Steven Croop wonders if DEFCON is a little more sinister than meets the eye.
WHEN THE nuclear-horror thriller WarGames was released in 1983, its climactic moment was when the computerised retaliatory failsafe WOPR ran through its scenarios and found that every one resulted in “WINNER: NONE.” The only way not to lose, then, was not to play. With the Cold War still going strong, the great fear of the era was mutually assured destruction—an unwinnable game that no one could quit unless somebody else stood down first. 1991 came, the MADness ended and the world watched the First Gulf War—the first videogame war—on television. Now the climax of WarGames feels more like when NORAD has a base on the line that’s about to get hit with a nuclear maybe-missile. We see the line trace its way to the blue triangle, and both vanish in a white circle. Is the base still there? Say anything. It is the fear of an era in which widespread computerisation heralds instant communication but also instant miscommunication. It is the fear of desensitisation in an abstracted era. Kill a person at the push of a button, a person who is nothing more than an infrared blur on a grainy monochrome TV feed. Watch them running, running—gone. Introversion sought to distil these sentiments—new and old—into a game, and DEFCON resulted.
I recognise DEFCON as a ‘heavy’ game that I find it difficult to play consecutive matches of, but where the game somewhat undoes itself is its brisk pace and demand for concentration. It leaves little room for reflection by the average player like me, who is busy trying to decide whether to surface his subs and annihilate the North American eastern coast, without thinking about the hugeness of the meaning wrapped up in his small conundrum. The best way to feel a given match’s true weight would be to have already lost, to have nothing to do but watch and go ‘wow’ as the game blooms brightly. I got exactly that dark luxury in the last game of DEFCON I’ll probably ever play.
Excessively violent Risk
As a Europe (players are assigned control of a broad geographical area, all of which are continents except for Russia) sandwiched between Russia and Africa in a three player free-for-all, I was bound to be the first to go down. With my fleets decimated, my radar blinded, my airbases and silos neutralized, by the 15 minute mark I was effectively out of the game. But my enemies had expended so much ordinance eliminating my offensive capabilities, my cities remained mostly intact. In real life warfare there exists the concept of the ‘open city’: a declaration from the defenders of a city that they have abandoned the city and that their opposition should occupy the city rather than subject it to further (unnecessary) bombardment. Stripped of my ability to visit destruction upon Europe’s enemies or defend her cities, I would have liked to declare Europe an ‘open continent’. Unfortunately the goal of DEFCON is not to surgically lay low the military of the opposition, except as a means of getting at the succulent interior of his continent. Kills are points in DEFCON, and only the mass deaths of civilians count. Hitting a city with a missile produces x million deaths dependent on its population, with each million deaths of the enemy’s people equal to two points and each million deaths of your own people inflicting a one point penalty on your score. The silos opened at last and I watched as Europe’s cities disappeared in the crossfire. I comforted myself with the thought that Europe only perished out of the necessity of the game, for the sake of the scoreboard. Civilian populations aren’t labelled with a points value in real life, so there’d be no reason for Europe to burn. The open continent would be spared…right?
The reason given for WOPR’s creation in WarGames is that too many humans refused to pull the trigger in drills. I wonder if today and in the future we might not have the opposite problem, with abstracted warfare mitigating human conscience. Instead of the average FPS with its crosshair and health meter, it might be that DEFCON is the closest thing that videogaming has to a true mass murder simulator. Its interface is more believably what some missile commander underneath a mountain might base world-altering (or world-ending) decisions on. Playing it, we see how easy it is to end entire cities when they are just coloured diamonds. I think that the most important victory in DEFCON is to break through that wall of abstraction and entertain the consequences of our amusing little simulation were it played out in the real world. DEFCON has shown me what it feels like to watch a continent burn. For that I appreciate it, but now it is too laden with death to feel like I am ever just playing another game.