“Coming Soon: Weapons That Have Minds of Their Own.” - Headline on an op-ed piece in The New York Times, March 17, 2013
Recently, I came across an article in The New York Times (see headline above) about the coming era of smart weapons. We’re not just talking drones here. No, no… Drones require human input, human control to do their business.
(And, no, I’m not going to get into the morality of drone use here – well, okay, I do think that once you start killing people it doesn’t much matter how you do it… you just shouldn’t do it, okay? Let that be the extent of the political polemicizing here.)
Anyway, the thing about this article was that it talked in calm, even, rational terms about weapons that don’t require human intervention to operate. Weapons like (all together now…) The Terminator.
“I’ll Be Back” - Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator, 1984
How prophetic was that catch phrase? Here it is some 30 years later and, sure enough, smart, autonomous killing machines are back. But not in fiction. It’s looking more and more as if the fiction of the old Terminator movies is about to become our new reality.
Seriously? Are we really creating the Terminator? For the sake of argument let’s assume that we’re doing just that. Is it a good idea? Are we best served by removing people from harms way and handing the reins of combat over to machines? Can humanity handle autonomous robots of any kind, let alone destructive ones? Are the nightmarish scenarios played out in so many movies inevitable? (And what does this have to do with games?)
You may think these are silly questions – the stuff of sometimes good, sometimes bad genre movies (and TV shows, comic books, novels and games, of course). You may think it’s nuts to spend time on purely hypothetical questions or thought exercises.
But look around. It isn’t just SF writers, moviemakers or game developers talking about the rise of “smart machines,” nor is it exclusively the realm of The New York Times reporting about this stuff. Look around a bit and you’ll find mainstream folks talking about the “Terminator phenomenon.” It’s everywhere (sort of like the conspiracy stuff floating around in the ether in the pre-millennial 1990s – the stuff that led to the making of Deus Ex…).
But what exactly is “it?” What “stuff” am I talking about?
(NOTE: I’m about to assume there’s at least one non-geek reading this blog – “Hi, Mom!” – so the rest of you will have to bear with me for a minute, or go find entertainment and enlightenment somewhere else.)
Okay, here’s the scenario: Technologists (those dreaded scientists in their white lab coats or, worse, their “Bazinga” t-shirts) create robots capable of independent thought. The AI is sufficient to recognize “bad guys” (i.e., anyone who isn’t on our side of whatever ideological line we choose). The machines are smarter, faster, better able to make tough decisions than the meat bags that created them. And they’re equipped with weapons to deal with perceived threats. Warfare becomes a clean, unemotional means of conflict resolution rather than a deadly, ugly slog through blood and gore – much of it previously spilled by our boys (and now, our girls). But then Something Goes Wrong…
I’m really not going to get into the obvious ways this can go wrong – the odds are pretty good that you’ve seen at least one movie or read one book or comic book that outlines the “something that goes wrong.” And if this goes right – if machines really are better at fighting than people are, rendering war either bloodless or obsolete – well, that’s peachy. Not gonna talk about that, either.
What I do want to talk about is how we think about the (potential) right and (potential) wrong of the aforementioned Terminator Phenomenon.
See, I feel pretty strongly that op-ed pieces and sensational movies and TV shows (in every sense of the word “sensational”) aren’t the best way for normal humans (as opposed to policy wonks, technologists and military types) to explore the potential effectiveness of autonomous, combat-ready machines. Nor do I think traditional modes of discourse are the best ways to explore the ways in which this Metal Men experiment might go wrong.
Books, movies, TV shows, comic books and newspaper articles can inform and “sell” an idea, but that’s all they can do. And in the case of an irreversible and potentially disastrous decision to use technology in a specific way, to achieve specific goals, it seems critical to me that we explore the problems – practical and ethical – that such a decision is likely to produce.
And how can we best do this? How can we best experience something that doesn’t exist or hasn’t yet happened?
You got it – games…
What do games do that other media can’t and don’t? I’d argue that the one sentence summary of our uniqueness is this: We allow people to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see things from a perspective and act from a position that is not our own.
If you give me a second sentence to describe what sets the medium apart, I go to this: We offer people an unparalleled ability to play “what if,” to try out behaviors that we may not want them trying out in the real world.
In the context of an examination of the possible impact of smart drones, you could just create a tactical and/or skill-based game that takes a clear, singular stand on the issue. But, to be clear, I’m not proposing the creation of games that drive players to a particular conclusion about the viability and desirability of smart drones. That would do games and players a disservice.
I’m saying that the public discourse around the topic could be expanded and enhanced by allowing player to make the decisions about whether and when to unleash autonomous fighting machines. Games, while not free of the ideological biases of their creators can show the consequences of decisions – even those with which the game’s creators disagree.
It is this power of games to offer not just a description of different viewpoints but the opportunity to act on different viewpoints and deal with the aftershocks – to show, as much as possible, consequence without having some politico or creative type sitting in judgment – that most differentiates us from other media and other art forms. That is true whether we’re striving to create “pure entertainment” (which, just to be upfront about one of my own biases, I’d argue doesn’t and cannot exist), or for socially conscious and provocative works.
Letting people experience, virtually and vicariously what happens when drones are used successfully or the ramifications of what happens when things go terribly wrong, could inform and even substantively change the public discourse around the use of such devices.
I truly believe games – mainstream games, not just so-called “serious games” – can and should be part of our cultural dialogue. Games that offer meaningful choices about serious issues, with logical, believable consequences that follow from those choices, are more than “just” entertainment. They can help us see potential and pitfalls in the decisions we make in real life.
This seems self-evident in the context of a game about smart drones or other autonomous weapons. But if this were just an issue of asking “What might happen if we use battling bots,” it would hardly be worth talking about.
Luckily, I believe the capability of exploring choice and consequence in games is generalizable – applicable to a host of social issues. Mainstream interactive entertainment – non-didactic, adrenaline-inducing games with proven appeal – can be brought to bear on any unsettled or controversial social problem.
Are games the perfect vehicle for exploring technological and social changes with potentially enormous historical and personal impact? Obviously not. But are games the best vehicle we have today for exploring such issues? I’d argue they’re just that – the best we have.
Some of you are probably thinking I’m taking games way too seriously – isn’t it okay just to have fun for a while? Well, sure, of course. But I think we think far too much about fun (without actually thinking what the word means – a topic for another time…). And we definitely think too little about our potential role in the discussion around social issues. I guess what I’m saying that we have to stop putting boundaries around what we can and can’t do in games, what we can’t or shouldn’t talk about through our work.
In other words, are there problems that are or should be beyond the reach of games and game developers? Hell, no!
As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that there’s a Serious Games movement out there, delivering games whose primary goal is to inform and affect public discourse (while still providing some amount of familiar interactive fun). But does this leave commercial developers off the hook when it comes to getting people to think?
I don’t believe it does. As happy as I am that there’s a serious games scene, I don’t see that scene affecting the culture at large in the way commercial games could. There’s all sorts of amazing stuff bubbling away beneath the surface of the commercial games world – amazing AI work… Indie art projects… games for education… But just as non-combat AI programmers have trouble being heard in a world where combat is the only consideration… just as indie game developers do amazing things that are ignored by non-indie, triple-A devs and publishers… just as edu-games leave less of a mark on kids than Mario or Master Chief do… so too are the serious games sort of out there, doing cool stuff, being ignored by most normal people. (Sorry. If you think I’m wrong, make the case!)
Commercial games developers could and should do more thinking about the ramifications of the fictions they deliver and the potentials of the medium in which they work. They could and should force players to think about what they’re doing in-game and why they’re doing it – whether they’re asking us to pull a virtual trigger, save a patient in a virtual ER, get two young lovers together (I wish…) or deploy a smart drone to take out a group of supposed terrorists.
I’d like to see games play a role in the evolving thought around drones, smart weapons, law enforcement, the political process, how we deal with freakin’ aliens – everything that other media already do. Growing up as a medium doesn’t just mean prettier pictures or better stories or tons of money generated by a bigger, more diverse audience. Growing up means engaging in adult conversation.
Conversation. I’d argue that the control developers should exert is the topic up for discussion. But the dialogue has to be two-way or it’s not really a dialogue at all. Too many games, fun as they may be, revert to monologue, in emulation of other media.
Conversation. Yeah. That’s what we do better than New York Times articles or Terminator movies. Whether we like it, hate it, or fail to recognize it at all, what we do is engage players in a dialogue about something. That’s an idea many developers choose to ignore – they’re going to tell their story, damn it… they’re going to relieve players of all responsibility for what they do while they’re playing. But we can still deliver a visceral – and, yes, fun – experience without encouraging or forcing players to shut their brains down.
If we shut our brains down at the same time machines are being given brains to turn on, we could very well be in a world of trouble. So developers, players – let’s get in the game and start helping people think about and experience the serious side of a Terminator world of tomorrow. Let’s get in the game of allowing people to engage with and experience what other media can only tell us about.
Okay, enough from me. What do you think about any or all of this?
If anyone wants to talk about smart weapons and Terminator phenomena and all, that’s cool. But given how little any of us know about that stuff, and how Internet flame-ready ethical dilemmas tend to be, I’m more interested in whether and how games can contribute to public discourse than I am in the specific issue that got me thinking about the question. But I’ve said my piece – the floor is now yours. Drone on…