Posts Tagged ‘Quake’

The railgun. Staple of sci-fi film and literature and the Holy Grail of videogame weaponry. Legendary for its destructive power, it uses electromagnetism to launch a solid projectile from a pair of metal rails with enough force to penetrate virtually any barrier and reduce an organic target into a mass of beautifully-rendered, digital goo. Also known as a mass driver or fuel rod gun (for its use of depleted Uranium slugs as ammo), a version of the railgun first appeared in the 1897 novel A Trip To Venus, in the guise of an electric device used to launch vehicles into space. Over the years, many variations have appeared across the sci-fi landscape, but it wasn’t until id Software’s first installment of the Quake series in the mid-‘90s that the railgun gained notoriety as a weapon of mass destruction (sorry for the pun, but it couldn’t be helped).

Where fiction begins, reality often follows: Scientists and inventors have toyed with designs for electromagnetic weapons and delivery mechanisms since 1918, and have even created small-scale, working models. However, the vast amount of energy required to power a full-size railgun confined them to the realms of imagination and speculation.

Until recently, that is. On January 31, 2008, the US Navy changed the game, firing a shell out of a prototype railgun at 2,520 m/s (for comparison, the M16 assault rifle’s muzzle velocity is a mere 930 m/s). Expected performance of the finished weapon (available to the Navy between 2020 and 2025) is nearly double that—an astonishing 5,800 m/s—and it’ll be able to hit a five-meter object at a distance of more than 370 km.

Why is this important? Railgun-fired projectiles pack more punch than traditional explosive-filled shells, and in a smaller size, which means you can carry more ammunition. Also, they’re not explosive, which eliminates the hazards of transporting a lot of volatile and dangerous ordnance around—good news for our servicemen and women.

However, and more to the point, it’s a convergence of videogame fiction and military reality. And it’s hardly the first. One of the most publicized examples is a game the US Army released in 2002 called America’s Army—the first videogame ever developed with military recruitment as its specific goal.

Built on the Unreal game engine (a very popular first-person shooter, or FPS), America’s Army immerses players in the world of the US Army—giving them a visceral and extremely accurate experience of life as a soldier. The portrayal of weapons and combat is highly realistic: you go limp after taking one or two hits, the next one finishes you. You’re also bound by the Army’s Rules of Engagement: shooting civilians or taking out one of your teammates lands you in a virtual Leavenworth.

America’s Army quickly became one of the most popular FPS games of the time, receiving high marks for its gameplay and mechanics. And it grew to be far more than its developers intended. Started as a PR campaign to build Army brand awareness among America’s youth, it became a valuable training tool both within and outside the armed forces. Soldiers about to deploy could play through customized scenarios to help prepare for their deployments, new recruits and seasoned veterans alike could run combat simulations, and ordinary civilians could learn how to save lives.

Yeah, you read that right. A videogame teaching people how to save lives. America’s Army isn’t just about combat. Those inclined to the Hippocratic arts can take on the role of combat medic, and learn skills critical to perform as a first responder. You can’t just jump into it, though—you first have to pass a virtual course based on actual, real-world medical training, covering topics like prioritizing casualties, controlling bleeding, recognizing and treating shock, and administering aid to non-breathing victims. Paxton Galvanek, an avid America’s Army player, put that training to use when he found himself first on the scene of a multi-victim car accident (read the full text here):

In the case of this accident, I evaluated the situation and placed priority on the driver of the car who had missing fingers. I then recalled that in section two of the medic training, I learned about controlled bleeding. I noticed that the wounded man had severe bleeding that he could not control. I used a towel as a dressing and asked the man to hold the towel on his wound and to raise his hand above his head to lessen the blood flow which allowed me to evaluate his other injuries which included a cut on his head.”

Okay, that’s all well and good, and I’m all for the Army teaching people how to heal others. But what about the darker reality?

It’s no secret that the US military has employed various first-person shooters as combat training tools, both to teach personnel how to work together (the Marines modified id Software’s Doom II to do just that) and to acclimate them to the job of killing. Does it work? No one knows for sure, and you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. However, much as the media likes to blame youth violence on violent videogames, no research has ever been able to prove a link between them. In fact, during the same period that videogame popularity began to rise, incidents of juvenile violence have actually dropped. So it seems that violent videogames are not, in and of themselves, a cause for concern.

For me, the more problematic question centers around unmanned military drones. Without a doubt, they provide clear advantages over boots on the ground: it’s safer to conduct reconnaissance in hostile areas or clean up undetonated enemy ordnance with a remote-controlled robot, and they also allow you to run risky missions without putting lives on the line. But what about drone bombing attacks or search-and-destroy missions? Pilots control both air and ground vehicles with joysticks and other videogame-style controllers, and view the world through a screen and from a perspective that’s highly reminiscent of an FPS or combat flight simulator. Yes, this keeps our servicemen and women out of harm’s way—and it’s hard not to view that as a good thing, especially for those of us who have friends and family in the military—but does war-by-remote insulate us from the brutality of conflict?

Students of war have noted that the further away one is, the easier it is to kill someone. Hand-to-hand combat or knife fighting is intensely visceral: your opponent is right there, sweating, breathing. Taking his or her life is a matter of individual survival, and becomes a personal affair, with nothing separating the two of you. Put a firearm in your hands and target someone across a square, and you’re now a step removed from your victim. You’re still doing the killing, but it’s more distanced. Climb into a bomber and drop explosives on a target thousands of feet below, and now you don’t even see the victims. You’ve removed yourself another step. You still have to be there, though. There’s still some connection.

Now imagine sitting sit down at a computer, joystick or D-pad in hand. You’re controlling a drone vehicle that may be on another continent entirely. The images on the screen in front of you have no connection to your reality, to the world around you. Where you are is safe, removed from combat. And they’re just images. How hard is it to pull the trigger now?

Again, there are undeniable benefits, and I would never argue against protecting our troops. But as we increase the distance at which they can operate, as we remove them farther and farther from the destruction they create and the horrible reality of war, we should stop and ask ourselves this: are we sanitizing the business of killing, and making it easier to carry out?

For more on remote drones, check out this CNN article here

… and Slate.com’s take here.

And for more about America’s Army, check out the official website here.