Epic is licensing the Unreal 3 engine to the government. Read the press release here.
On face, this all looks like great stuff. A number of games that are being developed are designed around simulation that prepares specialists for difficult or problematic events; for example, Humansim is a game that is designed around helping doctors diagnose and perform procedures on patients. This makes sense, and it is probably a good replacement for the “test patient” system that currently exists in the medical training field.
But we’re gonna need a bigger boat for this, or at least a more critical response, and I think that reading between the lines a little bit is necessary in order to really tease out what is going on here between good old Researchin’ Uncle Sam and the video game industry.
First, the Unreal 3 engine is important. It is the most visually advanced engine that we can come up with right now, and there are moments when it skips right over the uncanny valley and puts us right into straight-up realism mode. This isn’t always, of course, and certainly not during normal gameplay. However, it is a sign that the military industrial complex is getting wise about something that video game designers have known for years: people respond well to visual stimulus.
Video games are already doing pretty well when it comes to the other senses. We are developing better haptic response interfaces, and sound is already on lock with games like Deep Sea producing profound, often traumatic, responses in people. No one is really attempting smell right now, but I can’t imagine that would be difficult. No, the visual is the problem. The humans on screen don’t look like real humans, and so the responses we have toward them are not authentic; we don’t panic when they are dying. We aren’t traumatized when they are gibbed by landmines (the difference in language there is telling; no one would say an American soldier was gibbed).
Bogost tells us, in the last bit of How to Do Things With Video Games, that you can do “drills” with video games. We can simulate the world and prepare for BAD THINGS and make sure to avoid them, but for these things to work, you have to take the game very seriously. The visual is important for this–the quicker you can make the player forget that the figure on screen is not alive, the more effective the simulation will be. A simulation is totally artificial and has few, if any, real-life consequences. If a person bleeds out on a table, the consequences are huge. Creating convincing human beings is the first step toward making sure that simulations become the educational tools they can be; nothing else matters as much as what you see.
Better simulation equates to better education. It also means better desensitization. The fact that Virtual Heroes, the developers of the recruitment tool called America’s Army, are getting ten million dollars in the deal is pretty scary. The video game soldier is an archetype for a dissertation, and I think the valorization of that, in super HD, is probably more than a little politically manipulative.
Let me quote Adi Robertson writing for The Verge
The Epic / Virtual Heroes team has also been awarded a $10 million contract with the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop experimental games that help analysts detect cognitive biases in their work. Among other projects, Virtual Heroes has previously worked on America’s Army, a military recruiting tool that was built on an older version of the Unreal Engine. Combat or flight simulations have long been a part of military training, but a more widespread use of popular game engines could open up new ways to mimic real-life situations. It’s also possible that the needs of government agencies could spur future technical breakthroughs in the Unreal Engine.
So what the Unreal engine is really doing in this deal is allowing for better simulations of death. We need to better simulate symptoms of the dying animal in order to make doctors better. We need to simulate the deaths of friend and enemy soldiers, along with the AI responses to those deaths. “Better graphics” becomes shorthand for “better terror” in that it causes an immediate reactionary response for the player.
Or, alternately, I am wrong. I hope that I am. I hope that our movement toward virtual intelligences is not through advanced wargame simulations. I can only imagine this: a programmer, deep in the womb of a defense contractor, writing out long sections of code that determine the behaviors of a gut-shot child.
We will have to simulate it. It will be terrifying.
fwiw my alma mater used the Quake engine for research. there were two main applications:
* AI: For student homework in AI courses and for more elaborate independent research for use by the entire department. Unreal gives a 3d environment and “agents” – basically NPCs – which students would then program in order to teach themselves industrial-style programming (IE not university-style programming where you write something from scratch or within an academic framework – modifying existing, complex source which you don’t understand at first), how to program AI behavior, and how to model AI interactions
* Vision studies. Technically this is part of the AI department, since it’s about computer vision – how do humans process visual information, and how can computers duplicate that. However it can also be used to study vision difference between gamers and non-gamers in a simulated environment
so there are non-violent and interesting applications for engines that go beyond “murder death kill”. the engines provide complex frameworks that students modify for learning and for fun (“my semester project was spent modifying the Quake engine!”). This saves the department time recreating complex 3d environmental engines which are already well-understood but difficult to make from scratch and mantain.
And all of that is awesome, but my real issue is not the use of applications to simulate and teach, but rather what we choose to simulate. The press release and article suggest that military and medical applications are at the forefront of the license, which means they are simulating trauma before other things.
Also, that license isn’t for education. It is for monetary gain and military application.