Trig­ger Happy

Steven Poole analy­ses Amer­ica’s vir­tu­ally fool­proof shooter so­lu­tions


When you have a ham­mer, ev­ery­thing looks like a nail, and when you have a gun, ev­ery­thing looks like a tar­get

Ob­serv­ing moral progress in ac­tion is a fine thing in­deed. Videogames used to be blamed for school shoot­ings in Amer­ica, with ex­citable news re­ports claim­ing that the per­pe­tra­tor was an ob­ses­sive player of Doom; and Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Ele­phant, based on the 1999 Columbine mas­sacre, was filmed from a bru­tally el­e­gant first­per­son view­point. But now videogames are on the side of jus­tice, at least if we take as rep­re­sen­ta­tive the ex­am­ple of the lat­est of­fi­cial prod­uct of the state­spon­sored mil­i­tary-en­ter­tain­ment com­plex.

The US Army Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory, which works on such cool stuff as en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly red flares, 3D-printed drones, and su­per-light­weight ce­ramic ar­mour, has pro­duced a videogame in­tended to train teach­ers to re­spond to school shoot­ings. In its VR sim­u­la­tion, run­ning on a sys­tem called the En­hanced Dy­namic Geo-So­cial En­vi­ron­ment, you can take the role of a teacher cor­ralling ter­ri­fied stu­dents into class­rooms, or lin­ing them up against walls, find­ing large items such as ta­bles that can be used for bar­ri­cades, and lock­ing doors so that the shooter can’t get in. Sus­pense­fully, in the cor­ner of the screen is a shooter-cam that shows the mur­derer’s progress from his own point of view. As Ta­mara Grif­fith, one of the sys­tem’s en­gi­neers, told the As­so­ci­ated Press: “With teach­ers, they did not self­s­e­lect into a role where they ex­pect to have bul­lets fly­ing near them. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s be­com­ing a re­al­ity. And so we want to give them that chance to un­der­stand what op­tions are avail­able to them.” If be­ing the teacher sounds bor­ing, though, you can also play the game as an armed law-en­force­ment of­fi­cer try­ing to stop the shooter, or as the shooter him­self, try­ing to mur­der as many chil­dren as pos­si­ble. Some­thing for ev­ery­one!

This is ob­vi­ously a se­ri­ous project run by peo­ple who want to help. The sys­tem is based on close anal­y­sis of real-life events such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook shoot­ings, with un­nerv­ingly ac­cu­rate au­dio of scream­ing and wail­ing, and help­ing teach­ers not to freeze or panic when such things hap­pen could in­deed save lives. It also al­lows for some ex­per­i­ments with school in­fra­struc­ture. Project man­ager Bob Walker ex­plained: “They can do some anal­y­sis in the en­gine and say, ‘What would hap­pen if I did have ex­ter­nally lock­ing doors? Or what would hap­pen if I add in­ter­coms, how would that change the sur­viv­abil­ity of this sit­u­a­tion?’”

Even so, the very ex­is­tence of such a game is cul­tur­ally alarm­ing, par­tic­u­larly given the heav­ily cir­cum­scribed na­ture of its ‘geo-so­cial’ sim­u­la­tion. Oddly not sim­u­lated in the game, for ex­am­ple, is the pass­ing of stricter gun-con­trol laws that would make a school-based gun ram­page far less likely in the first place. And the po­ten­tial for this to be­come the ba­sis of a per­versely pop­u­lar se­ries is clear. Why stop at schools? You could have anti-shooter shooter games set in rock-con­cert venues, or cafés, or out­side high-rise Las Ve­gas ho­tels. And it is pre­sum­ably only un­char­ac­ter­is­tic del­i­cacy that pre­vents the ex­ist­ing game from al­low­ing the teach­ers them­selves to be armed, as Repub­li­can NRA stooges re­peat­edly sug­gest with a straight face. (It would hardly be sur­pris­ing to learn that this op­tion does in fact ex­ist, in a mode not so far demon­strated to re­porters.)

Fur­ther in the fu­ture, the log­i­cal evo­lu­tion of such a game would be to ex­pand its re­mit to sit­u­a­tions that cur­rently in­volve no guns at all. When you have a ham­mer, ev­ery­thing looks like a nail, and when you have a gun, ev­ery­thing looks like a tar­get. The real tragedy of a coun­try such as the US, which con­tains more guns than hu­man be­ings, and in which armed tod­dlers kill more peo­ple an­nu­ally than Is­lamists, is that there are so few op­por­tu­ni­ties for gun-own­ers to fire off rounds in a sanc­tioned way. This state of af­fairs, ev­i­dently, re­quires ur­gent re­form, to be ac­com­plished by tech­no­log­i­cally en­abled so­cial en­gi­neer­ing.

There­fore, un­der the sta­ble ge­nius of Pres­i­dent Trump, we should all look for­ward to the de­vel­op­ment of shooter games fo­cused on how to per­suade a re­cal­ci­trant Congress to pass mas­sive tax cuts, or shooter games that train the proud cit­i­zen to make Amer­ica great again by pre­emp­tively neu­tral­is­ing peo­ple who, on the ba­sis of their skin colour, look as if they might hail from one of the coun­tries listed on the travel ban. As videogames them­selves have taught their fans over the years, af­ter all, there is no sit­u­a­tion that can­not be im­proved by adding guns to it.

Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

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