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Ben Eaton and Kevin Macnish

Ben Eaton, a digital artist, and Kevin Macnish, from the University of Leeds, are exploring the ethics of contemporary warfare using game platforms.

osama bin laden FPS

A quick one – a bit about my project with Kevin but also how his work intersects with my interests as a digital artist, and one who sometimes makes but often plays games.

I am fascinated about the fact that we are a country at war, a war far away seen on TVs but rarely felt in a tactile way.  But i am fascinated about where the leakages appear between our pre-existsing narratives of conflict and the impact of these leaks into our daily lives – where our government is still sending young men and women to fight 3500 miles away.

All of this is not because i want to express my political judgement on the conflict itself or the act of war-a long conversation for another time – but rather on the social nature of this conflict and how we as civilians participate and interact with its narratives, how it disappears into the background and suddenly rears its head again.

These things happen

News of the death of soldiers gradually filters away from the frontpage, and you rarely see the coffins being loaded off planes anymore.

The death of a friend of a friend who they went to school with or a friend’s friend’s sister’s boyfriend means pictures of young men in desert gear on operation with sad epitaphs underneath briefly puncture my timeline.

An American paralympic team with athletes wearing a quasi-military uniforms, perhaps an indication as to the provenance of so many of the young amputees yet end-up showing practically none of it on their  TV networks.

Some good television but no great films have been made about the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but perhaps some great games will be.

A developer trying to make a game about the battle for Fallujah was criticized for their choice of subject matter, they cited the soldiers they were interviewing and who were acting as consultants who said (i paraphrase) “We want to tell our story and this is our medium – how else would we tell it”

Modern Warfare 3 made $775million in 5 days.

First Person Shooters – where you play from a first person perspective often down the barrel of a gun are one of the main genre’s trailed like movies, and increasingly trying to trade on either an uncanny resemblance to what’s happening over there or vicariously – depending on how you see it.

Sometimes they try and have a point.  Often this is terrible.

There is an uncomfortable synergy between FPS games – or the ‘manshooter’ the excessively macho clichee and politically myopic games of contemporary warfare – and the military.  The Army posting recruitment adverts on the front page of computer game magazines or at trade fairs – or the British army creating an advert designed to mimic the PoV of some of the most famous gaming franchises.

A recent release that lets you buy real world weapons branded with the game’s logo – a new brand of camo , a new gun stock or a tomahawk.

trite over-sentimentalism and oversimplification that shows neither the armed forces or the games industry in a particularly good or intelligent light.

but these games are fun (some are fun, some are terrible), they sell big, they are engaging and they have a reach almost equivalent to that of mainstream media and cinema –

these games are texts- artifacts of a conflict and potentially a distanced way for us to participate in these conflicts – most don’t do it well, but also most deserve more in-depth thought than presented here –

but as an artist i am interested in how we can use games as platforms  that can create a way to read, understand and document conflict.  At the risk of oversymplifying perhaps video games will create the War on Terror’s – Appocalypse Now, or Full Metal Jacket.

There is a further element to this which is where Kevin and mine’s collaboration comes in.

As conflict crosses increasingly over into the realm of the digital the relationship between theses systems and our partcipation in the act of warfare becomes more blurred – our project sits here –

“Flying drones is like playing a computer game”.  It’s not but its an easy way to write off both computer games and a wider conversation about the fact that we way we fight – especially in unbalanced conflicts such as this one where the West’s technological and financial superiority  – means there are systems and platforms being rolled out on battlefields that are forever changing the way we fight, for their operators, their victims and for the rest of us.

We are making a game, modding a pre-existing platform a brilliant-ly complicated and fiddly military sim called Arma 2.  How can we use the platform to let us play out and explore these new ethical questions.

Ben

Ben Eaton, a digital artist, and Kevin Macnish, from the University of Leeds, are exploring the ethics of contemporary warfare using game platforms.

Picture: Charles McCain, Creative Commons

Unmanned vehicles (drones) are rapidly becoming a regular feature of battle spaces, especially in the air.  In the last four years the US has massively increased its use of drones in warfare in and around Afghanistan and Yemen.  The UK recently announced its decision to double the size of its force from 5 to 10 drones.

The use of drones is attractive to those operating them.  When a drone is hit and downed no pilot or navigator is killed.  A lost drone is far cheaper than a lost aeroplane, not to mention the loss of expensively-trained pilots and navigators.  However, the ethical issues surrounding drones only begin there.  Drones are typically operated from a great distance by servicemen and women who get to go home at the end of each day.  Given their distance from the combat, are these servicemen and women at risk of treating their work like a computer game?  Certainly the screens interfacing with the drones closely resemble computer games, but is this because the interface tries to depersonalise the experience, or because games try to emulate the drone interfaces?  Drones also offer greater visibility of battle zones in high definition, bringing home to the operator the effects of a successful strike in far greater detail than has previously been available to those operating missiles or flying aircraft.  This could lead to more engagement with their targets rather than less.

At the same time, those targeted by drones suffer disproportionately.  With no means to defend themselves or fight back they can feel rendered impotent by the use of drones against them.  How will this affect their willingness to accept peace when the drones leave?  Furthermore, what does it say of a country that will enter a war but not risk the lives of its soldiers in fighting that war?

These are only a few of the ethical issues that arise around drone warfare, and do not begin to touch on questions of automation nor on the domestic use of drones for law enforcement.  Through developing a mod for an online role-playing game, we (Ben Eaton and Kevin Macnish) hope to create a scenario for players to engage with some of these ethical challenges.  Whether that be in the design of a drone or its operation we have yet to decide, but there is plenty of potential to develop scenarios using high quality gaming environments that will be engaging and, we hope, challenging.