Some thoughts on war in games

by Darius Kazemi on April 16, 2012

in design,theory

I was interviewed recently for a news article about videogames and the U.S. military. The article was published, and I wasn’t quoted at all — this is fine with me, as the author twisted the words of a friend of mine who was the main interview subject for the piece. (Deliberately not linking the piece here.)

Anyway, I like to play a game with mainstream media journalists where I answer their interview questions in such an eggheaded way that they’ll be unlikely to publish what I say. And if they do publish what I say, it’ll be a small victory.

Here are my brief, unpublished responses to the author’s questions.

Q: What’s your view on why video war games close the gap between reality and fantasy?

A: I’m not sure they do close the gap between fantasy and reality. I think there is a mediating factor: there is the reality of war, there is the fantasy of the videogame, and there is the fantasy of war that is manufactured by both the military and the media. The videogame simulates the larger cultural fantasy of war, not war itself. Take for example the well-known fact that soldiers in the U.S. military greatly enjoy playing Call of Duty and similar games. I would posit that if Call of Duty were truly realistic, playing those games would be the absolute last thing a soldier would do. However, Call of Duty simulates a war that soldiers do not get to experience. Perhaps it’s the war that they signed up to fight, rather than the war they are fighting.

Q: There is war and there is peace. When it comes to video games, why is peace just a non-starter? And how startlingly emblematic is it of the human state of mind?

A: I don’t think peace is a non-starter — however, most games require some form of conflict. And conflict will exist even during peace time. For example, if you make a videogame about growing plants in a garden, you are still experiencing a human vs. nature conflict, and a human vs. self conflict: you’re managing your own resources, and dealing with things like the passage of time, figuring out when to plant which seeds and where. There are plenty of games about trade during peacetime: economic conflict can be a peaceful activity (although it often is not, and often leads to war!).

It’s worth considering that the first large computers were developed specifically to calculate the trajectories of bombs. With about 20 lines of code, I can write a simple game where you fire missiles at a target. In order to build a simple gardening game, I have to write hundreds of lines of code. This is because answering the question “did the bomb hit its target” means solving one elementary algebra problem and displaying the result. Simulating a garden requires math that is analogous to a complex system of partial differential equations and somehow communicating that to the player.

I suppose what I’m saying is: it’s much easier to simulate war than to simulate peace.


Jason T April 16, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Having been quoted out of context in a newspaper myself before, this game of yours sounds like great fun.

That said, now that I’m the one interviewing people for features, I have to say that your answers are absolute GOLD. These are the kinds of interviewee responses I dream about getting. (Coming from an academic background may skew my sense of what counts as good journalism, though.)

Given the extremely leading tone of the questions, I have to assume that the interviewer just wanted somebody to echo back what s/he already planned to write. Someday that writer will need to learn how to rethink an article when the interviewees turn out to have more valuable things to say than originally expected.

Darius Kazemi April 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Heh, thanks. If you thought THOSE were leading questions, should see the questions I refused to answer and didn’t bother listing here!

Abilio Carvalho April 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm

“Startingly emblematic”? And these were the GOOD questions?

Good Grief

Ben Abraham April 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Yeah. Wow. What questions.

Good answers though.

Lucas April 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Well said—but of course I’d say that, as I believe I’ve made similar, if not the very same, points in discussion with others.

Though there’s much more to be said about violent games, the idea that it’s “easier to simulate war than to simulate peace” is one I brought up with a parent with whom I was discussing his children’s tastes in games. He had never considered that the nature of computation and simulation could contribute to what he had seen as an aesthetic (if not also moral) design choice. This seemed to open him up to thinking about games differently, to see them as software and realize that software is better for some sorts of things than others.

It’s too bad that point is not made more often, in places it could be read by people that may not have a good occasion to consider it.

Also, uh, where’s the piece for which you were interviewed?

Darius Kazemi April 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I refuse to link it, as it sorely misrepresents my friend.

Brad Kurtz May 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm

This individual wasn’t a reporter, they were a repeater.

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