“This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.” ― William S. Burroughs
This article about Unity working on a variety of military projects was recently shared on the forums. It confirmed for me some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the past year about the intersection of the videogame and military industries, so I wanted so share some thoughts I’ve been having.
I started to really get the brain itch about this subject just over a year ago when I was doing research for my “Virtual World” post and discovered this line in an article from 1993:
Virtual reality technology comes from aerospace flight simulators, and many of the companies now providing the technology for the games are offshoots of aerospace suppliers faced with declining defense dollars. Iwerks’ virtual reality attraction was developed with Evans & Sutherland, a Salt Lake City firm that helped pioneer flight simulation technology.
The part about “declining defense dollars” made me wonder what the circumstances were in 1993 that was causing a dearth in availability of defense funds, something that before had apparently been plentiful enough. I think it’s often too easy to forget in 2021 that the earliest forms of “VR” did not comes from the games industries, but the aerospace and military industries, as a very expensive training aid.
“In name only, Cyberspace had its origins in science fiction: its historical beginnings and technological innovations are clearly military (from NASA’s primitive flight simulators of the 1940s to the ultra-modern SIMNET-D facilities in Fort Knox, Kentucky)…” - James der Derian, Antidiplomacy
I find it fascinating that the history of electronic training simulations are much older than “Spacewar!” (1962), Tennis For Two (1958) or whatever else typically gets talked about as the “birth of videogames”. Prior to any of those, virtual spaces were already being used as training aids in various industries. The line between a “simulation” and a “game” can be quite fine, and gets murkier with how in our modern age “simulation” is now itself a sub-genre of game. Early simulators were crude and expensive, but these virtual aids were extremely useful as a training aid because compared to training with a real plane or tank, they were safer, cheaper, and it was easier to standardize the training experience.
The historical junction of these two industries is an enormous subject (pdf warning). But what’s most fascinating to me is that the influence moves in both directions. Games, from Spacewar! to Call of Duty, would often replicate armed conflict of one sort or another, while the Battlezone arcade machine with its periscope optics would inspire the SIMNET tank simulators of the 80’s, and some modern military equipment literally can be operated with an XBOX controller. There’s a huge number of examples of this cross-pollination of ideas.
I’ve been collecting links and notes about this in my free time over the last year, and I’m going to dump some here:
- The MGS series tackles this issue directly in both MGS2 and MGS4. When we confuse a simulation with reality we risk confusing the map for the territory, and dehumanizing both ourselves and our enemy in the process. Meanwhile IRL the military is pursuing a system very similar to MGS4’s SOP
- When this article dropped in Jan 2020, I was shook. The example I’d really like to dig into (maybe in a later response to this thread) is Master Chief from Halo. We no longer need real war heroes in our military propaganda, completely invincible invented ones work just fine (I REALLY want to talk about the Halo 3 “Believe” ad campaign, which I find deeply unsettling [but very memorable]). Government propaganda inserted into videogames to target children shouldn’t sound preposterous to anyone who’s ever seen a “WINNERS DONT DO DRUGS” screen on an arcade cabinet.
- The “Murder Simulator” panic over violent videogames largely evaporated overnight after the events of September 11th. It turns out that the violence itself wasn’t the the issue, it just wasn’t the right kind of state approved violence. This term “Murder Simulator” doesn’t seem as funny when put into the context of actual military training aids. Full Spectrum Warrior was an early experiment in creating a military training tool that could be played on a console. The civilian version came with a download code for the military version. The feedback from the military was that this product was not accurate enough to life to be an effective training tool. This is where I begin to wonder if someone had the idea that in the future, instead of trying to make the game true to war, if it might be easier to start making war look like a game. If console games were not realistic enough to be used as a technical training tool, perhaps they could be used as a different kind of training tool.
- Last year the CIA launched its own federal lab for the study of “virtual and augmented reality”, among other things.
- Activision and the Call of Duty franchise is a whole entire can of worms just by itself. From its hiring of former Trump “counter-terrorism” officials, to it’s whitewashing and denialism of American massacres abroad, and even in-game availability of some very suspect neo-nazi imagery in their in-game apparel choices. As I’ve said before in another thread, I think the current Call Of Duty franchise is propaganda from an age where the government doesn’t bother directly commissioning “America’s Army” style games anymore.
- For reasons that feel to me to be both entirely predictable and also insane, a Holy Grail the military has been working towards is a sort of Unified Command System. It’s one thing to imagine a general somewhere moving units around on a map like playing an RTS, but thats not far enough for them. Generals have shitty APM, apparently. The brilliant idea they’re working towards is a world where human beings are directed around the battlefield by an inhuman artificial intelligence. I see no way this could ever go wrong.
- Augmented reality for dogs is in development for the exact same reasons simulations are popular for training human beings: it’s cheaper, safer, and easier to standardize. If only they can get it to work.
- There are cultural reasons why the Air Force for so long avoided the use of autonomous craft, and this article is a good summation of the history of that idea, which is only now beginning to be put into service, even though its been TECHNICLY feasible for decades.
I’m going to cut myself off there. There’s way more I could discuss and I might come back to highlight a particular issue or two later in the thread. Its an enormous subject and I was not at all surprised when that Unity news story recently surfaced. I’m interested in discussing anything that touches on the connection between these two subjects, as to me it feels like the military and videogames have been in a half century long slow-motion head on collision.