Choose Your Own Syrian Tragedy

Gut-wrenching online game simulates life and death in a civil war

Choose Your Own Syrian Tragedy Choose Your Own Syrian Tragedy
War is Boring went to Syria in the fall of 2013. Our reporter Mitch Swenson was an important part of the team. Returning home... Choose Your Own Syrian Tragedy

War is Boring went to Syria in the fall of 2013. Our reporter Mitch Swenson was an important part of the team. Returning home to New York City, he was disturbed to find that everyday Americans were barely paying attention to the three-year-old civil war that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the historic Middle East country.

“I heard that nine times as many people clicked on links to do with Miley Cyrus than the war,” Swenson told The Guardian.

Determined to change minds, Swenson designed 1,000 Days of Syria, a multimedia Website—“an exercise in transmedia storytelling,” in Swenson’s words—that lets users take on the role of a Syrian family, a rebel fighter or a foreign journalist covering the conflict.

Like a 1980s Choose Your Own Adventure kids’ book—except awful, tragic and true to life. I played as the foreign journalist, while War is Boring’s Robert Beckhusen and Joe Trevithick and his wife Kelly assumed the roles of families and a fighter.

As the journalist, I made all the same decisions I really did make when I was in and around Syria last year—and I still ended up getting killed in an accidental exchange of gunfire as I traveled with Kurdish troops. In “death,” I joining scores of reporters who’ve also died, for real, while covering the war.

My fellow players fared no better.

David Axe at right—Mitch Swenson at center. David Axe photo

Robert Beckhusen

I have honestly no idea what I would do when faced with the choices presented to the mother of two children in Swenson’s game. Her immediate priorities are survival and protecting her children in a country going to Hell.

But in this scenario, I tried to make decisions that I think my own mother—politically active but not a political radical—might make, given the choices presented.

The scenario begins with the March 2011 non-violent protest against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the Syrian city of Daraa. The game quickly presents a dilemma—encourage your husband Ali to join the protests … or discourage him.

My character initially discourages him. Partly that’s to avoid scrutiny from the Mukhabarat secret police, who interrogated him earlier at his workplace.

But as the protests escalated, we choose to attend. “Both you and Ali think that it might be a shame if Assad is eventually ousted and neither of you played a part in the revolution,” the game describes.

It’s time to be part of history.

But at the protest, Ali learns the military killed his sister, among more than a hundred others, during protests elsewhere in the country. Still early in the game, Ali splits to join the revolution. My character returns to her apartment with her children.

At this point, the situation begins to seriously fall apart. Fighting breaks out in and around the neighborhood. The family begins rationing food. Soldiers search the home, shoving weapons in the children’s faces and demanding to know where Ali is. How do you answer them?

The player faces another dilemma. If you flee for a safer part of the country, then it’s unlikely Ali will be able to find you—if he ever returns. Your children begin playing war inside the apartment. I make the decision to flee.

Revealing what happens next would be too much of a spoiler, and take away from the effect of the game. The point is you don’t know what’s going to happen at any moment, and your choices involve deciding between some seriously bleak options. I eventually found an ostensible refuge in the rebel-controlled city of Al Raqqa, which was anything but.

What happened after arriving there could only be described as pretty much unimaginably terrible, especially considering who these particular rebels were.

Knowing this, I would have tried to escape from Daraa much sooner—at the earliest possible opportunity. But how would I have known? The game revealed I didn’t have a clue. This more than anything demonstrates why it’s profoundly affecting.

Joe & Kelly Trevithick

I died in 15 minutes of game play. My wife lasted a little bit longer. It took her 25 minutes to get shot. That’s the life of a young man and a mother of two in the world of 1,000 Days of Syria. Our experiences are probably quite accurate, no matter what Swenson’s disclaimer says.

Tens of thousands of people have died in Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011. I don’t know any of their names. I can barely remember my character’s name in the grim simulation.

Swenson said he hopes his project will “inform and perhaps motivate” people less-informed about the conflict. My wife now knows more specific details, for sure.

But the real education for both of us was something completely different. We are relatively well informed, but no amount of information seems to help the conflict be any less distant.

“I feel like it’s a zombie apocalypse,” my wife said. Only something fantastical like that seemed on par with the horror she just experienced vicariously.

I tried to explain something to her during our Internet journey. I got the facts wrong and realized a lot of the Arab Spring’s violence was rolling together in my mind.

I was working full-time for GlobalSecurity.org when the Syrian fighting started. I remember that we tracked the body count for a while. But eventually we stopped trying to figure out how many people had been killed every day. So many were dying.

We can stop—and that is our luxury. When your 1,000 days end online, you can put it all back in the proverbial box.

1,000 Days of Syria taught me that it is terrifyingly easily to dismiss the suffering of others. Al Assad’s regime matter-of-factly kills innocent civilians—and now various militias do, too. Those people die as forgotten as the characters my wife and I role-played.

The regime and the militias in turn benefit from how easily Americans and others can tune out all this. After we both took our turns, my wife said she wished there was something we could do.

I think we took the first step by letting Swenson take us this journey—and taking Syria back out of our boxes.

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