fatal feedback

Spiegel online since yesterday carries a follow-up to the events behind the MMOG-related homicide in China. The author Christian Stöcker nicely links the ‘dragon sabre murder’ with recent ongoings concerning ‘computergames violence’ issues: Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to appropriate the topic for her campaign and heavily critizes the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. A somewhat late criticism as already the first installment of the game (for PlayStation and PC) provoked controversy back in 1997. All right, Clinton especially preys on the infamous hooker-murder in GTA3—but GTA3 was released in 2001 (for PlayStation2, then 2002 for PC, and 2003 for the Xbox), therefore being a dated game, too. At least compared to the likes of Doom3, another worthwhile candidate for the mentioned kind of criticism. In GTA3 being the first of the series featuring a Wolfenstein/Quake/Doom-style threedimensional gamespace, I suspect an implicit, subconscious motive for choosing it as a target. In public discussion 3D-space is thought to be less abstracted from meatspace, more prone to ‘realism’, and featuring a higher probability of the player identifying with game-content. The angst is that players, especially the youthful ones, are not able to properly disimmerse from the game, internalize game-behavior and values, and ultimately take them over into the offline-world, generating devastating outcomings. In consequence Clinton now wants to commission a study about the influence of computergames on kids—supported by $ 90 million! I feel tempted to apply.

Legend of MirThe lethal incident in China (cyber sabre) seems to come in handy for Clinton’s argumentation. But beyond the rather curt first story from Reuters (no offence, that is Reuters’ job), a slightly different picture is revealed. It was not a sword with which the victim was stabbed, but a knife. Immediately after the attack the 41 year old perpetrator surrendered to the police and, on advice from his lawyer, pleaded guilty to intentional injury—he never meant to kill, he said. Not trying or wanting to excuse anything, but it seems that the homicide was commited in a rage. A rage born out of a feeling of having been betrayed. That the subject matter of the betrayal was a game item is mere coincidence, not a central issue. But by the power of elocution, slight alterations, well-aimed omissions, and accentuations it easily can be made the core issue. Then the story reads like this: A hardcore online role-playing nerd, already having lost every sense of ‘reality’, day-in day-out running around gamespace, carrying and using archaic weapons, transposed the alarming rules, values, and habitus of a deeply violent ‘virtual reality’ to ‘our real world’. The spoilt kid [for that is always assumed] grabbed a sword—a sword, Ladies and Gentlemen, imagine: a sword!—as he would have done inside the vicious game he is hopelessly addicted to, and cruelly slayed a human being whose only deed was selling an insignificant, immaterial game-item which entirely consists of bits and bytes only. The conclusion following that interpretation is blatant. But that is not the focus of the article at china daily. It concentrates on the now created “legal dilemma in China where no law exists for the ownership of Internet gaming weapons.” Which indeed is a topic worthwhile—especially in the face of the fundamental meaning those items evidently have for the members of an already immense and ever-growing MMOG-followership.

The fine article at Spiegel online goes on telling us about a recent project of VirTra Systems, a company developing virtual reality (VR) systems for military and related training: “With proprietary 360-degree, interactive photorealistic technology [that is: a game engine capable of feeding a holobench or even a CAVE—nice], VirTra Systems constructs marksmanship, judgmental use-of-force, and situational awareness firearms training simulators for military branches such as the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, and for domestic and international law enforcement agencies.” The company now has developed a firearms combat simulator that fights back. If the ‘player’ is hit by a ‘NPC‘s’ projectile, the system delivers an electric shock to the ‘player’s’ pelvic area [sic!]. A spokesman said that the shock is as powerful as that of an electric stun-gun, it blows you from your seat. So far on judgmental use-of-force.

Never Say Never AgainBut this too is a rather dated idea, obviously taken from the 1983 movie “Never Say Never Again”. The title is an obvious pun, as the producers had persuaded Sean Connery to once more star as James Bond (Connery had forever … left the series after the 1971 “Diamonds Are Forever”). Max von Sydow virtuously impersonates Bond’s arch-enemy Blofeld, and Austrian actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer ‘the other bad guy’ Emilio Largo (not to forget the beauties Barbara Carrera and Kim Basinger). At one point in the movie’s plot Largo challenges Bond to fight against him in a computergame. And, you guessed it, the baroque game-console, including a virtual globe, delivers electroshocks when a player looses points. The higher the loss, the stronger the shock which is channeled through the joystick-handle. Up to electrocution. Who lets go off the handle first has lost the game. As far as I remember in the course of events someone indeed is wiped from his chair—though I can’t remember who.

Steve Haag, VirTra System’s spokesman, thinks that gamers would like that radical form of feedback, too. Not the electrocution bit, I guess—thanks a lot. He foretells that a system like that soon will hit the console market, and concludes that now the ultimate shooter is born.

As I already said in the discussion with orange, I am not necessarily a believer in the heightening of immersion into games via force feedback or the known VR-interfaces. At LAN-parties I very seldomly observe the occasional joystick, let alone force-feedback ones. What I do see is mouse and keyboard. And where the hell are hardcore-gamers to be found congregating to herds, if not at LANs? Therefore I am inclined to ascribe a certain significance to that part of my fieldwork. Compared to the rather clumsy devices I once had the chance to use with a holobench, mouse and keyboard are perfect tools to navigate 3D-space. Immersion is accomplished by the particular game’s story and atmosphere. VirTra Systems’ idea corresponds well with Abu Ghraib, not so well with computergames. <ballroom bolshevism>The madness Clinton is up to fight against campaign-wise does not rise from the gamers’ rows, but from the military-industrial complex itself.</ballroom bolshevism>

Seen from my—I confess, decidedly European—vantage point the development of computergames for military schooling and indoctrination (in this context the controversial entry America’s Army—Behind the Scenes at game matters and the appending discussion are of particular interest) is much more alarming than the issues now reraised by Clinton. Not the mentioned console-causing-pain-by-electroshocks, that is just a strange pipe dream, a gadget stolen from a Bond-flick, but the deliberate production of games serving the sole purpose of training and mentally preparing [sic!] the young for real-life close quarters battle (CQB—which not only is the subtitle to Sierra’s ‘Swat 3’, but a genuine military term). Believe me—I have enough experience from having been an officer in a so-called ‘special unit’—firing a live weapon has nothing at all in common with playing Q3A, CS, or BF42. And in my opinion it should stay that way.
via spiegel online, china daily, and game matters
tnx to Bernhard Krieger who sent the initial hint via e-mail