War Games / Playing War

As a child of the ’90’s, I liked playing video games. I liked Tetris, Mario and Street Fighter…the arcade games that were easily accessible in the gaming parlours dotted across the locality in which I lived. I’d win some, lose some, but I kept playing. There were also those hand-held games, with the music and firing sounds that most now regard with a degree of sentimentality: familiar, retro game noises. And then, as I grew older, they became Boys Toys. But while I might’ve stopped playing, I crossed over into an interest in the act of game-play, instead of keenness on the games themselves. A couple of years ago I came across Harun Farocki’s Serious Games I–IV, a series of four video installations—Watson is Down (2010), Three Dead (2010), Immersion (2009), and A Sun with No Shadow (2010) —that depict the use of games for training exercises by the American military. The military also look at the act of game play, engaging that technology to support modern warfare.

Still from 'Serious Games I – IV' by Harun Farocki
Still from ‘Serious Games I – IV’ by Harun Farocki

In games like Kinectimals and Gunstringer,designed for use with the Xbox Kinect’s motion sensor (which allows gamers to fully immerse themselves into gameplay without controllers), users can interact and “play” with life-like animals in the wild (Kinectimals)or puppeteer a marionette gunman out for revenge (Gunstringer)in remarkably true-to-life imaging, all controlled by the player.This new and improved gaming technology means your characters move as easily as you do, and allow games to converge with reality to the extent that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two.But much before there was Kinect, there was Spacewar! The world’s very first video game,Spacewar! was funded by the Pentagon, and developed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After World War II, the American Department of Defense invested a great deal of money in computers, as increasingly complicated missile systems required the sorts of advanced mathematics that were far better calculated by machines than by men. And that technological dominance would lead, in turn, to modern military dominance, which is why, in 1958, American president Dwight Eisenhower routed money toward any university that pushed technological research and advancement, including the electrical engineering labs at MIT.In the decades since, this alliance between defence training and gaming has only strengthened. Using commercial gaming technology, the armed forces are able to recruit soldiers, train them in real-time simulations, and, recently in the American army, to treat psychological disorders such as PTSD. The free video game America’s Army was developed by the military and released in 2002, with a fourth version out in 2013. It was released as an agency of recruitment with its realistic depiction of American military training operations and weaponry, even forcing players to first go through boot camp before being allowed to engage in any online combat. Then there are the first person shooter games released by commercial gaming companies, like Ender’s Game, Call of Duty (various versions), Medal of Honor, or Halo (a sci-fi battle game), that allow players the point of view of a soldier at war. With a finite stock of ammunition, they deal in weaponry andtake part in tactical warfare like team building or strategic planning. Just like a soldier would. Others, like the recently released War Thunder include an “arcade mode”, where players can fly the aircraft and man the tanks used by the defence forces, but without any heed to the rules of physics. Here planes swerve, climb and dive without any worry about the real-life repercussions. But conversely, in the realistic “simulator mode” the same game offers, the flier takes up the baton of a real pilot who must comply by the rules of physics and the limitations of his vehicle. Closer home, the Indian Air Force-funded Guardians of the Skies(free on Android, Windows and iOS platforms) was created by Threye, a Delhi-based company who deal with 3D graphics. It is the first attempt, by any wing of the Indian government, to tap into gaming’s popularity. This, the official Indian Air Force 3D air combat mobile game, includes air combat scenarios and realistic graphics, and was launched by Air Marshal S Sukumar, who said that it was a “significant milestone in a consorted campaign to connect to the best of the boys and the girls among the nation’s youth and motivate them to join the air force so as to become great patriotic men and women ready to serve the country in any situation.”

Still from the game 'Guardians of the Skies'
Still from the game ‘Guardians of the Skies’

Clearly the evolution of gaming owes much to early military spends, but the computer industry appears to have outstripped military simulators. Game companies also build ‘serious’ games that include physical and strategic training that are more expensive and time-consuming to develop. The commercial video games are ‘games as war’, meant to provide entertainment, and, in some cases, a cognitive workout in a virtual environment. On the other hand,serious games are ‘war asgames’,used solely for military training. Here the intent is to provide tactical and ammunition training for real life situations. The games do not hinge around points and levels, but are realistic simulations of crucial decision-making moments in battle. Battle simulations have been used in training defence personnel since time immemorial, whether through war strategy, field exercises, map exercises or computer simulators. In serious games, the simulation of reality is based on facts collected from on ground data, allowing for the most comprehensive form of training to the defence personnel. In India, Institute of Systems Studies and Analysis (ISSA) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) created computer war games like Shatranj and Sangram in the late ’90s for the on-ground forces of the army. Likewise MINTAG, Manthan and Sugarwere developed for the Navy. The Indian Air Force has been using a basic flight simulator, Link Trainer, for decades, but now has flight simulators for various stages of flying. The sophisticated MiG and Sukhoi flight simulators are manufactured by the aircraft companies themselves.

Indian simulation and training market by end-users (Source: Defence ProAc Biz News)
Indian simulation and training market by end-users (Source: Defence ProAc Biz News)

In military training, games allow defence personnel to learn about war by actually executing the act. Short of the initiation into real thing, it’sas close to a real war a trainee soldier will get. In these simulated environments the participant is a player who has to believe the simulation to be true in order to perform his duties. Samuel Coleridge introduced the notion of suspension of disbelief, where he urged the audience to forget the real and instead engage with the imagination. Military training with games and simulators do just the opposite; this training requires a suspension of disbelief to engage with reality within the imaginary.We are now in an age where increasingly wars are fought on screens, with weapons, like drones, that allow remote warfare. As war turns virtual, and inches toward a distant, detached reality, with the same technology as a toy in one place and a weapon in another, are we more likely to wage it? This piece was first published in Motherland #13, 2014.