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.