November 9, 2012 6:50 pm

What gaming can teach world leaders

Touchy-feely adventures are converging with robotic reality
©J McHugh

World leaders have long plundered the world of science fiction for insight and inspiration. The former US vice-president Al Gore used to watch Star Trek “when maybe we should have been studying”, according to his Harvard roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones. Ronald Reagan also drew shrewd parallels between the USS Enterprise’s adventures and his own travails. “I like [the Klingons],” he joked during a set visit. “They remind me of Congress.”

The world has moved on, but so has science fiction. In a week that has seen both the re-election of President Barack Obama and the more opaque opening salvos of China’s transfer of leadership, the world’s superpowers can seek fresh slivers of wisdom from two new computer games that have received only marginally less coverage than those geopolitical tweaks.

Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 are two of the most-hyped products of the video game era. There are sound reasons for the clamour. Video games have become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global entertainment industry. They are the thriving relation in the family of popular culture. The global market will expand to three times the size of the recorded music market by 2014, according to a recent PwC report.

Microsoft’s Halo 4, which was released on Tuesday, sold 3.1m units on its opening day. A similar explosion of interest is expected with the release of Activision’s Black Ops 2 this Tuesday. Both games are tried and trusted franchises. Previous editions have sold in their multimillions. To successive generations of technology-savvy young people, video games are the most resonant art form of our times.

But there is no complacency in the air. Both new releases are “first-person shooter” console games, a previously unstoppable sector of the market that has recently started to shrink, under pressure from free online competitors. Both manufacturers have had to innovate furiously. The new games are more complex, multilayered, ambitious. They are trying to reflect the richness of the real world, even as they invent new worlds.

What do they counsel any future world leader currently crouched over their screen? First, that negotiation through life is an altogether more complicated affair than first-person shooting your way out of difficulty.

In Halo 4, an interplanetary story that promotes “the advancement of mankind through the discovery of new worlds” (deliberate shades of Star Trek) we witness the return of Master Chief, thought to be dead or lost in space in a previous edition, but now back to battle against Storm Covenant rebels on the Forerunner planet of Requiem.

Early reviews have praised the action sequences. “It’s the only shooter you can buy today,” gushes one critic, “where you can ride a Mongoose up a Man-Cannon, hurtle through the air, crash into a Banshee and kill the player driving it, and then flatten two other players who were unfortunate enough to be in your landing zone”.

But action is the easy part. The real innovation of Halo 4 is its emotional complexity. Master Chief has an artificial intelligence buddy, Cortana, who helps him (you) through the action. Cortana is wise and attractive. (She was voted sixth “most disturbingly sexual game character” by Games.net in 2007.) But she has a disturbing piece of news: she reveals to Master Chief that she is in the final year of her “life” cycle, which has made her “rampant”, or close to insanity.

Master Chief, in other words, has relationship trouble. All the guns in the world cannot help him (you). “We were specifically shooting for a level of emotional investment in the characters,” said Halo 4’s executive producer, Kiki Wolfkill, this week.

This, manufacturers are hoping, is what will save the console game from decline: make it more like real life. Tellingly, this trend is taking place concurrently with the impassioned debate over the use of unmanned drone aircraft, which has claimed hundreds of (real) lives. The chilling thought occurs that there is a convergence between video games, becoming more touchy-feely, and international relations, now conducted by robots.

Black Ops 2, the third part of the third trilogy in the Call of Duty franchise, is also raising the stakes as to complexity. While previous editions have focused on the second world war and the subsequent cold war, the new game takes us into the near future of 2025, in which the Chinese stock exchange is disabled by a cyber attack, forcing the country’s leadership to ban exports of rare earth elements, prompting a new cold war with the US.

This appears to be more fertile ground of study for future world leaders than the lunatic outbursts of a disturbingly sexual machine, but here too there are reasons to be wary. Mark Lamia, studio head at the game’s developer Treyarch, has said that he wanted to fill the game with more player choices, and incorporate greater teamwork. “The outcome of the future cold war is affected by the decisions that you make and the gameplay that you take on,” he said. No pressure, then.

The truth is that the honest-to-God, straightforward first-person shoot-up is going out of fashion. It has had its day. Previous games revelled in the technological possibilities offered to their makers. They constructed extraordinary vistas that had the pioneering quality of the exotic landscapes beloved of Renaissance painters. But their stories were too simple.

The new generation of games has a far greater ambition. They aspire unashamedly to the status of art. They have a fresh veneer of sophistication about them. Even their soundtracks are worthy of critical attention.

It remains to be seen whether the new complexity will make them more, or less, commercially successful. But one thing is for sure: their superheroes are not so super any more. They find themselves entwined with awkward colleagues, barmy advisers and a barely comprehensible tangle of policy options. There are worse ways of learning the nuances of international politics. Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, are you playing yet?


The author is the FT’s arts writer

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