A collaborative calling itself Witness to History, composed of Silicon Valley gamemakers, progressive US media types, innovative educators, and Ukrainian activists combines education on the Crimea crisis with ribald entertainment. The gamemaker team premiers Squeeze Putin’s Cronies, at least the boardgame version, at a hackathon— a freewheeling project-oriented workshop for interdisciplinary digital work— this weekend at Cornell University.
Over the course of the weekend participants will drill out elements of the digital version which will be available in Beta by April. The game will be hosted on the website of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, a recent Kyiv startup which has been holding press briefings and offering updates since March 5. The head of the gamemaker team, an expert in project-based learning, who is also a political scientist at UC Berkeley, praised the fundamentals of Squeeze Putin’s Cronies: “Players will start to understand the nature of ruthless capitalism without ethical limitations, as they consider the system of government in Russia, which they called sovereign democracy until it just became oligarchy without a public sphere.”
Those interested in conspiracy, real and theorized, will be most pleased as Squeeze Putin’s Cronies pits players in the role of Cronies against tough journalists, forensic accountants, signals intelligence experts, OSCE observers and EU defense analysts. Roles are chosen from those already defined by the gamemakers, or can be created, for example, jilted mistress willing to tell all in exchange for a new life in the West. The project-based learning comes from players conducting realtime, online research and social networking on smartphones and tablets: to build up their avatar, study Crimean history and geopolitics, learn about Russian Su-27 Flanker fighters and track the success of measures putting the squeeze on the Cronies.
As the gamemakers premier Squeeze Putin’s Cronies in its digital form, a host of tools will be available. Players will be able to map networks of collusion, follow the trail of assets around the world, and best of all, follow in the news as real sanctions impact the Cronies. A spokesman for the gamemakers explained its present and future form: “Now, needless to say, we just have a pack of cards, like Pete Rose or O.J. Simpson, with a bunch of stats and then some misdeeds. Ultimately we will have a user-generated archive of research, and a network of tuned-in people who can draw attention to the way things work in Russia, and maybe make a difference. As a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) Squeeze Putin’s Cronies would show people how to recognize the patterns corruption takes everywhere.”
The Cronies are fascinating. Consider Vladislav Surkov, the Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin, and architect of sovereign democracy; he is a puppet master pulling strings from the darkness, who occasionally emerges with a flourish of a voluminous, velvet cape lined with satin. The gamemakers think of him as The Gamemaker. When Surkov unveiled sovereign democracy in 2006, he laid out what seemed like reasonable constitutional principles. According to one expert, “That turned out to be the front half of a golden calf stapled to the back part of a golden ass, and while everybody was distracted, the Cronies just did what they wanted.”
Now as one looks at him in the picture above he looks nothing like an arch-villain but he carries a lot of water in Moscow. The expert continued “But Gennady Timchenko, the brothers Rotenberg, Yuri Kovalchuk and the others: these are guys we can really love to hate. And do not forget the arch-conspirator, Chairman of the Crimean Supreme Council, Volodomyr Konstantinov. He even looks dangerous.” In a story on the Russian Nah News website Konstantinov announced Monday that there would be collection points for Ukrainian state symbols which would be disposed of “delicately” by Crimean authorities. Konstantinov said that mocking of these symbols would not be allowed. If one reads behind the lines, Konstantinov might be saying, “Do what you want but keep your drunken bonfires out of sight of journalists. Don’t make me look bad.” But really, he means, “Bring as much of that Ukrainian symbolic stuff as you can; we will collect it at my place in the mountains and have a real bonfire.” Last week, even before the referendum, Konstantinov made a public announcement, inviting Russians to come to Crimea on holiday.
As a Cornell computer science grad student, one of the chief gamemakers explained “So far Squeeze Putin’s Cronies players like these roles with massive, unbridled power; the ability to gather intelligence, pull strings and move the pieces on a Stratego board.” Then they realize the corruption behind that power, and they adopt a Squeeze-the-Cronies role. As the student continues, “Players love watching the big guys take a fall, as the net tightens around them.” Not surprisingly the game is available on Amazon with a three-day wait, and all profits go to the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. According to another Stanford-based gamemaker, “The best part is we have really cool figurines that represent roadblocks and armored vehicles, but what people really like are the Black Sea fleet and those hovercraft with missiles. And of course the Su-27 Flanker fighters aren’t bad either. ”
Psychologists call attention to the worldwide, negative emotional responses to Putin and the Crimea crisis. As the gamemakers premier the Squeeze Putin’s Cronies boardgame,Witness to History hopes people will find the boardgame an outlet: in acquiring new information, processing it with others, and a healthy dose of poking fun at the Cronies, they will not feel so powerless. The boardgame has a further therapeutic dimension, since players do research on history and geography and culture in Eastern Europe, and they recapitulate the steps of the Russian incursion, all of which gives a sense of mastery of the crisis: “Once we are networked on the Ukraine Crisis Media center site, we can support each other through the severe anxiety, trouble sleeping and compulsive web searching that are so widespread.”
Satire by Lawrence M. Shapiro
Ukraine Crisis Media Center