Hyper War art
By Svebor Midzic
“A videogame is a means by which we learn to control the 21st century.” – Justin Hall, "Difficult Questions about Videogames", James Newman and Iain Simons, Publicbeta.org
Alex Rogan: That was just a game, Centauri!
Centauri: Well, you may have thought it was a game, but it was also a test. Aha, a test! Sent out across the galaxy to find those with the potential to be Starfighters. And here you are, my boy! Here you are!
Alex Rogan: Right, here I am, about to be killed!
The Last Starfighter, 1984
Video games in the early 1980s, played both on games consoles and early primitive PCs?, were hopelessly short, simple, existed as clear-cut genres and were unburdened by the ties to the hardware industry. Game makers most often were the first and most ardent gamers. If video games indeed are “nerd poetry” as Ernest Adams put it, then those from the beginning of the eighties were haiku recited by millions of teenagers.
But maybe most importantly, games in the early 1980s were deprived of the possibility to conceal their “base”. In his study on the relationship between video games, as the dominant form of entertainment, and economic relations in the late capitalism, Julian Stallabras noted that below the surface of the game’s visual identity (which programmers call the chrome) lay the basic structure which was strangely similar from game to game. In the earliest games, which could be referred to as pre-Pac-Man era games, this similarity was even more obvious. The elements in the first textual games appeared as simple signs ($,/,*, etc.), while the opponents whom the players fought in the first vector games were transparent - they were scarcely more than the series of zeros and ones.
The development of technology and the “chrome superstructure” resulted in the proliferation of identities, as well as further subjectivization of violence in video games. Excessive violence of video games is rooted in the “chrome” itself, namely in the process of generating identities. Only with a full subjectivization did violence indeed become possible, even desirable. Pre-Pac-Man games offered just a possibility of elimination, removing the obstacle, just like erasing a bad estimate. Mass annihilation of aliens in Space Invaders can in no way be defined as a genocide (or, more precisely, xenocide), because not one of innumerable little green creatures has a clear identity. Instead, they bravely march on, which is in keeping with their true nature. They are part of a digital entertainment and money making machine. On the other hand, killing just one of the four spectres chasing Pac-Man arouses quite different feelings. The spectres were clearly defined by their colour (green, violet etc.); names (Inky, Blinky etc.) and personalities expressed via specific movement routines. If Space Invaders represent an open clash between the player and the machine (just like pinball), Pac-Man is a clash between the player’s virtual body and other creatures having virtual identities that inhabit the Real of video games. Only after this proliferation of identities does excessive violence begin and new genres supporting this way of thinking emerge – just like FPS (First Person Shooter) games.
The beginning of the eighties was also very productive in terms of films whose themes were video games. Unlike mid-nineties when this connection started taking a completely new form, as screen versions of popular games (Street Fighter & its sequels, Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator, etc) began to appear, early eighties focused on the very nature of the medium. The two most striking examples of the popular attitude of the neo-conservative new Hollywood towards this new medium are the films War Games (John Bedham, 1983) and The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984), which offer two totally different answers to its challenges and possible abuses.
The main protagonist of the film War Games is David Lightman (Matthew Broderic) the character whom all of us who were growing up at that time had a chance to meet. He compensates for bad marks at school by an incredible knowledge of emergent computer technologies. We can almost picture him participating in the dotcom craze of the early 1990s or getting a job in Microsoft’s research department. Using protointernet, David manages to break into a computer of the American strategic nuclear command and unsuspectingly starts playing a game named Global Thermonuclear War. His adversary is not any old machine but some early, but still advanced, form of artificial intelligence named Joshua determined to bring the “game” to an end (all these machines, until Hal 9000, speak the same English without accent in a monotone). When David realizes what he has done, he starts a search for Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood), Joshua’s creator who has spent many years living in isolation. Dr. Falken is the only one who can stop the war and explain to the American supreme command that the “Russian menace” does not exist.
The final scene in which Dr. Falken and David succeed in persuading the computer to give up launching missiles in the direction of the USSR is particularly memorable. In front of a giant video wall, on which all possible scenarios of the extinction of the human race in a thermonuclear holocaust are simulated, accompanied by Joshua’s monotonous, sober voice explaining the rules of the game, David still pulls it of - he talks the computer into playing a game of tic-tac-toe with him. No one wins the game and having learnt from that experience Joshua concludes: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?“ and suspends missile launching.
So, only when it is confronted with a totally bare structure of the game, stripped of any superstructure, except futile competitiveness is Joshua capable of understanding that the only way to win some games is by not entering the game. Namely, Joshua’s starting point is the belief that the subsequent identity superstructure (Russians, Americans, nuclear warheads, etc.) is some kind of surplus encumbering the structure of the game whose main purpose is educational, which corresponds to the underlying liberal and humanistic tone of the film. Therefore, the game is there to teach us something – for example that we should not play if we cannot win. So Joshua wants to throw out the proverbial bathwater and keep the baby. Namely, he wants to keep the game and get rid of war. But is it really possible?
Joshua believes (and invites us too to believe) that a game can exist independently of the mechanisms of ideological interpellation which, in the case of video games, get condensed into the chrome. Is it that simple? In the end, even the film itself admits that such a choice is not possible i.e. if we play, the mechanisms of ideological interpellation must exist as well and they inevitably lead us to the brink of self-destruction, or so the film claims. Namely, although the outcome is the same (there are no winners), David does not use the computer to play a game of tic-tac-toe but precisely the game named no other than “Global Thermonuclear War”. What’s more, at the end of the film, Joshua suggests a game of chess as an alternative to Global Thermonuclear War, and what is chess if not the game of kings, in other words, a way of preparing the young sovereign for future warfare? So if we cannot throw out the bathwater without throwing out the baby, how would things stand if we took the opposite angle of approach? What if we decided to keep the pixelized bathwater and get rid of the traditional educational and humanistic structure of the game?
That is precisely what The Last Starfighter does. This time the hero is not a protohacker from a white-picket-fences suburb to whom games are just a pastime of secondary importance as he focuses on mastering new technology so as to do something useful with it (for instance, program the computers running the American nuclear defence system). On the contrary, here we have a romanticized white-trash teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) condemned to the bad infinity of a trailer park (which the director Nick Castle portrays with a lot of tenderness) in some Southern American state. When the local bank rejects his application for a loan which he sees as the only way of going out into the world and enrolling at a college far away from home, he finds the only consolation in a console arcade game named The Last Starfighter. Each time the player starts the game he is informed that he is chosen to become the last Starfighter who should save the cosmic civilization from the invasion of evil Kodans. And that would have been it, if one day, after Alex broke the game record, a mysterious Mr. Centauri (Robert Preston) had not appeared at the camp door. He introduces himself as the author of the game who is amazed by Alex’s skill and wants to offer him a job. In fact, Mr. Centauri is an alien who takes Alex to the outer space where he should join the Starfighter squadron in charge of halting alien invasion. Later on, we learn that he scattered thousands of consoles worldwide to test young Earthlings and see which of them are capable of becoming Starfighters. In spite of the fact that Alex at first refuses to go on the fateful mission, Mr. Centauri soon explains that the is the last hope in the war, just as that war is his last chance to get out of the small backwater town. It goes without saying that the film ends with the victory of the good guys and Alex’s decision to stay in space and help train the future squadron of Starfighters.
Seemingly a typical SF comedy from the early eighties, this film, nevertheless, offers something more. The Last Starfighter perfectly mirrors the fundamental assumptions on which American foreign policy and recruiting practice are based. Just like Top Gun, it so successfully imitates the language of the ruling ideology that it starts subverting it. The scene in which Alex enters the hangar where spacecraft ready for battle are kept is accompanied by an audio clip from the film Dr. Strangelove, namely the part where Major T. J. 'King' Kong (Slim Pickens) enumerates what a survival kit in a pilot’s rucksack should contain. Mr. Centauri’s act is a strange mixture of the behaviour of a travelling salesman and that of a recruiting officer who is paid a bounty for each recruited soldier. In the end, the main idea of the film is that a poor boy from the South has no other choice but to “take off” to outer space, blow up a couple of criminals, learn to love the bomb and stop worrying.
By throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater, The Last Starfighter makes much more explicit the connection between the military industry and games industry (a game controller - joystick is designed as a tool for guiding missiles) and shows that the game is made possible precisely thanks to the identity and narrative superstructure embodied in the chrome. Evil aliens, cool spaceships, new commands and interfaces are completely irrelevant and are not there to distract our attention from the basic educational element of the game. On the contrary, their purpose is to divert our thoughts from the violence of the game laid bare. Namely, excessive violence of the chrome provides a means of avoiding to see the basic violence which constitutes the system and makes its existence possible. Therefore, tic-tac-toe, a pointless game simulating free will is far more frightening than a nuclear catastrophe, just like joining the army, as the only way of achieving social mobility, is far more frightening than an alien armada. If we removed the chrome from video games, we would see that every game is a war game. Paradoxically, we can discover that every game is a war game just by examining the chrome.
End Game · Pilot the F-18 Strike Eagle, one of the most effective war planes ever made · Suppress rogue Balkan states and make the region safe · Fly sorties against Russian MiG? fighters · Use the fighter's Heads Up Display (HUD) for targeting, radar, and landing displays · Use the 20mm cannons to take down the bad guys
Video game F-18 Thunder Strike, from Majesco Sales, Inc.
In his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” Freud cites an interesting case of a father who falls asleep while watching the corpse of his recently deceased son. Suddenly, in his dream, he sees the spectre of the dead child reproaching him for letting his body burn. Distressed, the father wakes up and indeed sees the candle that fell near his son’s arm and partly burnt it. The usual interpretation would be that the outside stimulus has been coded into the dream and thus prolonged. Lacan’s interpretation is somewhat different: we filter the outside stimulus into the dream precisely in order to wake up and thus escape facing its traumatic core. Similarly, if we regard the chrome as the royal road to the unconscious of video games, maybe we do not need a wake up call in the form of a tic-tac-toe game or call-up papers. On the contrary, we may need to confront the “trauma chrome” and that can happen only in the Real of a video game.
Likewise, the Balkan Wars project gives us the possibility to play seemingly completely free from any infrastructure of the system typical of games. In fact, it forces us to face the issue of identity, which is allegedly ephemeral, but still crucial for shaping both the Balkan crisis (a euphemistic way of referring to the wars and bloodshed in the region) and the current global policy. By projecting their virtual bodies within clearly defined ideological parameters, the “players” swim in the sea of chrome fighting enemy avatars and wounding them. In her web-based work “I am Milica Tomiæ”, the artist prompts us to probe her wounds and recognize in them randomly generated and stylized mixtures of identity. Here too, we are confronted with an empty place which generates a smoke screen through creating an avalanche of particularities. Therefore, Balkan Wars does not offer an awakening but something quite opposite – a prolonged nightmare from which there is no waking. Instead, all it brings is a confrontation with a traumatic period of our recent history.