I picked up the following video from a tweet by the ever lovely and attractive Copenhagen Games Collective today, a short thing that provokes a few smiles if not laughs.

Placing game concepts in a real world scenario can be interesting and art has often made use of the “reality as game” motif to disturbing effect.

The movie WarGames was one of the earliest examples of this, mapping nuclear war onto a stark vector display embellished with icons representing cities, military bases and nuclear missiles in flight. It is impressive how insignificant it makes the audience feel and disturbs precisely because it portrays a clean and tidy abstraction of nuclear annihilation.

Despite being one of the first films using video games for theme, it’s still one of the cleverest. In the film, Matthew Broderick hacks into a computer system to play a game of “Global Thermonuclear War” with AI opponent Joshua. When he discovers that Joshua is playing out this game as reality for North American Defense Command (NORAD), it scares the absolute bejesus out of him.

Many will remember the climactic moment when Joshua runs through hundreds of nuclear war simulations, trying to find a win scenario – the result being, of course, that he can’t, and we go home with the message that nuclear war is bad. In the 1980s my generation wasn’t worried about al-Qaeda terrorism; we grew up fearing nuclear war, the literal end of the world. In 2010, this is no longer the most important scene of the movie.

Of more significance is a scene a few minutes earlier when the military brass at NORAD don’t know whether they’re witnessing an imminent nuclear strike or a simulation.

When a game becomes reality, it’s no longer a game. It’s terrifying.

The gamification of nuclear war depicted in WarGames was so chilling that indie studio Introversion built the game DEFCON around the concept. The following trailer shows how effective DEFCON is at evoking WarGames’ inspired abstraction.

This is disturbing if interpreted as mass destruction and loss of life, which is the road WarGames took the audience down. But DEFCON is only the first half of WarGames when Matthew Broderick is oblivious that his game is creating a dangerous faux-reality for NORAD. The game aesthetic has more to do with 80s nostalgia than a statement about the gamification of reality through abstraction, an idea which has greater power. DEFCON focuses a player on the opponent, on winning the game because, after all, it is a game.

A modern example using games-as-reality comes from a recent episode of sublime UK “kids with superpowers” series Misfits, in which a guest character sees reality as a video game, more precisely, as a GTA-a-like world. So while he seeks revenge against his arch-nemesis, crime boss “Conti”, within his game-rendered reality, for everyone else it’s a terrifying nightmare: he’s mowing down “old grannies” in his fast car for real, he’s shooting people in the head for real. Despite the cleverest tricks developers use to immerse players, we usually know the difference between a game world and reality. When their edges are anti-aliased away, the result is a hybrid, distorted reality.

Footage from the Gulf War in 1990 showed the ease of sending laser-guided bombs to their targets, suggesting that technology had created such a gamified, distorted reality. This was lauded as an improvement. We can kill them without them killing us. Point and fire. Point and fire. Point. Fire. But the actual human cost was largely hidden, abstracted into score. The West, 1. Iraq, 0. (However, sources say this was just propaganda; air strikes were far less clinical than the public were led to believe.)

This device of gamifying military combat was used to create the finest scene in the movie Patriot Games, released two years after the Gulf War. In this sequence, special forces are deployed to wipe out terrorists at a training camp in Libya – but the audience only sees the operation through a blurry, colourless and silent satellite feed. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable scene with strong game overtones. Watch it now and you will see Frozen Synapse. (A clearer version of this video can be found on Movieclips)

Abstracting war might be considered a useful tool so that strategists can focus on strategy, but it can also be argued that it encourages atrocity by reducing people to icons and numbers.

The Wikileaks video depicting the death of freelance photojournalist Namir Noor-Eldeen with numerous other civilians demonstrates how far the gamification of air war has come. Human targets are picked off through distant cross-hairs; the wounded try to crawl to safety, but are finished off because high scores matter. 15 terrorists killed yesterday. 30 terrorists today. Boss terrorist terminated. Level ends. Enemies respawn.

With the ongoing convergence of media, friends now defined as the number of formal connections on a social network, gaming becoming more and more integrated into different aspects of everyday life, and achievements touted as the newest tool in psychological programming, it is sobering to pause and wonder what the future holds.

The use of symbols and metaphor to reduce life to a more convenient and simplified form is only useful when it hides irrelevant details. Overdosing on abstractions, replacing relationships with numbers and associating the importance of knowledge with Google positioning, can only make us poorer as human beings in the long run.

The danger, perhaps, is not falling in love with a virtual world, but being distanced from reality by an abstracted version.

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11 thoughts on “The Abstraction

  1. Nice, this coincides with having watched ‘Gamer’ yesterday. I would recommend it for the first half of the film where it takes broad swipes at Second Life and Counter Strike and made me start questioning the way I can casually mow down hundreds of people in multiplayer games. The second half becomes smaltzy and confused (it feels like the director/writer/producers didn’t have the balls to go down the dark path for the entire film) but if you want to see one person’s vision of abstracting human life then ‘Gamer’ starts off well.

  2. I think I watched about 15 minutes of Gamer and couldn’t get much further. I will have to bow to your expertise in this area. =)

  3. I could hardly get past the trailer.

    Would you say abstraction is sneaking up on us while we’re convinced that we want better graphics/immersion/simulation? It feels like only fighting gamers are decided on their genre staying widely abstracted. I can’t think of a genre that has fewer games falling on the simulation side (and even fewer that are successful).

  4. Abstractions are all around us, we couldn’t get to where we are today without finding ways of reducing complexity into something manageable. E-mail, forum commenting, internet chat are all essentially abstractions for human communication but throw away social cues with the inevitable result it’s a lot easier to fly into a rage when someone disagrees with you (see this week’s RPS Sunday Papers thread for example – I doubt anybody would be shouting if they were meeting these strangers in person).

    But computers make it so easy to reduce things into any sort of abstraction regardless of whether that mode of thinking is healthy or not, that there are some dangers up ahead.

    Metaphors used in gaming are sometimes great for learning and education, but often a little heavy-handed. Moral systems, for example, are extremely poor in execution.

    What I find concerning is that as life becomes increasingly computerised, we’re going to be swimming in abstractions because it’s convenient and will allow us to “do more”. The military examples are extreme, but simply there to try to illustrate what is essentially a subtle point. There is well-meaning discussion right now about using games to make us more productive and directly enhance our life, but Jesse Schell’s talk at DICE (linked in the text) is one example that made some of us shudder about this prospect.

    Facebook is a social network supporting an abstraction for friends. But are all friends equal? Why can companies be my friends? Why are friends spamming me with Farmville updates? Are these really “friends” any more? It’s for reasons like these that I’m barely on Facebook.

    (You know, I was only meaning to post a cute video depicting nuclear explosions over a fifty year period that used gaming as framing device, which makes it more disquieting. I got carried away. Again.)

  5. Well, seeing as Gamer seems pretty odious to everyone. One of the parts that happens to work really well is when the main character is on the lam through a real world section of a Second Life game (people are real and are logged into via a computer) people are being shot randomly and no one reacts because, to the people playing as these real people it isn’t real just something happening on an interface. The scenes in the counterstrike game looking jarringly like the recent advert for COD: BLOPS (the one with Kobe Bryant et al), except in the film people’s heads are exploding.

    For these parts alone, the film has its merits, but unfortunately it can’t keep the same vision throughout. The trailer is terrible and not indicative of the film at all.

  6. Law-Abiding Citizen was also very uneven as opposed to being laughably awful as the trailer suggested, so maybe Gerard Butler’s acting is unusually susceptible to looking bad out of context.

    A lot of game trailers either have this problem or the opposite, worse problem of sounding good until you get the context.

  7. I’m going to post about a game this evening which suffers from “Gerard Butler syndrome” – great game, but trailers that don’t quite let you in on the secret.

    Let’s coin this term right here and now.

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