The Only Losing Move: DEFCON and Nuclear War

Note: This article briefly discusses a fictional mass shooting. I've attempted to write about it in as sympathetic a way as I can, but if that's a sensitive subject for you right now, you might want to sit this one out. This piece also contains mild spoilers for the rebooted Tomb Raider games and Modern Warfare 2.

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Traditionally, video games have been lax at humanising their subjects and engendering empathy for real-world people. When given a choice between making the player feel powerful and making the player think beyond themselves, interactive entertainment usually runs for the second option without hesitation. Some games decided to break from the pack and humanise their characters by dedicating less time to play and more time to plot and dialogue, e.g. Emily is Away, or Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Others attempted to provoke sympathy for their cast members by using mechanics that systemise peoples' needs, attributes, and dynamics. E.g. Frostpunk or Florence. But if you want your game to investigate human concerns, there is one other option. It's in having the player be so selfish and emotionally disconnected that the behaviours, systems, or cultures at the core of the game appear cruel or dehumanising.

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This is the strategy that Papers, Please uses to explain how authoritarian border policy reduces people to documents and enforces oppressive hierarchy. Following the rulebook of a faux-East German border officer, we deny opportunity to those who are vulnerable and aid those who harm. However, Papers, Please allows us to work around fascist protocol now and then. It also punches back against its own demeaning ruleset with personifying dialogues, and we must note that the game is a relatively recent example of using dehumanising play to make a statement. For me, the classic example of mechanical satire is Introversion's 2006 RTS DEFCON, and in comparison to Papers, Please, it is a more thoroughly objectifying machine.

DEFCON is a multiplayer strategy game which allows players to wage a global nuclear war over several different maps, with the default being a replica of our Earth. We can select from a few different gametypes, but the most commonly-played has each participant attempting to kill the most civilians in their adversaries' territory before a timer elapses. This conflict takes place over numbered stages which run from "DEFCON 5" to "DEFCON 1" with the matches advancing to new phases at set time intervals. With the advancement of the defence condition, the players earn new permissions. At DEFCON 5, they can only station and move units, at DEFCON 3, they can start naval and aerial skirmishes, and at DEFCON 1, they can launch their atomic arsenal. Despite players murdering in the millions and nuclear devastation having diabolical worldwide consequences, the victims are invisible; there are no humans or even markers that represent humans present. The game only acknowledges civilians via the population numbers and death toll. At the point when it is most imperative that the world powers weigh the human cost of military engagement, they lose sight of those humans.

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What's terrifying about DEFCON is that it becomes clear that this dehumanising gaze is not just a lens through which nuclear operators might view the world; it's the only lens they could get. "Gaze" is the operative word here; if we can take in a person's facial features or look into their eyes, we get an instinctive sense of another consciousness in front of us. Seeing a human-shaped body also goes some way to reminding us that we're dealing with a person. In a military conflict, how good a look we get at our targets is contingent on the range of our weapons. Melee implements like swords and maces have us practically jamming ourselves into their faces, but a sniper rifle reduces our targets to a featureless silhouette.

A person you can see can still be dehumanised, of course. In fiction, there are plenty of methods of doing that from writing them as villains to mechanically contextualising them as enemies. It's also not necessarily a bad thing if a game dehumanises and makes it easier to kill. There's room for empowerment fantasies, and there's room for setting up targets that we shouldn't sympathise with. No tears need to be shed over Wolfenstein having us view Nazis down the barrel of a gun. However, you should be able to see that the more visual representation a character gets, the more humanised they become. To speak to the inverse, one of the criticisms of drone warfare is that when attackers view targets from so far up, they cease to recognise the droned as people, and so, can eradicate other lives without acknowledging them as lives. In gaming, Call of Duty 4 depicted this phenomenon in its famous level Death from Above.

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Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, such as those that would be used in global nuclear war, stand to make that dehumanisation immeasurably worse. An ICBM is the ultimate ranged weapon. Unlike with the older forms of firearms we discussed earlier, their projectile trajectory does not span the length of a field or even the length of a country but can cover oceans and continents, and so we must view the planet on a global scale if we wish to track them. When you are that far zoomed out, the humans affected when you pull the trigger don't even appear as a speck in the viewfinder which why we only register them as numbers. This interface addresses 3 million deaths the same way an ATM would tell you that you have £500 in your account. Additionally, because the trajectory of an ICBM far exceeds that of a traditional projectile, humans cannot directly monitor them, and instead, we must turn to digital technologies to observe their cataclysmic journies.

Computerisation can make the wielders of nukes further disassociated from the consequences of their actions. Under the utilitarian reductionism of a computer monitor, cities break down to icons, countries to wireframe outlines, and weapons of mass destruction to pure geometry. There's less guilt in tearing the world apart when it looks like a training exercise or a simulation. But by obscuring the violence, DEFCON makes it all the more chilling. Some action games come undone through their will to make us sympathise with characters enduring pain or death without the language to humanise those characters. Their mechanics are based around adventure and domination rather than personal exploration, and the playtime is mostly filled out with mechanical interactions instead of character interactions. But you work with what you've got, so these titles dial up the level of violence to elicit a pang of empathy from the audience. Unfortunately, that technique often isn't enough to humanise or becomes dehumanising in its own right.

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Some classic examples of this are the rebooted Tomb Raider games which see Lara Croft battered during long falls, loudly vocalising pain, and even becoming impaled with rebar. The developers informed us that these scenes would attach audiences to Lara, presumably thinking that showing severe hurt and fear in someone would make onlookers empathise with them. But a lot of players saw it another way; identifying these scenes as "torture porn", and not without reasonable cause. Whatever the creators' intentions, prolonged moans of agony from our protagonist don't express the full emotional range of human experience. Especially early on in the first game, before we've gotten an introduction to who Lara is, it doesn't feel like the hurt is a challenge that any particular character has to overcome; it's just uncontextualised suffering. The scenes seem to revel in it with the same disgusted glee a Saw film would.

For another example of hyper-violent content failing to raise sympathy for its victims, look to the unforgettable No Russian chapter of Modern Warfare 2. It's a first-person shock-and-awe shooting on airport civilians which calls to mind the endless automatic and semi-automatic weapon attacks in the present-day U.S. Again, the driving logic behind the scene seems to be that the more gore you can throw at the screen, the more it will express the anguish of the targets, but in retrospect, the No Russian scene comes across as hollow and insensitive. We don't know any of the people in that airport or see the emotional fallout from the terrorists' actions, nor does the game highlight a realistic threat through the violence. The airport victims are bags of blood and guts to be poured out in an attempt to show just how evil the absurd "Ultra-nationalist" villain is. This approach is troublesome in a way that the Tomb Raider example isn't, because it's not just using violence against a fictional character for cheap shock value; it's exploiting current events in which real people have gruesomely died to get there.

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If you want audiences to connect with your cast on a human level, then there's no way around having those characters sit down at some point and express realistic emotion, but the action format makes that impossible. DEFCON tries to evoke the horrors of its chosen topic using the opposite method from Tomb Raider or Modern Warfare 2. Instead of pushing your face closer to the open wounds, it hides its distressing annihilation behind a screen which keeps it from being something to gawk at, popcorn in hand. Us seeing the shadow of the war rather than the war itself also potentially creates a fear of the unknown and has us filling in the grisly blanks ourselves. But I found an additional wave of shock in how quickly that sense of moral violation wears off. Most players become acclimatised to seeing reports of millions dead, and begin taking their mind off of the human implications of their actions to think about the strategic implications. Although, I do wonder if people who lived through the Cold War would be able to shake off that unease as casually as people who never had to think about nuclear armageddon as a probable future.

Whether you're viewing DEFCON as a portrait of humanity's worst-case scenario or as a puzzle to be solved, the power of the nukes shines through. Most action and strategy games have it so that you derive your combat prowess from a collection of weapons. You might prefer to use some more than others, but generally, you'll have a lot of implements that aren't strictly better than their alternatives; they're just useful for different jobs. SMGs are effective at mid-range, smoke grenades are a good opener, flamethrowers units have spread fire, etc. In DEFCON, the nuclear weapons are so incomprehensibly superior to the battleships, planes, and other military bric-a-brac that the whole game recentres around them. Our primary objective is to rack up civilian kills, and we can only achieve that by using nuclear payloads. It checks out: no other weapon would be able to murder on anywhere near that scale. So we use launch sites, submarines, and bomber planes to get those warheads airborne.

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But winning a battle requires more than a good offence, which is why we can place launch sites into an anti-air mode in which they intercept incoming ICBMs and aircraft. We can also erect radars which make nearby enemy units and projectiles visible, and we can dispatch aviation and naval vessels which can directly engage any vehicles launching atomic missiles. Of course, our enemies are going to employ the same defences, which makes it incumbent on us to have countermeasures to those countermeasures. To use our fighter planes or battleships against opposing ships and aircraft which may be impeding our nuclear capabilities, or to destroy enemy radar dishes so they can't anticipate our strikes. All of our actions are about ensuring that our rockets can trace a path from our units to opponents' cities and that opponents' munitions can't do the same. Whether you're in the headspace of a commander or a civilian, the game expresses the humbling grandeur of the nukes.

Playing DEFCON also psychologically resembles living in a potential target country during the Cold War because its competitive experience is doused in suspense and paranoia. A fog of war blankets the map and only clears around areas where you have stationed a radar or mobile unit. It's not uncommon to endure a fog of war in an RTS, but it feels suffocating in DEFCON because once you have placed a radar station, you cannot move it, and any unit that's not a radar has a myopic range of sight. We can drive our armies over land and sea to fan away the fog elsewhere, but then we lose visual on the spot where we previously stationed them. And as the war is fought on a global scale, these vehicles can only move at a relatively sluggish pace, sometimes having to detour around entire continents to reach their destination. It creates a scenario where, once you've reached DEFCON 1, a nuclear inferno could be headed to you from just beyond the edges of your vision cones at any time, and you wouldn't know it, and once you do know it, it might be too late to sabotage the rockets anyway. This means it's not enough to move units to where attacks are occurring in real-time: you have to anticipate them long in advance, and take advantage of the unplugged holes in your opponents' defences.

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DEFCON inhibits us from armouring ourselves on all sides because, unlike in a Starcraft or a Dawn of War, we don't start in the cosy corner of the map or choose where we situate all our weak points. Instead, our cities are pre-placed when we load up the session, and they're spread out over whole landmasses. Everyone is riddled with openings an enemy can squeeze through, and no one has enough units to shield them all. What's more, the map wraps around because the Earth is spherical so we can never go so far east or west that we will reach the edge. Wherever we are, we're vulnerable to attacks from both the left and right, if not also other directions. You are a severely suspicious person covered in soft spots, trapped in the dark with one finger on the launch button.

The good news is that because of the Earth's scale, the ICBMs, while devastating when they land, move slowly, and instead of making their way directly to ground zero, carve out an arc pattern which gives you extra time to recognise and neutralise them. But this also means that those moments where players attempt a bombing draw out longer, and that generals on all fronts will hold their breath seeing if that missile being peppered with anti-air fire explodes in mid-air or makes an impact. In Diplomacy mode, an alliance system encases all this tension and strategising in an additional metagame. Being able to team up, dynamically switch sides, and break away from alliances means that co-operating with other players is often necessary if you don't want to be ganged up on, and yet, once in league with former opponents, you must constantly suspect them of betrayal. A diplomatic pact is only as good as the survival it promises, and when there can only be one victor, all treaties must eventually be discarded.

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Despite DEFCON's accuracy on the paranoia that nuclear armaments trawl into political waters, its power exchanges aren't true to international politics today or historically. That is, assuming you're playing on the Earth map. For balancing reasons, Introversion puts each player in charge of roughly equal expanses of land with identical reserves of firepower. They split the atlas into Europe, North Asia, South Asia, Africa, North America, and Latin America, with each controlled by a different player or CPU. While this is not incorrect as a design decision, we must understand that it is not representative of how a nuclear conflict could or would have played out. Perhaps the most crucial power dynamic behind the nuclear weapons in our world today is that only two nations were able to stockpile atomic warheads in their thousands: The U.S. and Russia. These two powers held the future of the rest of the world within their hands, and while their aggressive self-armament painted targets on their backs, their formidable military strength also meant that they were capable of divine offences and defences that other countries were not.

There are nations besides the U.S. and Russia that have atomic arsenals, albeit more modest ones, but even between them, you see a lot of variation in weapon distribution. Currently, France, China, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea all have nukes, but France has 300 of them while North Korea likely has somewhere below 20. And if you're not one of the above countries, then in a nuclear war today, you wouldn't get to play ball at all. Even if many of the nations without nuclear arms attempted to develop them in the near-mid future, a lot of them don't have the economic backbone to pose a threat to America or Russia or even China. It's not a coincidence that the U.S. and the USSR ended up packed to the gills with warheads: economic power translates into military power, and if you're not a country with a pretty penny or two sitting in a bank account, you'd just be a spectator to the end of the world.

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Not only is pretending that Eastern Europe would be as prepared for World War III as Western Europe turning a blind eye to monetary inequality, but by putting, for example, Africa and Europe on equal footing, DEFCON glosses over how African countries have often been unable to protect themselves against obliteration by the west because of those financial disparities. The term "the third world" was actually coined during the Cold War to denote countries not attached to the Soviet Bloc or NATO, and thus, unable to participate in a nuclear exchange. Third world nations are less likely to have weapons of mass destruction aimed at them, but they would also be in the unenviable position of enduring the fallout from a war they never participated in. DEFCON, as a game, is fair, but global thermonuclear war isn't, and the game also conflates countries with competing interests into unified international actors. There's a tinge of jingoistic xenophobia in reducing South Asia or South America to singular entities with no distinction between the countries.

None the less, DEFCON is a powerful game because of the alternate history it represents. Video games that depict the loss of life in the quantities that DEFCON does are almost always playing make-believe, but there are plenty of people alive today who, at one time, thought they might wake up in the morning to a warning signal and then never wake up again. The official line is that it was the concept of mutually assured destruction that kept humanity from reaching the apocalypse. The nuke was the one weapon made not to be fired, because if you ever did, the retaliation would reduce your nation to rubble. However, even with mutually assured destruction a certainty, both Russia and America were brought to the brink of launch multiple times. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, America set itself to DEFCON 2, and there have been nine separate incidents in which false readings from ICBM detection equipment signalled operators to launch. One such incident involved the Russian B-59 submarine interpreting a depth charge as a nuclear blast and two out of three officers on-board giving the go-ahead to let loose the first arsenal of a global nuclear war. Another saw a Soviet satellite incorrectly interpreting reflected sunlight as incoming missiles. A launch was only averted because an operator broke protocol and did not inform their superiors. We don't act like it, but we're a species which almost decimated ourselves in recent history, and it's somewhat of a miracle that we live in our world as opposed to the DEFCON version.

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While, in some ways, feeling the barrel of a gun against your head does make you more hesitant about shooting your own, DEFCON also highlights that everyone sitting on top of a powder keg can make them liable to lash out at another nation at the slightest whiff of trouble. The game doesn't always correctly identify who's going to do that lashing out and who's going to be on the receiving end. Yet, it does demonstrate how existing in a state of constant paranoia about other world powers makes your trigger finger that bit itchier, and how the cold abstraction of military interfaces can relieve you of your conscience. Technically, you don't even have to fire your missiles in DEFCON, but you do it because you believe your opponents will, and that there's a chance that when the smoke clears, your adversaries will be left with a lower population than you. Nuclear war is not just a method of doing battle; it's a political mindset.

I want humanising video games as much as the next thinky internet critic, but it's also the case that sometimes politics, history, and personal experiences are dehumanising. That doesn't give creators carte blanche to objectify the people in their games and call it empathy. It does mean that to fully depict the range of experiences that people have had and could have, media needs to make room for humans being treated as less than human. That could involve them appearing as a figure on a ledger, a body on a battlefield, or a number in a nuclear death toll because you or your parents could have so easily been a number in a nuclear death toll. Thanks for reading.

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