Interview: Ivan Marovic on serious games, nonviolent resistance and the Arab Spring

With the revolutions and protests associated with the Arab Spring still top of mind, we’re left to speculate why some uprisings, including those in Egypt and Tunisia, have had better results than others, like in Libya. Is there a tool kit or formula that makes for a more successful revolution? The strategies that PopTech 2005 presenter and Serbian activist Ivan Marovic and his colleagues at Otpor, a nonviolent resistance movement, employed helped to overthrow Slobodan Milosovic. These techniques have now found a place in these current Middle East uprisings, thanks to Marovic’s guidance and related video game he created entitled People Power (formerly A Force More Powerful). On the forefront of the serious games movement, players can practice scenarios like battling corruption, fighting discrimination, or overthrowing dictators. We checked in with Marovic for an update on the status of People Power six years later as well as how he’s been contributing to and learning from the uprisings in the Middle East.  

PopTech: Since you spoke at PopTech six years ago, you’ve continued working on the game you had presented about – A Force More Powerful, which is now called People Power. How has the game evolved? 
Ivan Marovic: The game is now designed for lower-end machines so that people can play it who cannot expect high performance from their computers. It’s now possible to play it on a Mac or with Linux. And we changed it so that the game can be translated into many languages very easily.

A screenshot from People Power

Have people been calling upon you to talk about your work with Otpor in a specific way as it relates to all the unrest associated with the Arab Spring?
I know my work with Otpor, the movement I belonged to back in Serbia in 2000, has served as an inspiration to at least one group in Egypt involved with the revolution.  The work we were doing never completely died off but now it is reinvigorated so I’ve been asked by several organizations to talk about lessons that can be useful for other youth movements, civil movements that are fighting to end oppression, or are fighting for respect of human rights or good government. We share strategies and tactics we use and some of the basic principles and lessons that we learned from our struggle.

Can you elaborate on how your work correlates with the experiences of the protesters in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya?
As one of my friends from Egypt said, you know it’s not that we learned something specific from you guys [referring to Marovic and his colleagues from Otpor], but the fact that we were exposed to your experience helped us find some solutions on our own. And so they did develop their own strategy, how to tackle regressions and how to tackle provocations without sliding into violence, and that’s why I think we still have a relatively stable, although still uncertain situation in Egypt and as well in Tunisia.

How did that feedback make you think about the current direction of your work?
The long-term goal that my colleagues and I have is how to reach more people and share with them these strategies. These strategies are crucial to avoid unnecessary violence in the process of political change.

When you were working to overthrow Slobodan Milosovic in the early 2000s, did you have any inkling about how technology would change the way we think about how movements are organized?
When we were fighting against Milosevic in Serbia, that was the Stone Age of the Internet. We did not have blogs, so when I was updating my personal webpage, I had to do manual HTML editing. The Internet has had a beneficial effect because networking is one of the most important things in organizing a movement.

However, no movement that I know of that has relied solely on the Internet has succeeded. Movements that are successful are those that take advantage of every technology at their disposal: brand new cutting-edge technology as well as 19th century technology. Facebook and Twitter are present, but so are posters, stickers and printed materials on walls of buildings. This is important because not everybody has access to the Internet, and it is important, as a movement, to be able to speak to as many people as possible in many different forms that are appropriate to specific situations and to specific populations.

That is also connected to another point, which I learned from the Egyptians. At one point the government cut off Internet access in Egypt. That did not hurt the movement because they had developed different forms of communications, which were less technologically savvy, but still worked. In fact, some people who were only connected to the movement through the Internet had to come down to Tahrir Square to learn what was going on. So it actually had the opposite effect.

What have you learned from watching the Arab Spring uprisings unfold, which you have then applied to your own work?
Every non-violent revolution brings a new strategy or tactic that wasn't tried before. It broadens the whole field. There was a notion in academia that these revolutions happen in places that are semi-autocratic, where there are elections - but these elections have been stolen - and then there is public outrage and the government is forced to step down.

This was the case in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia in the last ten years, but what Egypt and Tunisia have proven is that non-violent revolutions can happen in more autocratic regimes without elections.

Many people had been saying that elections are the trigger. In this case that wasn't true. That actually broadens the field because it increases the universality of non-violent strategy. It's not only used to prevent electoral fraud but it can also be used in other places.

You created People Power in the earlier days of serious games, or games designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Now these types of games seem to be a more commonly used learning tool. How have you seen the role of serious games evolve?
Things have changed a lot since the first version of the game was released in early 2006. These types of games were initially used for the military and other governmental agencies to train personnel, but they were not intended for a wider audience. Since 2006, there has been an explosion of different types of serious games.

Our game is an excellent tool to train you in the technical aspects of movement organizing. You can learn all about tactical sequencing; managing resources, like human resources and material resources; and how to strategically disperse the people and activists around the country to have the maximum impact. All of these things are important for movement management.

However, there are important components missing that will be very difficult to cover with a video game:  the political context and the subtleties of campaigning, marketing, and message development. These things, unfortunately, cannot be modeled on a computer. They require human interaction to evaluate their success.

That being said, in most cases movements fail, not because they have a bad message or a message that is not appropriate enough, but usually they fail because they did not do their homework in managing resources or sequencing tactics in the right way.

Any games you’ve seen recently that are making strides to provide people with the tools to implement positive social change?
Because I was busy making the game, I did not have time to play other games!  Recently I just played “Fate of the World,” which I am still impressed by. It's a game where you actually help save the world by looking at climate change and actions you need to take in order to mitigate the environmental crisis.

Are people playing your game who you hadn’t anticipated?
The game is actually intended for activists. These are the people who want to learn about movement management and strategizing, especially non-violent strategies. However, the game has also been used by people who run courses on social movements in universities. They use this because they are trying to engage their students in a different way. Enough of these books! They hate to read so in order to give them something fresh and new when they discuss social movements, the game is used.

Where do you see your work heading in the future?
I would like to move to the Middle East and live there for a couple of years. Maybe some of my experience can be helpful, but also I can learn a lot there. I'm still exploring because the situation is volatile.  

Images: Headshot from PoliticalWarfare.org and screenshot from People Power

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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