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Playing at War: the Implications of Video Wargaming

By: Rowan Wolf

An increasing amount of the U.S. weapons systems of the future are remotely operated. For recruiting, training, and increasingly, actual warfare, the video game is becoming a standard. There are many levels on which this direction should be alarming. I will try to discuss the ones at the top of my red alert list.

A long time ago (during the Vietnam War), I remember having a discussion with my foster father who was a bombardier in WWII. I am not sure what brought up the discussion, but I clearly remember the gist of it. He was talking about how when he dropped bombs, he had to focus on the target and not think about the people that target represented. He said that worked relatively well during missions, but that he would have nightmares of the people under those bombs. His waking mind was able to depersonalize to "the target," but his sleeping mind could not. He attributed this failure to an occasion when his plane had to make an emergency landing after taking hits over a target. They had to hike back over the line and they went through a town that had been bombed. What he saw stuck with him for life.

Now we have remote pilots operating Predator drones. They too are killing people. The pictures we see of targets being hit by bombs, missiles, and other armament are similar to what those firing those weapons see. An object or group with a sighting image over it neatly exploding on impact. Those remote operators hardly ever need to confront the effects of their "fighting." The tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are also computer equipped to give an neatly digitized view of an area - and the aftereffect of a strike. All clean, efficient, and I am sure it has and will save the lives of numerous U.S. forces.

In April 2005, the U.S. is sending Talon robots into Iraq armed with small arms and RPGs. They will be operated from up to three-quarters of a mile away by soldiers with joy sticks.

U.S. ground forces are fighting in Iraq with music piped into their ears through the sound systems of their transport and support vehicles.

Now enters the video game warrior. The music plays, simulated humans and targets run through alleys with the weapon of choice firing - right button machine gun, left button RPG, each kill gets you a reload of your favorite weapon. After scoring 30,000 points you advance to the next level. You get a gun that will fire around corners and vision goggles that let you see heat signals through concrete walls. The music blares to keep the adrenaline up and block distractions outside "the game." Will they tell the gamers when they are firing at live targets? Perhaps it would be better if they didn't. At the end of the game/mission, the scores of the "players" are posted to increase the competitive spirit of the participants.

The gaming companies are working with the Pentagon - tuning simulation to actual combat. Do you really think that the actual combat will not transfer back into commercial video games? Already, the Pentagon sees the video games as training grounds for the future "war fighters." Yes "war fighters" not soldiers. Certainly it can only improve war fighter's abilities if realistic simulated training starts as early as possible. Perhaps the best of the child civilian gamers can be diverted into real missions without their knowing. Take the best of the best.

We live in a world where parents are supposed to watch television with their children and tell them what is real and what is not real. Meanwhile video games become more and more realistic. Simulated worlds look very much like the real world and simulated characters increasingly look more human - just as the targets in boot camp move from the standard round target to the human silhouette. They explode and bleed wonderfully. There is one constant though - music. TV and video games signal their lack of reality with music and sounds - music and sounds that don't accompany most "live" activities.

How do parents feel about the video games that are so popular effectively training their children to kill? It flies in the face of what the gaming industry and the entertainment industry assert about the link between their products and violence. They claim such gratuitous violence is at worst "cathartic." How does that change in an environment where military actions killing real people remotely crosses back into gaming pretending at killing inside a game?

Depersonalization is problematic in U.S. society. It is enhanced by commercialization that turns people (and other living things) into objects. It is present in the mantra we say over and over to ourselves and our children "that's not real." We distance ourselves and the line between real and make believe gets more and more blurred. Is this art imitating life or life imitating art. Blood, mayhem, and slaughter on the screen is not real - even when it looks real. The real stories of blood, mayhem, and slaughter move closer and closer to the created. We tell ourselves (and our children) "this is real." The line becomes more invisible. So the US military makes the game the reality, but the reality is couched in the game.

I am a big fan of Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Darkover" series. Darkover is a world where psychic powers are the power base. The elite (rulers) are all of families with special talents. Specialists with psychic powers operate "Towers" to monitor the overworld and the illicit use of powers. At one point in Darkover's history, a technology arose based on the powers. Matricies and weapons were developed to focus and expand the lethality and range of deadly weapons driven by psychic energy. As the story goes, ultimately these technologies threatened the destruction of Darkover and a "compact" was entered into. The technology was destroyed and suppressed, and all fights (and wars) had to occur face to face with hand weapons - swords actually. If you were going to kill someone you needed to face them and face the risk of dying yourself. The reason for this was to maintain the fact that these are people and the risk real.

The weapons dreamers and war planners are aimed at depersonalizing the reality of war. The goal is to shrink the fighting force to a minimum and provide technology that at once removes the operator and extends the lethality. The reality of war is censored to the public. We can all pretend that the damage is minimal and the costs few. Those troops who die, or are permanently disabled, are hidden from view, and the victims are all "bad guys" who deserved what they got. It's scripted to a tee.

Will the day come when the best gamers will aspire to "play" the Pentagon's "games" because they are the "best" games? Full sensor suits to magnify strength, sight, hearing. Games played alone or in teams with weapons and simulation unavailable elsewhere? Implantation of biosensors to better translate and interact with the game? Sensors implanted in the brain that interact with weapons systems to be directed with a thought? Look at the projects at DARPA and imagine the "melding" possibilities.

There is work being done to remotely operate helicopters. This is purportedly for use in the US by police forces so that they can have eyes and ears in the sky. However, why would one use an unpiloted helicopter for such an endeavor? Why not something much more efficient - like a drone? Is there a massive shortage of helicopter pilots, or more helicopters in police hands than they know what to do with? Or perhaps it is really a spinoff of a military project. While remote warfare is great, there will most likely always be a need for actual troops in combat areas (if for nothing more than to service the remote equipment). Why risk highly skilled pilots on such missions when you can fly them remotely. In fact, in certain cases a single "pilot" could fly multiple vehicles at the same time. That would truly be efficient.

How "efficient" and lethal do we feel comfortable with war being? How "clean" (meaning neither troops nor the US public) have to see or deal with the effects of "combat?" It seems to me that the further we get from the reality of war, the more acceptable it becomes. This is true for remote war fighters, and it is particularly true for the non-military public.

I am concerned as well by the ever blurring line between reality and fiction. This is true in the so-called "news" and in the daily consumption of media. There are many believe that "the world is what you make it," but that is being taken to a whole new level - a frightening level that distances us from the consequences of our (and our government's) actions.

The merging of video gaming with military activity is more than alarming. The implications for our society are vast. I do not believe that this is a direction that we should be going - even though there may be some benefits from it. For example, being able to do deep ocean research remotely, or have a doctor operate on a patient a thousand miles away. The immersing of the young in an increasingly sophisticated pseudo-reality that merges with real life actions presents a reality shift that even adults are not equipped to handle. The increasing interface of human/computer/machine is unlikely to make us a kinder, gentler people; nor more empathetic to those around us. Personal interactions are likely to not meet the expectations of those steeped in an environment where they have virtually total control. Certainly for those excluded from such "technology" - the likely "targets" of military (and police) activity - this will be no "game."

This movement of the military into the world of gaming is something we should be talking about as a society. In fact, we should be looking very hard at video gaming and simulated realities even outside of the military arena. The culture in the United States is more than accepting of technology. There is a dual feeling of "technology happens," and "technology is good." It is embraced despite misgivings and almost always without discussion. That needs to change.

 

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