Leeds Creative Labs

Collaborations for Academics & Creative Innovators

Author: Ben Eaton

Drones and mods an game design

The project that Kevin and I worked on was a fantastic opportunity to prod at the beginning of an idea.

At the launch event for the Cultural and Creative Industries Exchange I presented work in progress – or rather the bits and pieces that we have developed to date.

A lot of the time was spent in an iterative process, working with the design and the flow of the experience.

Arma 2 provides us with a naturally powerful platform – we haven’t so much created a fully functional mod largely because of time but rather have tried to  experiment with the inbuilt building tools.

Arma 2 Building Tools

The lines and circles and trigger are all units we have placed into the map, their behaviours and pathways are defined with a series of events that we are trying to play out to see what happens.

Here is the drone on the runway.

Arma 2 Drone On Runway

The view from the village:

Arma 2 View From Village

The same village from the air from the vantage point of the drone

Arma 2 Drone POV

We mainly only had time to experiment with the general feel of the experience, how it felt to be both on the ground and in the air, seeing both simultaneously both the act of firing from the air and feeling and seeing the effects of that from the ground.

It’s worth mentioning that in terms of content all of the models and heavy lifting of the 3d game engine was done by the game – a lot of what we are doing is an exercise in contextualization.

I’ve spoken in a previous post about the issues surrounding representation in games especially ones that lend themselves to such traditional genres as FPS (first person shooters), and here we are instead providing an alternative perspective on situations that are expected to be applied in a assumed manner (this isn’t doing the ARMA 2 community a disservice they create incredibly complicated scenarios and play them out but are naturally interested in the games primary function as a combat simulator to be participated in).

The good news is it works – it is both disconcerting and uncanny to participate from the ground and from the air. The spectre of a drone and that sense of helplessness is indeed communicated, not to the degree in reality of course, but it opens a dialogue about it.

The future of the mod lies in actually reducing some of the gameness of the interface and the program. We discussed this during our sessions, the experience currently relies on a level of aptitude with the game and FPS games in particular for the player to be able to understand and participate in it. In many ways we would need to break the game and also break the traditional rules of game design – this will not be a balanced experience – in the same way that the drones themselves are one of the clearest examples of the asymmetric nature of the conflict.

The next steps would be to create a clearer sense of the narrative of the experience – an arc and a clear set of situations inspired and based on a real scenario. Secondly to create an interface system that moves the game on through a series of steps – simultaneous events that play out for both sets of players and pause – allowing them to navigate a series of choices – focusing the interactions on decision making rather than reflexes and hand to eye co-ordination.

We are hoping to progress the project onwards – implementing the above and more, the game platform is an ideal way to explore and express these ideas with implementations beyond conflict situations. Hopefully we’ll be able to feedback here in the future as that pans out.

FPS as texts – reading games and contemporary warfare

Ben Eaton, a digital artist, and Kevin Macnish, from the University of Leeds, are exploring the ethics of contemporary warfare using game platforms.

osama bin laden FPS

A quick one – a bit about my project with Kevin but also how his work intersects with my interests as a digital artist, and one who sometimes makes but often plays games.

I am fascinated about the fact that we are a country at war, a war far away seen on TVs but rarely felt in a tactile way. But I am fascinated about where the leakages appear between our pre-existing narratives of conflict and the impact of these leaks into our daily lives – where our government is still sending young men and women to fight 3500 miles away.

All of this is not because I want to express my political judgement on the conflict itself or the act of war-a long conversation for another time – but rather on the social nature of this conflict and how we as civilians participate and interact with its narratives, how it disappears into the background and suddenly rears its head again.

These things happen

News of the death of soldiers gradually filters away from the frontpage, and you rarely see the coffins being loaded off planes anymore.

The death of a friend of a friend who they went to school with or a friend’s friend’s sister’s boyfriend means pictures of young men in desert gear on operation with sad epitaphs underneath briefly puncture my timeline.

An American paralympic team with athletes wearing a quasi-military uniforms, perhaps an indication of the provenance of so many of the young amputees, but little coverage on TV networks.

Some good television but no great films have been made about the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but perhaps some great games will be.

A developer trying to make a game about the battle for Fallujah was criticized for their choice of subject matter, they cited the soldiers they were interviewing and who were acting as consultants who said (I paraphrase) “We want to tell our story and this is our medium – how else would we tell it”

Modern Warfare 3 made $775million in 5 days.

First Person Shooters (FPS)  – where you play from a first person perspective often down the barrel of a gun are one of the main gaming genre’s and are trailed like movies. They are increasingly trying to trade on either an uncanny resemblance to what’s happening over there or provide a vicarious experience – depending on how you see it.

Sometimes they try and have a point. Often this is terrible.

There is an uncomfortable synergy between FPS games – or the ‘manshooter’ the excessively macho clichee and politically myopic games of contemporary warfare – and the military. The Army posting recruitment adverts on the front page of computer game magazines or at trade fairs – or the British army creating an advert designed to mimic the point of view (PoV) of some of the most famous gaming franchises.

A recent release that lets you buy real world weapons branded with the game’s logo – a new brand of camo , a new gun stock or a tomahawk.

Trite over-sentimentalism and oversimplification that shows neither the armed forces or the games industry in a particularly good or intelligent light.

But these games are fun (some are fun, some are terrible), they sell big, they are engaging and they have a reach almost equivalent to that of mainstream media and cinema.

These games are texts- artifacts of a conflict and potentially a distanced way for us to participate in these conflicts – most don’t do it well, but also most deserve more in-depth thought than presented here.

But as an artist I am interested in how we can use games as platforms that can create a way to read, understand and document conflict. At the risk of over-simplifying perhaps video games will create the War on Terror’s – Apocalypse Now, or Full Metal Jacket.

There is a further element to this which is where Kevin and my collaboration comes in.

As conflict crosses increasingly over into the realm of the digital the relationship between these systems and our participation in the act of warfare becomes more blurred – our project sits here –

“Flying drones is like playing a computer game”. It’s not but it is an easy way to write off both computer games and a wider conversation about the fact that way we fight – especially where the West’s technological and financial superiority means there are systems and platforms being rolled out on battlefields that are forever changing the way we fight, for their operators, their victims and for the rest of us.

We are making a game, “modding” a pre-existing platform a brilliantly complicated and fiddly military sim called Arma 2. How can we use the platform to let us play out and explore these ethical questions?

Droning On

Droning On

Picture: Charles McCain, Creative Commons

Unmanned vehicles (drones) are rapidly becoming a regular feature of battle spaces, especially in the air. In the last four years the US has massively increased its use of drones in warfare in and around Afghanistan and Yemen. The UK recently announced its decision to double the size of its force from 5 to 10 drones.

The use of drones is attractive to those operating them. When a drone is hit and downed no pilot or navigator is killed. A lost drone is far cheaper than a lost aeroplane, not to mention the loss of expensively-trained pilots and navigators. However, the ethical issues surrounding drones only begin there. Drones are typically operated from a great distance by servicemen and women who get to go home at the end of each day. Given their distance from the combat, are these servicemen and women at risk of treating their work like a computer game? Certainly the screens interfacing with the drones closely resemble computer games, but is this because the interface tries to depersonalise the experience, or because games try to emulate the drone interfaces? Drones also offer greater visibility of battle zones in high definition, bringing home to the operator the effects of a successful strike in far greater detail than has previously been available to those operating missiles or flying aircraft. This could lead to more engagement with their targets rather than less.

At the same time, those targeted by drones suffer disproportionately. With no means to defend themselves or fight back they can feel rendered impotent by the use of drones against them. How will this affect their willingness to accept peace when the drones leave? Furthermore, what does it say of a country that will enter a war but not risk the lives of its soldiers in fighting that war?

These are only a few of the ethical issues that arise around drone warfare, and do not begin to touch on questions of automation nor on the domestic use of drones for law enforcement. Through developing a mod for an online role-playing game, we (Ben Eaton and Kevin Macnish) hope to create a scenario for players to engage with some of these ethical challenges. Whether that be in the design of a drone or its operation we have yet to decide, but there is plenty of potential to develop scenarios using high quality gaming environments that will be engaging and, we hope, challenging.

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