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