Wednesday, 19 December 2012

War, Games and Wargames

First of all, I love videogames. I'm not some old bastard who thinks children should be sent outside on a sunny day with a stick and a hoop because it was enough for me when I was a kid. It wasn't.

I have been addicted to videogames with varying degrees of obsession since I was old enough to see the screen of the machines on the seaside pier. I'm old enough that when I was young, it was the only place to see them. They were far and away my favourite part of the holiday. I was never the sort to get that excited about hunting crabs in rock pools or riding donkeys or seeing Madame Rosa, such a powerful mistress of her own destiny that she's reduced to telling others about theirs, at a fiver a throw, from the wooden stall between the candy floss and the jellied eels.

No, I just liked the fact that this was something I felt part of. No longer was I limited to shouting at the screen when the hero did something stupid, like in all those films I used to like. Now I was the hero. I had some say in the matter. I felt empowered. I hadn't felt lacking power before: this wasn't some deep psychological need to feel in control of some aspect of my life, even if it was just a tiny block of pixels on a tiny screen. This was about the story. I've always loved stories too. For the first time, I was able to write my own story, on-screen. Maybe it was the story of the ham-fisted redhead who got wiped out by the evil Galaxian empire, but so what? It was my 10p and I'll tell whatever damned story I want. I have choice.

Now, though, I'm not sure the same choices apply. Sure, the games are absolutely fantastic. They really are. High gloss, with Hollywood production values and stories, music and voiceovers by Oscar winners... they can spend years on a title. Tens of millions of dollars. This isn't the industry that gave us Manic Miner anymore, where one teenager (a very manic minor) spent six weeks in his bedroom with his Spectrum and came out with the best selling game for years. This is a very different industry indeed.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so I'm going to start this with a big 'what if'. What if you were the government of a militaristic country that had loads of ambitious plans for invading lots of smaller countries, countries that may arguably have been equally militaristic but were way too small to be a conceivable threat? What if you had a lot of high tech military hardware that was the result of having your military spending more than the next 23 countries combined? What if a whole generation of young men were addicted to videogames, often involving war and shooting stuff? And what if the people who made these games wanted you to help them make them more realistic?

Now, let's say you wanted to cut down on training costs for your army. Would you not get your new games developer mates to change a little of the game? Perhaps hammer home the fact that North Korea were the bad guy, or Afghanistan, or whatever else? Would you not use Xbox controllers to control the real aerial drones in Afghanistan, because your recruits already know how to use them? Ensure that as much of the Army, Navy or Air Force training required was done as part of the game? Gun and plane recognition, map reading, spatial awareness, jargon, squad tactics, urban guerilla techniques, familiarity with a country, some local words... these could all be learnt on an Xbox, and the recruit pays for it themselves. It's a win-win.

The Scouts were originally conceived as a way of preparing boys for life in the forces. The Empire required a constant source of new soldiers to put down mutinies from those pesky ungrateful colonial types, who inexplicably resented all these strange white faces that were just trying to civilise them with things like smallpox, opium and Christianity. Preparing Englishmen from childhood to wearing uniform, taking orders, learning a few survival skills and pledging loyalty to God and the Queen was a good way of cutting down the training process.

It just strikes me that we are doing a similar thing with videogames. Or at least we have the potential to. Here is something that kids of an impressionable age will be spending hundreds of hours on. God knows I did. I had to retake my Chemistry 'O' level because of Jet Set Willy, which was much more interesting than the periodic table. That was over 25 years ago now, and I can still remember so much about it. About all those games. Had I spent that period of my life playing games that suggested everyone with a turban was a bad guy who should be shot, who knows what my world view would be like now? As it is, I live in perpetual fear of cleaning up after a party, which is what Jet Set Willy was all about.

If kids of an impressionable age are spending vast amounts of time on something, it's going to leave an impression, possibly one more troubling than getting the theme tune stuck in their head. Some fairly important people are worried about this. The president of Venezuela believed Mercenaries 2, which was set in his country, was so designed to get the American public supporting an invasion because they would be used to thinking of the Venezuelans as the enemy. In fairness, the Americans were greedy, stupid and oil-obsessed in the game and there was no real good or bad guy. Such things do not concern mercenaries. But he saw the potential for the influence to be misused and so do I.

Maybe there should be a 'manipulative political content' rating on games as well as the ones for the violence and swearing. It's far more dangerous because you don't even know it's there.

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