Video game interfaces for real-life war

XBox sniper controls?

XBox sniper controls?

As war becomes increasingly virtual, will it also become increasingly inhuman and thus inhumane? PW Singer lays out issues related to this question at TED, posted recently, in which he specifically cites Grand Theft Auto as evidence that “we do things in video games we wouldn’t do face-to-face.” He quotes one soldier who specifically says, “It’s like a video game.” Yet Singer also acknowledges that Predator Drone pilots apparently suffer higher rates of PTSD than their on-the-ground counterparts.

Will video game interfaces make what Singer terms “cubicle warriors” cold-blooded killers? Right now these remote-controlled robots largely borrow hardware interfaces from video games — see the image linked from this FOX News story or check out minute 10:30 in Singer’s talk. But what happens if and when they begin borrowing software interfaces from games as well? (The remote-control systems do already feature crosshair targets — but video games had first taken that from real guns.) Is an Ender’s Game scenario — when the soldier doesn’t even realize he is fighting a real battle — possible?

Interface design isn’t quite the same as “codelaw” — that is, embodying laws in code — but in some ways it’s even more powerful, and therefore more potentially insidious. Many of the examples of choice-shaping that Thaler and Sunstein cite in Nudge are, in fact, interface innovations. But if interfaces can dehumanize, can they also re-humanize? Video games are not known for their emotional range, but I agree with those who believe that’s a matter of historical accident, not destiny. If video games can evoke authentic emotion, can we infuse it into our military software interfaces? The fact that Predator drone pilots suffer PTSD suggests that a digital screen need not cripple our humanity.

(Thanks to colleague Ed Popko for flagging these to my attention!)

3 thoughts on “Video game interfaces for real-life war

  1. Pingback: Anderkoo / Video game interfaces for real-life war

  2. Some of the most successful genera in video games have been military themed and thus many designers have pushed for realism in depicting their flight simulator or first person shooters. I see this almost as an inflection point between who has taken the lead here in innovation and design. You mention crosshairs but HUD’s first showed up in flight simulators and have now become standard fair in most first person shooters. So much so that it becomes refreshing when you see a game like Dead Space and how they moved away from that. The design of the controller is also interesting. A dual axis configuration was first mimicking a controller for an RC plane and now has been readopted for more sophisticated RC planes.

    I think the training these soldiers get is the key element. Learned skills during adolescence certainly help these pilots but an emotional investment comes from good training hopefully giving a full understanding of what is happening on the ground as well as the comradeship towards fellow soldiers that they may be watching from afar. I think the stresses seen with these Predator pilots may be similar to those felt by 911 dispatchers. Both are separated from the seen by a technological interface. EMS dispatchers have certain tools at their disposal to help someone in distress but they still need to bear witness to some very disturbing situations and have limitations in how they can help due to distance. A predator pilot may feel the same if unable to use weapons because of of the situation but still needs to watch a dangerous situation for his fellow soldiers from remotely.

    Singer is right in seeing the difficulty of being a “cubical warrior” and needing to transition to civilian life quickly and daily. I think professionals will always understand the stakes involved but the challenge here is in making sure there is a distinction between the real and virtual. A real challenge for a media that strives for realism.

    Its funny I know a number of people who find playing Air Traffic Control to be very relaxing but isn’t that supposed to be one of the most stressful jobs?

  3. This is the age of the video game generation. Now that you can play Doom on your iPhone, I’m convinced that the apocalypse is here.

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