Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fantasy Wargaming: Nuclear Weapons in Videogames

When I started this blog, I initially wanted to write about gaming. That's the reason for the "plastic" in the title. That my attentions went elsewhere are unsurprising - I play less games than I did before I started college, and I suddenly had all these new exciting things to write about, like Nukes and Iran and elections and rights and things. So I'm really excited to find an intersection between my dorktastic hobby and my dorktastic studies.

Nuclear weapons feature in many, many videogames, and a friend of mine had expressed concern on how their presence in videogames relates to public perception of their effects. Games writ large are too diverse to treat as one mass, so I figured I'd start by breaking down the ways nuclear weapons feature in games.

1. Gameplay mechanic itself
  • Missile Defense
  • Balance of Power
In Missile Defense, nuclear war is abstracted to the point that a successful nuclear missile strike leads directly to defeat. Consequences of such a strike don't need to be more descriptive than game loss, because in a game, that's enough. Not being able to play any more is as deadly as the abstraction can get. (I haven't played DEFCON or Balance of Power, but from their description they seem similar.)

2. Narrative Device (Modern warfare, Metal Gear Solid)
  • Modern Warfare (First Person Shooter, FPS)
  • Modern Warfare 2 (FPS)
  • Metal Gear Solid (FPS)
  • Frontlines: Fuel of War (FPS)
  • The Ace Combat series (Flight Simulator)
  • Trinity (Text adventure)
  • Nuclear Strike (Shooter)
  • Metal Gear series (FPS)
  • Tom Clancy's EndWar (RTS)
  • Warhammer 40,000 (Minature wargame/RTS)
  • Warzone 2100 (RTS)
  • Syphon Filter series (3rd person shooter)
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction (FPS)
  • others
The size of this category should be unsurprising - since 1945, nuclear weaponry, nuclear strikes, and post-nuclear wastelands have all featured heavily in fiction. Games are, to a large extent, a story-telling medium, and the first-person shooter is a narrative vehicle, as a character follows along and plays through scripted experiences. Plots in these games include nuclear weapons often as a climactic moment in the story, mid-plot twist, or prologue which creates a setting different from the present day but featuring similar weapons. That's commonly done in every medium - Orwell uses a nuclear war as premise for the stalemate society he depicts in 1984. The same needs-of-narrative fuel RTS's, and all of the above have nuclear weapons as plot-points but not in game weapons.

3. Weapon available to the player
  • Starcraft (RTS)
  • Empire Earth (RTS)
  • the Civilization series (Turn-Based Strategy, TBS)
  • World in Conflict (FPS)
  • War Front: Turning Point (RTS)
  • Supreme Commander (RTS)
  • Spore (RTS, at least for the stages in which players can use nukes)
  • Mercenaries 2 (FPS)
  • Metal Gear Solid 3 (FPS)
  • Rise of Nations (RTS)
  • Ratchet and Clank (third person shooter)
  • the Unreal series (FPS)
The games here again are divided between strategy and shooter, and the way they depict Nuclear weapons is different. In Ratchet and Clank, the Unreal series, and Metal Gear Solid 3, a nuclear rifle appears, usually as the games' BFG. This use is both entirely unrealistic and fitting within the nature of these games as fantasy. For Unreal, that fantasy is FPS combat isolated of plot, meaning, or worlds. For Ratchet and Clank, it's a fantasy galaxy, inhabited with nonhuman creatures, where the main characters are a robot and a cat-alien. In Metal Gear Solid 3, the weapon is a doomsday machine that is part of the plot. The nuke rifle is a fantasy allowed by videogames.

In the World in Conflict and Mercenaries 2, tactical nuclear strikes are an unlockable weapon. These games depict small nuclear weapons as not only viable, but as an option that would be similar in usage to a predator drone (to emphasize this effect in Modern Warfare 2 predators are unlockable for much the same purpose).

In the RTS games listed, tactical nuclear weapons are available. In Starcraft, they are the superweapon of the humans against both a horde of buglike aliens and another more advanced alien race. In Empire Earth, nuclear bombers can be built from WWII onwards, and while they are a deadly attack, the area and permanence of the blast is limited in keeping with the aims of game balance. War Front is a science-fictional retelling of WWII, and nuclear weapons are again used within the context of that conflict. In Spore, both city- and planet-destroying nuclear weapons are available. In Supreme Commander, nuclear weapons are fired from silos and deal damage in a smaller area than one would expect. In Rise of Nations, nuclear weapons can be used, though anti-missile lasers can be purchased and a missile defense shield can be researched which protects one's entire territory from nuclear strikes. Rise of Nations also has an Armageddon clock the limits the total number of nuclear weapons that can be fired before the game ends in defeat for everyone. Civilization, though not a real-time strategy game, also offers nuclear weapons that can destroy cities, and with it's more advanced resource system, can slowly have the world die out from after-effects of nuclear weapons.

4. Some combination thereof
  • Fallout series
The Fallout series is set after a total nuclear war, and cold-war culture is the substance of the games. It also features, in Fallout 3, a tactical nuclear rifle.


So what does it mean to have nuclear weapons be part of videogame culture? For the most part, it is no different than having nuclear weapons in fiction, in movies, in comic books, and in song. Sometimes, they will be treated with proper understanding, sometimes they'll be used as a cheap plot accellerant, and more often than not they'll used somewhere between. This is fine, because that's the state of our cultural understanding of nuclear weapons right now.

Games could make a strong statement about tactical nuclear weapons, and on the surface they appear to do so. After all, games, more than any other medium, feature small nuclear strikes. But this isn't really an argument for the use of more nuclear weapons - this is a constraint of game design. When games feature realistic, all-destroying nuclear strikes, they are exclusively plot devices/scripted events, and happen outside the control of the player. When players are given control, nuclear weapons are small, because, and this is important, players will be using these against other players online, and instant-game-ending shots don't make for popular or enjoyable games.

Nuclear weapons could be depicted realistically, but if history has shown us anything, the more powerful a nuclear weapon is, the less likely people are to want it used against themselves. And, in the games-design universe, the certainty that players will use a horribly destructive weapon in a setting where consequences are low translates directly to scaling-down weapons so that they are a balanced component of gameplay. It's not realistic, but it's also very clearly not reality.