Welcome to those of you linking through from my article in the Guardian IT supplement, on the relationship between the computer games industry and the US military. This blog entry features my unedited article in the 'extended post' section below. It's not radically different, just longer, and embedded with hyperlinked back-up sources.
The topic has been a growing interest of mine for about a year now - ever since I came across the fact that J.C.Herz, the hip nineties cybercommentator, was now a project leader for DARPA (the US Defense Advance Research Projects Agency). I contacted J.C. about this, and never heard back from her - but it lead into a fistful of del.icio.us links on the topic, a few compelling e-mail and phone conversations, and eventually news of a new investigative history of US computer games, which had a major chapter on the military-entertainment-gaming complex.
I could easily write double or triple the amount of words I've already expended on this subject. (And I have a number of day and night jobs I have to return to, so this is probably as far as I'm going). But suffice to say, this is an example of the kind of critique required by my concept of a 'play ethic' - ie, how do we harness our powers of imagination, simulation and experimentation towards the building of a creative, reciprocal and sustainable society.
To say the least, the 'militarisation' of one of our most powerful contemporary play-forms is a challenge to these very ethics. I've only touched on the problem, and I invite others to take it up and extend it further.
All comments, corrections - and new leads - are more than welcome. Please input on the 'comments' link below.
[Note: Below this post is another 'War Games' post, with extra material on the issue of the US Army's data-capture of subscribers' gameplay, in the America's Army online game, and how this is used in recruitment. This isn't in the Guardian piece, because it's a more complex subject, but still worth exploring].
Unedited version of article for The Guardian's Technology supplement, December 1, 2005.
Humans play games for many wonderful, enriching reasons - and sometimes for no reason at all. But they've always played games to prepare for war. Some of our earliest and most enduring board games, like chess and Go, began as teaching tools for the children of kings and emperors. Through these games they understood strategy, imagined the battlefield, saw the consequences of attack and defence.
In this sense, it should be no surprise that a wander down the aisles of any computer games retailer can seem like a visit to your local friendly military academy. From Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion to Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, whether the scenarios are wildly fantastic or grittily realistic, the arts of war are fully represented and celebrated. The world's most lucrative and dynamic cultural form is, to a large extent, a Spartan phenomenon. Thucydides, Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz would survey the collected titles, and rest easy.
But we should be aware that this link between digital gaming and the military is more than just the latest expression of an enduring human tradition, or the populist instinct of a highly commercial sector. These links are explicit, current and increasingly overt.
As Heather Chaplin, co-author of Smart Bomb, a new profile of the games industry says, "I spent four years walking into the offices of upper-echelon games developers, and I can't think of one who hadn't accepted an invitation to work for the CIA, the FBI or the Department of Defence. It's amazing how willing the people in the industry are to give their talents, skills and time to military purposes."
The most overt example of this has just launched in the US, and will be here by Christmas - the console version of America's Army. "Our game developers don't rely on imagination", runs the strapline on the internet ads, and it's entirely true. AA, a 'first-person shooter' simulation of army training and combat, was launched on the US Army's website on July 4, 2002.
To date, the game has been downloaded 29 million times, and has 6.1 million active users, according to its director, Colonel Casey Wardynski. Intended as the latest in a long history of army recruitment propaganda, it has certainly been effective: 20-40% of new recruits have already played the game. And cost-effective: maintaining the web-site at $2.5 million a year means that it costs "10 cents per hour" to put the US Army's brand in front of a viewer, compared to $5 to $8 for TV advertising, says Wardynksi [see this report for preceding stats]. As the title from a 2003 paper presented by Mike Zyda, originator of AA, crisply puts it: "Weapons of Mass Distraction - America's Army Recruits for the Real War" [pdf].
These figures were presented to attendees of the Serious Games Conference in Washington earlier this month - primary sponsor, incidentally, the US Army - and as one game journalist commented, "the Army's experiment in serious gaming is starting to look like a franchise" [more comment]
As industry veterans will readily tell you, you don't get to be a franchise if the "gameplay" in your product isn't very good. America's Army is the result of an intense embrace between the very best talents of the game business, and the recruitment and training imperatives of a military superpower.
In addition, the Department of Defence has spent $100 million creating an entire campus - the Institute for Creative Technologies at University of Southern California - which turns games originally intended for soldier training into marketable product (Full Spectrum Warrior is the most notable example). DARPA, the US Government's powerful defence laboratory, has a whole range of projects which blur the line between online gaming , virtual worlds, and military performance, employing erstwhile counter-cultural game gurus like J.C. Herz.
Computer games, like any high-tech industry, have some of their roots directly in military technology: the development line from the first Air Force radar screen to today's pixellated hyper-real images, for example, is direct. The first ever video games were made in the fifties and sixties, by MIT scientists who were funded by the Department of Defense. Up until the mid-nineties, the DoD was funding its own, somewhat clunky game-tools like SIMNET (for training tank-drivers).
But figures like Zyda started to note how compelling commercial games were getting, in terms of realistic graphics, inventive brio and sheer cost-effectiveness. Currently director of the University of South California’s Viterbi School of Engineering's GamePipe Laboratory, Zyda's 1997 paper, Linking Entertainment and Defense, gave the initial rationale. A meeting between four star general Paul Kern, and the head of Disney's Imagineering division Bran Ferren in 1999, lit the policy spark.
The flame has burned through the entire industry: few seem untouched by some degree of military service-provision, directly or indirectly. As Chaplin says, though, younger game-makers' sanguinity in the face of all this is worth some comment.
She profiles the visionary designer Will Wright, responsible for seemingly 'thoughtful' and 'relationship-based' games like SimCity and The Sims, and who's about to launch the startling new God-game Spore (often jokingly called SimUniverse) next year. Yet Wright turns up for meetings proudly sporting his CIA-embroidered flight jacket (a freebie for some simulation work he did for the agency).
The chapter closes with Wright accepting the "fun" challenge from DARPA to create a robot car that could drive to Las Vegas all by itself. Why did he think they were sponsoring the event? "Well, I think that should be pretty obvious", says Wright matter-of-factly. "They want to be able to build land-based cruise missiles".
I've written my own book on the cultures of play and games - and I know that there are many more ways to be playful, and many other values to invoke in the course of play, than the purely militial. So what gives with the American computer games industry (as compared to, say, music, movies or television) in its explicitly gung-ho attitude?
Partly it's the lure of 'problem-solving' projects for a certain class of digital expert. They find themselves so compelled by the analytical or computational challenges before them that they bracket out any distracting context, often involving wider ethical or political questions.
Steven Johnson's acclaimed recent book Everything Bad Is Good For You made a case for the purely 'cognitive' benefits of computer games. Though the content may be violent, the mental gymnastics involved in negotiating these complex worlds had to be recognised, and not demonised. [Though see my review for Independent, PK.]
What's intriguing is that this is exactly what senior military games people like Jeff Wilkinson, a program manager at the Simulation & Training Technology Center at US Army RDECOM, want. A higher level of cognitive performance is the "sweet spot" for their investment in the games sector. "We are frequently looking for 'first person thinker' environments and not 'first person shooter' environments", said Wilkinson in an e-mail interview."This provides a significant opportunity for game-makers to focus their resources in new ways".
Wilkinson is at pains to stress that the benefits of Army investment in "immersive gaming" will accrue mostly to education, not entertainment. The future cyber-soldier, moving through the warzones in a virtual cloud of "in-stride feedback" and "data collection" may, says Wilkinson, "offer much to those developing game technology for use in schools, etc."
So, first we deal with the miasmic War on Terror; then, as a happy by-product, kids can be wired up to make the most of their study trips. Much of the scarier aspects of this military-entertainment complex comes from the shared visions that both sides have of 'Future Objective Force Warriors': Terminator 5, 6 and beyond.
Chaplin quotes Micheal Macedonia, a major mover in Army simulation circles, recommending the visions of SF writers like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game - a novel in which six year olds unknowingly fight remote wars through their gaming consoles. "I've always been fascinated with what you can do with a six-year old", Macedonia muses.
Surprisingly, even the most progressive figures in the field want to protect the purity of the game-player's experience from its increasingly military context. Eric Zimmerman from Gamelab is well-known as an innovative games-maker, and co-author of the magisterial critical study Rules of Play. Yet he notes that America's Army closely resembles plenty of other first person shooter games "in that it has an incredibly rich and productive fan culture, with people modding and hacking into the game, making political statements with it. The distinction is about the uses to which the game is put."
However, Zimmerman concedes that "what's brilliant in a sinister way about America's Army is that it lets the game be a game. It appropriates an existing genre of gameplay, which just really happens to match up with a lot of its objectives".
Greg Costikian, a major industry game designer who recently left Nokia's mobile games division to start his own grassroots game company Manifesto Games, is similarly agnostic about the relationship between games and the military. But unlike many, Costikian has a developed political position on America's Army.
"Conscription is a form of slavery. Given that we have a volunteer military, the military needs to recruit. And if it's legitimate for them to use TV and print advertising, what's wrong with doing so through a game as well?"
This position is shared by Sheldon Pacotti, the dialogue and script writer for the forthcoming America's Army console game, Rise of a Soldier. Pacotti became known as the "left-wing shooter" for his work on the Deus Ex future war games. His experience on AA, working closely with Special Forces soldiers, was that their "nuanced ideas about the role of an outside military force" in foreign interventions was much more subtle than the understanding of either American politicians or citizens.
"The truth about terrorism", Pacotti told me, "is that it is much more complex than any plot you could dream up for a game or any other type of entertainment. The virtue of Rise of a Soldier is that it doesn't set out to demonize the enemies, their culture, or their worldview. That would be a handy dramatic tool, but it would amount to an oversimplification." [full e-mail interview here].
Well, we'll have to see. The game-makers have a point: we shouldn't automatically damn each product that bears a military title, given that the actual gameplay may be subtler than the blood’n’guts marketing. And it's not as if there isn't a small counter-movement in the game sector. The same Washington conference sponsored by the US Army featured "serious games" that were about Middle-East non-violent conflict resolution, or the distribution of food by the UN (Food Force). [See also Zimmerman's latest challenge - a game that could win the Nobel Peace Prize - and the 'political' strand at Watercooler Games].
And as many pointed out to me, the rise of modding and machinima - game software being hacked by users to create their own scenarios and narratives - is bound to allow a wider and more subtle range of world-view and aesthetics, hopefully similar to independent movies and music movements.
But Heather Chaplin was inspired to write Smart Bomb from the anthropologists' old saw: show me the games of your children, and I'll show you the next hundred years. "If so, you can find yourself starting to imagine some pretty frightening scenarios. Maybe there are people out there who are not frightened by the idea of an increasingly militarised culture. But I am."
And with last month's news that The Royal Scots, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and the 1 Light Infantry are all beginning to use their own computer-game like training - The Dismounted Infantry Virtual Environment (Dive) programme, based on the popular PC and Xbox game Half-Life: Counter Strike - we can hardly regard this as yet more far-off American techno-militarism.
The new arts of war are among us, from barracks to boardroom to bedroom. Game on: and the stakes could hardly be higher.
Smart Bomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, is out in the US on Algonquin Books (www.smartbomb.us) Pat Kane is the author of The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living (www.theplayethic.com).