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!)

Empathy for pixels

Intriguing quote in recent Escapist review of Multiwinia:

In some crucial ways, Multiwinia’s sound design establishes a stronger emotional connection with the on-screen carnage than some gory AAA first-person shooters. Perhaps simplicity breeds empathy, but in any case I felt more guilty sending mobs of rudimentary sprites into the teeth of rapid-fire gun turrets than I ever have realistically gibbing an opponent’s face with a flak cannon.

Are we supposed to feel empathy for casualties in FPS’s? And is sound design effective in Multiwinia because of novelty or because of something more primal than visuals?