could do either she was arrested by the National Guard, claiming Presidential authority they could not possibly have.
Or could they?
Only after the game do I find the man responsible: Templeton Blair, the local Pentagon liaison, with his Homeland Security colleague. "The governor was killing the state and the cities and National Guard were approaching us to beg for help," he tells me. "I misled my superiors and exploited local frustration… we were bending the truth to both sides." He almost succeeded, but an impassioned speech by Maria's aide—and a gentle civics lesson from Control—convinced the National Guard it's illegal. In the small hours of Monday morning, they released her and went to the press.
An obscure chain to events beginning in one venue has reached up to ensnare the highest level of authority.
Separately to all of this, I've made a small mistake. At some point I told the Pentagon that Mishigamaa has requested federal troops when it hadn't. Scared that they'll face charges, the generals ask me to testify in writing that they acted on my orders. So in between monitoring the Republican election campaign, I draft a generic statement which the Pentagon promptly leaks to a reporter, who misinterprets it as referring to the coup he is already investigating.
It's a bittersweet end to my political career, but it also illustrates the chaotic interconnection which makes megagames special, and vindicates the wide area concept. An obscure chain to events beginning in one venue has reached up to ensnare the highest level of authority.
Rex Brynen, the McGill Professor, tells a story about a student who played Unicef in one of his crisis games. They put together a "brilliant" maternal health and birth control program on a limited budget, targeting areas where infant mortality was highest. Only they didn't realize these were also the areas where the fictional ethnic minority seeking independence was most densely clustered. The rebel players needed an excuse to denounce the UN, and stormed out of peace talks claiming Unicef was practicing eugenics.
"I had an email from the student," Brynen tells me, "saying: 'I'm in the library right now, in the bathroom. I've been crying my eyes out after the UN Secretary General has screamed at me on my phone for 15 minutes saying I've destroyed the peace process. I have a meeting with USAID in ten minutes and I have to wipe up my make-up. Thank you for the best learning experience I've ever had.'"
What did we learn from UN:SOC? Wallman and the organisers now know a wide area megagame can work (and how to fix it). Certain British players learned a lot about the US constitution. Personally, I learned to never sign anything I don't have to—and to never, ever trust the generals.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: For this article I spoke to or drew from reports by many people who could not in the end be quoted, who nevertheless deserve recognition. They are: John Mizon, Tim Campbell, Paul Howarth, Marcel Nijenhof, Zane Gunton, Becky Ladley, Nick Luft, Jaap Boender, Jonathan Terry, Stephen Brown and Andrew Hadley of the control teams; Myre Haywood, Alex Beck, and Chris Cooling with the feds; Fraser Patrick, Oli Fleck, Paul Howells, Russell Kent and Becky Rose in Wabash; Benji Royce, Daniel Woods, Johan Olofsson, Alexi Duggins, Jake Knight, Brad Jayakody and Darren Grey in Mishigamaa; Jude Whitaker and Mario Conti of Shawnee, Chris Gannon of Ouisconsin, Daniel Lawson of Kanawha and Daniel Piper of Ahao; Luke Murray of Necrotech, Sean Tyrer of Badger News, and all its reporters; finally the hosts of the podcasts Last Turn Madness and The Megagame Report.