Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

James Leach ques­tions gam­ing’s in­flu­ence on the world out­side


Like most peo­ple in game de­vel­op­ment, I can’t re­ally be both­ered with real life and the peo­ple it con­tains. They’re too ran­dom. They say things, not as a re­sponse to my ac­tions, but just be­cause they can. They don’t even re­act re­al­is­ti­cally to be­ing shot or hav­ing swords waved at them. Worst of all, they have com­pli­cated back­sto­ries which go nowhere. I refuse to waste hours ful­fill­ing their quests, only to find that they don’t have gold to give me. They are dis­trac­tions that can sod off, frankly.

Against the run of play, though, it turns out one of my neigh­bours was a ma­jor in the Para­chute Reg­i­ment. A lit­tle older than me, he de­fies mil­i­tary con­ven­tion by be­ing more than happy to chat about his life in the forces. It even turns out that he’s fairly au fait with videogames, so I asked him how re­al­is­tic mil­i­tary char­ac­ters were in the games of to­day. His re­sponse was kin­der than a man ca­pa­ble of snap­ping me in half needed to be, but he raised the in­ter­est­ing point that a large pro­por­tion of the younger ser­vice­men he’s worked with – sorry, “op­er­ated” with – do talk like char­ac­ters from games. Not be­cause we, the de­vel­op­ers, have got it ex­actly right, but be­cause they’ve played the games them­selves and are copy­ing us.

Ma­jor Neigh­bour told me that Chris Kyle, the Amer­i­can sniper upon whom that 2014 film was based – I for­get what it was called – be­decked him­self with the Pu­n­isher skull logo when out in the field. I didn’t have the heart to men­tion that The Pu­n­isher was a graphic novel, not a game. Ma­jor Neigh­bour still has fists like un­con­trolled pot­ting sheds, af­ter all. But he did say that nowa­days fresh mil­i­tary re­cruits, es­pe­cially in the US, do some­times need to be ed­u­cated out of a view of com­bat formed by play­ing games, and into the one which they’ll ac­tu­ally face. He was sure that the last thing to leave them was the gung-ho lingo which games – and, it has to be said, our poor cousins, films – in­doc­tri­nate us with. An ex­am­ple he gave re­ally res­onated with me. I have re­ferred to nine-mil­lime­tre-cal­iber pis­tols in games as “nine-mils”. I must have writ­ten that dozens of times. It’s an Amer­i­can term which I thought was univer­sal. But ap­par­ently I’m wrong. The UK forces’ un­of­fi­cial short­ened term is ‘nine-milli’, and for get­ting this wrong, and for help­ing a raft of new ser­vice­men to get it wrong, I am a “civvy clown” who “must now get the next round of drinks in”. Again, terms ring­ing with the clear tone of un­der-fire ve­rac­ity, and which I shall em­ploy on the very next com­bat game I work on.

As game-mak­ing types, we are no longer play­ing catchup. The hun­dreds of hours of game­play our play­ers com­mit to sink into their psy­ches in a way that not even the care­ful de­struc­tion and rebuilding of the hu­man of­fered by mil­i­tary of­fer can en­tirely erase. We’re chang­ing peo­ple’s brains, you could ar­gue. (I won’t, sim­ply be­cause ev­ery­one will look at me the next time there’s a gun in­ci­dent in a school some­where.)

For a while now, pri­vate flight schools in some places have counted flight-sim hours as go­ing to­wards the ac­tual train­ing a stu­dent has com­pleted. It’s not hard to un­der­stand com­pli­cated con­cepts if you’re im­mersed in ac­cu­rate de­pic­tions of them on a con­sole or com­puter. This is why Ker­bal Space Pro­gram is so tough. It’s pretty true to life, and its goal to weed out those who would other­wise have dreamt about the stars and both­ered NASA about it with point­less ap­pli­ca­tion let­ters is pre­sum­ably a great suc­cess.

To be up­beat about it, we know games are a way to leave our te­dious ex­is­tences and mas­ter an­other world in which we wield power and skill, so isn’t it cool that so many of us want those worlds to be ac­cu­rate de­pic­tions of ones that ac­tu­ally ex­ist? It’s not un­com­mon to meet a 13-year-old who knows all about set­ting up race sus­pen­sion on cars. For him, a glit­ter­ing ca­reer may beckon ly­ing in a pool of oily wa­ter at a tyre-and-bat­tery place on the out­skirts of a town near you. It’s a dream he might never have known was pos­si­ble, and he’ll be great at it. Or she. Come on now.

Per­haps it’s all a dis­as­ter. Books have been in­spir­ing peo­ple to think about and do new things for hun­dreds of years. And they at least have the ad­van­tage of largely be­ing writ­ten by peo­ple who em­ploy the term ‘nine-milli’, know­ing that it’s the cor­rect form within th­ese is­lands. Per­haps our weighty task as game de­vel­op­ers is to put peo­ple off do­ing things the world would be bet­ter with­out. We should make bank­ing sims, dodgy foot­ball man­age­ment games, po­lit­i­cal strat­egy apps. And they should be ac­cu­rate and hor­ri­ble and no­body should ever win. Sorted. Now I’m go­ing to play Bat­tle­field 1.

James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

Per­haps our weighty task as game de­vel­op­ers is to put peo­ple off do­ing things the world would be bet­ter with­out

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