Auroch Digital

This $1 mobile game explains the futility of the war on drugs

This $1 mobile game explains the futility of the war on drugs

NarcoGuerra, a strategy game from developer-activists Auroch Digital, looks like a Risk clone themed on the Mexican drug war, but that's all part of the illusion.

It cleverly uses its association with that classic turn-based war game in order to deceive players into believing they can assault the drug cartels in the same way they would if they were trying to conquer the country in a game of Risk.

“The gamer way to understand war is through games like Risk,” said Tomas Rawlings, design and production director for Auroch Digital's Game the News project. “And to me that's part of the point of NarcoGuerra. You're presented with something that seems like a strategy game that you can charge ahead and win at. And of course, you find out it's a bit harder than you thought it was going to be. Because actually, it isn't a war on drugs. And that's the point.”

If winning the drug war was as simple as taking territory away from the cartels then Mexico wouldn't be in the state of violence that it is, with an estimated 40,000+ people killed since the conflict flared in 2006. It should have ended ages ago as the Mexican government out-muscled illegal operations with the help of their international allies.

However, as NarcoGuerra shows, the real solution to this decades-long problem is much more elusive.

Taking down Los Zetas

“This weird paradox, which is different from a conventional war, is the better the police are at stopping drug trafficking, the higher the price goes,” said Rawlings. “Then there's more money to be made, and so more people get into the market, more gangsters. And as more people arrive to make money, more drugs appear, driving the price back down. So as you get more successful at stopping drugs, you actually create the conditions to fail.”

NarcoGuerra is not a full-scale simulation game that is meant to incorporate every facet of the complex problems underpinning society's drug dependence, but it does complicate the ordinary war game template.

“In a conventional war, like the second world war, the more territory you conquer, the less your enemy has, the more you win,” he said. “Risk is an example of that. In Risk you can get on a roll where you're unstoppable, but the war on drugs doesn't work like that.”

The most important addition is corruption. “Any situation where there is huge amounts of illegal money floating around, bribery will happen,” said Rawlings. NarcoGuerra simulates this effect with a rising meter that shows the spread of corruption throughout your police force. If it gets too high, you'll start losing units as they defect to the cartels. You have access to Internal Affairs investigations to snuff out corruption but that costs money that you'll need to divert away from capturing territory from the cartels.

Even when things are going well in NarcoGuerra it's often just an illusion. The balance of power is an important consideration. You can't simply hope to wipe a cartel off the map, and expect no one to take their place. Harming the cartel only raises the prices of narcotics which gives them more money to buy troops in the game. Even if you manage to destroy that cartel completely, the power imbalance is likely to result in a new upstart cartel sprouting up as the first one weakens.

As if it wasn't difficult enough to manage a nationwide war while dealing with internal corruption, NarcoGuerra also throws others curveballs at the player as well. The game unfolds like a series of news stories. You lead the war effort, but all the while the world goes on, and you'll get periodic updates on what's happening throughout Mexico. In one case, the presidential election has arrived and you must choose which candidate to support, and how much of your funds you will divert in order to promote what you believe will be the most effective social change.

I've never personally been able to beat the game, but these news events seem to be the most critical tool at your disposal. Brute force alone wont win this war, only social and political change can give you the leg up you need to solve the problem at its core.

Video game activism

“The previous generation who didn't have games, the way they understood the world around them was through films or through radio or novels,” said Rawlings. “But when we think about things we think about them as dynamic systems. And I think games are the best way of representing dynamic systems. So for instance, you could tell somebody about the ebbs and flows of how drug markets work, or you could just put that system in front of somebody and let them experience it themselves.”

Rawlings said that Auroch Digital wanted to approach this problem through a video game out of a belief that a message is more effective if a person experiences it first-hand, rather than having it preached at them.

You can tell somebody about the frustrations and challenges involved in fighting drugs and human trafficking in Mexico, but it's much more powerful when they can feel that sense of futility for themselves.

To drive home the realism of the situation, NarcoGuerra also ships with a standard Risk clone version of the game in its skirmish mode. Here the game plays out in a much more straightforward way, but Rawlings says this is all just another part of their message.

“The story mode is the reality. The skirmish mode is the fantasy we're being sold that this is an easily fixable thing by treating it as a war.”

NarcoGuerra's social messages don't hinder the gameplay, though. The extreme difficulty of the game is part of its message, but it also results in a unique and surprising handheld strategy experience.

NarcoGuerra is available now on Android and iOS devices for $0.99.