Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Strange Game

"How can I save my little boy

From Oppenheimer's deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense,
On either side of the political fence

We share the same biology,
Regardless of ideology,
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children, too . . ."
-Sting, Russians


I dreamt about this game a long time ago.

When I was younger, I was fascinated with nuclear war.

I don't know if this was a reflection of the politics of the 80s, with Reagan and his 'Evil Empire' speech. I doubt it. I don't think I knew anything of politics until I was about 15.

Regardless, I devoured books and movies about the nuclear threat. The notion that countries would make conscious decisions to produce more and more weapons by which to destroy humanity held fast in my mind. Even at the age of eight I recognized the craziness of it all. Mutually Assured Destruction was the lunatic doctrine staying the hand of unstable world leaders. We were at the mercy of madmen whose political grandstanding was no greater than schoolyard preening.

I read books. Big, full-color picture books with towering missiles laid out in a neat line. I learned that the MIRV (Multiple Independently-targeted Reentry Vehicle) could send up to seven warheads to seven different cities filled with unknowing people. I learned about SRBMs, MRBMs and ICBMs. Fusion and fission. I read On the Beach. A Canticle for Liebowitz. I read about the dangers of fallout and how radiation spreads.

I watched movies. Miracle Mile and its tragic ending. The Day After and its tragic beginning. Dr. Strangelove and its pitch-black humor. And, of course, Wargames.

Wargames was special - because the main character is young. And a gamer.

So we get Defcon, from Introversion, a tech demo turned game. Like Uplink and Darwinia before it, Defcon feels like a game from an earlier era. It has the flavor of a board game. The units are few, actions are limited. It's largely about timing and positioning. Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

The main screen is the big board from Wargames. This is what I've imagined in my head so often. The soothing black and blue. The cloudy glow surrounding the landmasses. The clean lines showing the paths of subs and destroyers and missiles. The map zooms in and out and scrolls smoothly, the way it should.


I'm standing in the War Room, issuing orders. "Benson, zoom in on Tehran." No signs of activity, but the radar doesn't quite extend that far. "Scramble a fighter, get it in the air, to the west. We've got to find their silos." I can't make out land features, just a uniform surface. That's how the world looks to the high-level planners. No forest. No trees.

This shouldn't be a game. But it's so compelling. Picking and choosing targets. Life and death in you hands, the power to completely alter the makeup of our planet. I whisper to myself when a missile strikes true. "Delhi, 7.5 million dead. Beijing, 5 million dead." In the world outside the game, those numbers should be tripled, at least. Global Thermonuclear War. Millions, maybe billions dead or dying. Millions crawling through the aftermath, blinded, screaming, losing skin.

You don't have to deal with that. With the real effects. It's all clean lines and a glowing white circle where there used to be a city marker. How easy is that? How easy it must be to pick up a phone and send people to kill and die. So easy, how have we not yet destroyed ourselves? It can't be that we aren't crazy enough.

The game occurs in stages. Defcon levels. Each one allows an escalation of hostilities. I grow impatient and hurry time forward. Faster to the Apocalypse, please. Defcon 4, taunts and insulting haikus. I make fun of the Soviet Union's mother. Defcon 3, the skies are filled with peeping eyes, that get put out by pesky needles. Defcon 2, begin killing each other like civilized people. And for god's sake, boys, don't slouch! Defcon1 - goodbye, civilization, too bad we hardly knew ye. Oh, it's not like we were putting it to good use, anyway.


It's entrancing, watching the missiles go up, tracing their broad arcs across oceans, through the skies, aimed for their targets. Every air defense missile that goes up makes me hold my breath. Every time a missile disappears, victim of a working SDI*, I curse lightly. "Fuck." There goes my devious plan to wipe Dallas, TX off the map.

The board lights up. Launch detected somewhere in the South China Sea. Launch detected off the coast of California. Launch detected near the Arctic Circle. The Soviet Union is well and truly fucked, comrades. I'm desperate. I send up my last few salvos of ICBMs, hoping that at least one or two make it through. I watch a missile approach Miami. Tick. Tick. Tick. The defenses are launching their counter-missiles. Miami is saved.

But I got Atlanta. And Washington, D.C. Half the Eastern Seaboard. The radiation clouds will get pushed against the Appalachians and forced southward. Florida will act like a giant urethra, all the toxins flowing downward and out. So Miami is doomed anyway. I smile.

We should all know how this ends by now. Total dead: Soviet Union 125.4 million, United States 123.7 million. I lose, because Defcon keeps a score, and the person with the higher score wins. That's how a game works.

In reality, all the players lose. And all the spectators.

You aren't really winning, you're pretending to win. Like you pretend it's a game. Like you pretend that our leaders really aren't as crazy as they seem.

Hope you're right.

*Strategic Defense Initiative, aka "Star Wars". Famous hunk of government pork, billions have been poured into this great failure. Research "breakthroughs" are proven to be falsified, and yet politicians throw even more more money into this sinkhole. That's how you know Defcon is a game - your anti-missile defenses can actually shoot down missiles.

Update: I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

Update II: We will all go together when we go.


Patrick Dugan said...

Excellent political analysis. Too bad the hegemony of MS Windows prevents me from exploring in detached, moribund joy the play of nuclear hegemony.

Chris said...

My two favourite nuclear war games are:

'Nuclear War', Flying Buffalo's beer n' pretzels card game of mutually assured destruction. Nothing beats that moment when you inadvertantly destroy the world with a lucky spin and a 200 megaton warhead! Most games end in everyone dying.

'Raid Over Moscow', the classic C64 game. I played this a lot. The Russians send their nukes to the US one at a time, and this has basically no impact on the game. So you can just sit back and watch the US cities get nuked periodically. Strangely compelling.


I don't know when I stopped worrying about nuclear war, but I have. It may have happened when I realised that even nuclear armageddon won't exinguish all life on Earth - it'll just sterilise most of the species we know and love, including ourselves. But big extinction events happen from time to time - c'est la vie, I suppose, or c'est la mort. Everything dies. Don't let it stop you enjoying life while you have it!

Best wishes!