It’s not often that a magazine like Foreign Policy devotes a column to video games, and yet soundbytes about the new Medal of Honor game set in modern Afghanistan prompted Matthew Shaer to ruminate on the role of video games in social commentary and vaguely question the validity of the cries about violent and realistic video games somehow turning their players into emotionally sterile psychopaths, an idea I argued against in a post for Discovery Tech based on the simple premise that human can usually tell reality from fiction. Since this topic has really been done to death, there’s very little new material Shaer could offer here, but some of the commenters on the article did bring up an interesting point that’s not often discussed even though it deserves some coverage. One of the key weapons used in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) today is a robotic drone armed with missiles, steered and fired from a remote location, with mechanics similar to video games. And it seems like this is the future of war as ever more robots are being equipped with guns, tracks, and remote controls.
As mentioned previously on this blog, using robots to fight wars is a politically attractive proposition. Should a robot get blown up or disabled, it’s not a human being. While the public is appalled at hearing that thousands of troops died in combat operations, piles of scrap metal hit by missiles or IEDs don’t exactly cause a stir and to grab another one off the assembly line when you need more guns firing at an enemy position during future battles is relatively easy and straightforward. And with robotic guards, scouts, and plans for heavier and better armed machines and unmanned bombers that could clear a path for a human army, the military seems to be very interested in killer robots on the battlefield. In several decades, a few pundits have argued, wars may be fought by remote control and boots on the ground would be needed to secure an area rather than engage in a direct assault on an enemy position. The actual attack would take place from the air by nimble bombers, and by mechanical tanks which could carry much more ammo without their human occupants. Today’s obsessive gamers, the concept usually proceeds to state, would be tomorrow’s top generals.
This is where a number of books and articles raise the concern about emotional detachment from actual war because a significant portion of the fighting would be done remotely, from a faraway bunker. Would the pilot of an unmanned bomber be able to remember that when he or she pushes the button, a real bomb drops on an enemy position and kills real people? Would the operators of robotic siege machines get a little overzealous, as per their gaming experience, and let loose with indiscriminate bursts that kill combatant and civilian alike, something that already happens in the real world in the middle of a battle with today’s soldiers? Being aware and very precise in your attacks is a very important skill that needs to be taught to those who will be operating remote controlled machines of malice, especially since for the foreseeable future, conflict will overwhelmingly likely involve unconventional warfare, in which enemy troops will blend into civilian populations rather than set up huge bases and arm themselves with tanks, planes, and naval destroyers. But against nation-states with conventional militaries, an army which uses vast fleets of robots for its first strikes would have the advantage, maximizing impact, minimizing its own casualties, and attacking well defined enemy targets.
It’s quite possible that training future robot pilots would take the form of video games, or at least something a lot like it, and hopefully reinforced with war games in which they’ll get to see the damage their commands can cause up close. But it’s not going to be done with games like Medal of Honor, or a first person shooter. I’d bet the training games in question would be more like StarCraft, and a modified version of first person shooters may be used to help hone soldiers’ reflexes, while having them wear gear that simulates pain when they’ve been shot by an enemy. I’d be surprised if casual gamers with a taste for first person shooters would want to actually try that level of immersion themselves while playing on their living room couch because to them, the whole point is to briefly escape reality, not to continuously subject themselves to the real world pains of being shot or stabbed. After all, there is a very fine line between simulation and entertainment, and that’s a line that very few commercial games would really want to cross for legal and financial reasons.