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About this Author
Andrew Phelps Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY. He is the founding faculty member of the Game Programming Concentration within the Department of Information Technology and his work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times, CNN.com, USA Today, National Public Radio, and other publications. Email: amp-at-it.rit.edu
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Got Game?

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April 3, 2003

Shall we Play a Game?

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Posted by Dave Evans

Greetings Professor Falken... All references to bad movies starring Ferris Beuler aside, there seems to be some recent impetus with games and the military (ok, not so recent, but recently publicized given world events). The New York Times reports on soldiers training through the use of games, including a virtual Iraq. Will Wright has been having all kinds of Sim fun (possibly with the CIA), reported in a recent USA Today article and mentioned at Ludology and GameGirlAdvance. I can almost picture a little Sim Hussein running around with player-community packs for army outfits and super special desert fatigues. Spy glasses to fool the American intelligence community are a special download for $3.99.


The military training with games technology is nothing new. They were doing this with Flight Simulator a long time ago. What's interesting is that they are starting to try and capitalize on "gaming culture" (a la America's Army), and in part on the idea that players are desensitized to killing after doing it over and over in a game (which I argue is a false assertion, that no amount of virtual carnage can compare to the known act of taking human life). Is it true that somehow "gaming culture" may be more suited to acts of war? Indeed the very imagery seen in the last Gulf War and in this one has made war a sort of spectator sport, all you need is a joystick to take part ( a la Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card ). It's interesting to see the military reference EG in the NY Times article above, and yet they missed the subtle point at the end of the story that Ender Wiggen himself is destroyed by what he has (unknowingly) done. A careful read of EG is really about psychological conditioning and the warping of a young mind to the point where Bean does not immediately recognize that killing is even wrong... I am reminded of Real Genius when Lazlo is told that what he was doing was killing people and he 'cracked', living in the basement of the University for years on end.


I buy all the arguments that simulation is cheaper than the real thing, that virtual places are great for wargames. I buy the argument that training in virtual space saves lives because of less accidents. I buy the arguments about reaction time and mindset, about drilling for combat scenarios in differing terrains and environments. I can take almost at face value all the arguments presented General Paul Gorman at PoP! Tech (Windows Media Video Stream here: http://stream.knowtechnology.net/poptech/ ), which argue at the marvelous effectiveness at using games as training tools for the military. But I am personally horrified at the thought of actually implementing a system like that described in Ender's Game, or any one of a thousand other Sci-Fi scenarios.


My reasoning goes something like this: The point of going to war is to win - and if you don't want to win, don't go to war. More formally, the point of going to war is to reach one's political objectives through the use of military force. Thus, there is (or at least should be) some end condition in which one side will perceive itself a "winner" and cease hostilities. Or, if you choose the inverted view, one side will perceive itself the "loser" and surrender by capitulating to the political demands of the "winner". (I am using "winner" and "loser" in the common game vernacular, note that in real warfare these are not nearly so absolute).


The point of a game is not to win. The point of a game is to have fun. Most people associate winning with having fun. But I could build a game that just starts up and immediately gives you 8 billion points and says 'you win'. Fun game? Lots of replay value? And yet, such a scenario would be preferable in war, if you 'won' without the battle, perhaps by amassing all your troops along the border and intimidating the enemy into surrender. If I played the game described earlier, I would want my money back. If I were a soldier, I'd be high-fiving my platoon.


Games can offer a very real sense of what I will label 'pseudo-warlike-mentality' (there are many formal studies that cover this in greater depth). Players are under pressure to stay alive, advance towards strategic goals, and slay enemies. There is a great deal of camaraderie and gallows humor in multi-user games that allow players to serve on a pseudo military unit (either with or against each other). This even works in games in which the backdrop to combat is fantastical - Everquest or Star Command. But the analogy doesn't really hold.


One of the traditions in my EQ guild is that we sacrifice a gnome whenever we fight a dragon. We send someone in to die. There are some strategic reasons for this, and often in real combat soldiers need to be sent into impossible situations (just like a single gnome against a dragon). But the gnome, unlike the soldier, isn't really going to die. My guild laughs when the gnome gets eaten, with a lot of good-natured (and sometimes profane) ribbing. Death, in a game-world has very little meaning. When you attach real-world death to a game, it fails to be a game, because the very goal of a game (to have fun) is lost. Instead, you have a system that uses some display and AI routines to simulate a very serious exercise.


Isn't the whole problem with a lot of the despots we've seen over history is that they regard war as a game? They look at the cost sheets and balances, think of the little men on the board and where they can move to, how many are projected to live and die, what kinds of equipment and terrain they have to deal with - and miss the whole damn point.

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