I have created COMSIMSIM as a way to explore the affective, moral, and procedural dimensions of armed combat training simulations as well as military-themed commercial video games. COMSIMSIM (its name inspired by the array of abbreviated military technology project titles such as SIMNET
) is a broken simulation of a simulation in which the player embodies a decontextualized virtual soldier training in a fragmented and distorted virtual environment. As the player moves through the generic desert landscape, they are confronted with a series of moral dilemmas. Choose correctly, and the player is rewarded with a new piece of technology on their heads-up-display. The wrong choice results in a reduction of the player’s Morality, helpfully quantified at the corner of the screen.
However, as the HUD additions pile up, they gradually obscure most of the screen and make reading the dilemmas more difficult. Compounding this are the pieces of text that haunt the player throughout the environment, taken from various academic texts, journalistic articles, and forum posts discussing relevant topics such as military video games, simulations, realism, immersion, morality, children, and more. While player may want to take time to read these texts, touching them damages the player’s Morality. The player’s gun cannot hurt them, but shooting does provide a slight increase in the player’s Morality. Thus, the player is better off running from these texts and making decisions on the fly.
The aim of COMSIMSIM is to reduce combat simulators to their core elements and then exaggerate and distort them. Incidentally, this is the very logic through which combat simulators operate. Since the development of the wide-area combat simulation network SIMNET in the 1980s, simulation designers have eschewed verisimilitude in favor of constructing functional combat environments. Rather than spend their energy attempting to perfectly replicate the physics of guns and vehicles, the designers realized that while things like marksmanship and driving could be taught easily and cheaply enough in real life, simulations offered a way to prepare soldiers for the stresses of actual combat. Training simulations shifted to focus on teaching teamwork, communication, and decision making while under fire. If soldiers could learn to remain calm and calculating in training, it is hoped they will retain this same sense of detachment on the battlefield.
While the decision-making process in these simulations is obviously often quite complex (see CHAOS
, one of the many projects in development at the US military funded Institute for Creative Technologies), with COMSIMSIM I have incorporated it incorporated it in a very crude form. Taking a cue from the recent proliferation of moral dilemmas in commercial video games, the game presents the players with only two options per scenario with no space for nuance in between. Unlike the more modular morality system of games like Fable
, in which different moral alignments result in different yet equivalent content, COMSIMSIM’s moral decisions operates on a model closer to that of the Call of Duty: Black Ops
which rewards “correct" choices with extra content like final cutscenes. This creates what Brandon Perdue (link
) has called a “dominant moral strategy,” which privileges a specific moral stance. In the case of COMSIMSIM, the player receives more HUD graphics and increased Morality by choosing to act with patriotism, loyalty, and a “better safe than sorry” approach to violence. The dilemmas are also written in a voice that favors this alignment and shames the player for making the other choices. The player is then heavily encouraged through both quantitative and qualitative incentives to adopt a specific moral stance.
By asserting this stance, the player receives increasingly obstructive HUD graphics. This gameplay element was directly inspired by a paper by veteran Jose Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War
,” in which he argues that the increasingly advanced visual technologies of in use by military personnel encourage a sense of objective omniscience that discourages doubt and moral reflection. Writes Vasquez, “Night vision enhances soldiers’ ability to see through the darkness while looking past the humans beings right in front of them.” (94) In COMSIMSIM, visual technology literally obscures one’s vision, making it more difficult to read the moral dilemmas one faces. Adding to the urgency are the game’s “enemies,” the various excerpts that float and follow the player throughout the environment. These excerpts were selected from many different texts I encountered while doing research for this game, and I believe together they paint a cohesive, if fragmented, picture of video games and simulations as more complicated than either harmless fun or “murder simulators.” However, although the player might be inclined to read these texts, as they harm the player and are indestructible, perhaps it is easier to just evade them and run ahead to have more time to read and consider the moral dilemmas.
With this combination of moral dilemmas, visual technology, and distracting and harmful texts, I hope to have constructed what Ian Bogost calls a procedural rhetoric, an argument made through gameplay. COMSIMSIM grossly simplifies and hopes to draw attention to both combat simulations' focus on calculated decision making under stress and the paradox of visual technology as outlined by Vasquez. Here, like in many games, success is defined by the accumulation of visual technology and quantified morality. Thus, as Pauline Belford and Michael Heron
write, the morality system of COMSIMSIM becomes "more about locking and unlocking content paths than [it is] about presenting the player with complex, nuanced scenarios to contemplate.” Contemplation, both of one’s own choices and of more critical approaches to military games and simulations, is potentially dangerous and discouraged by the procedure of gameplay.
Gamers and developers often characterize gamespaces as morally discontinuous environments that provide a safe space for harmless play with otherwise unacceptable and often violent practices. However, the rhetorics of “realism” and “immersion” surrounding most military video game titles in many ways bely this assertion, and thus these games' procedures can be seen as making claims about how wars are fought and whose war narratives are relevant and appropriate. Generally, United States military personnel are the “good guys,” and their orders must be followed. Thus, morality systems in these games hide the choices unavailable to the player and probably completely taken for granted. Obviously, moral choices like desertion and betrayal are unthinkable in a game about US military domination. By technically giving the player these other options yet denying their value through the procedure of gameplay, COMSIMSIM’s crude, extremely one-sided morality system highlights the moral choices most military have made for the player before they are even developed.
I made COMSIMSIM using the Unity engine
Nonetheless, despite my limited abilities, developing COMSIMSIM has left me with an experiential understanding of how to construct an argument not with narrative but with procedure. As a result, I have become much more attentive to how games, as well as other interactive media, force the player into certain practices and habits, generally in order to aggregate a prized quantity. Moreover, I began to consider how the Unity engine contains its own procedural rhetoric (which I certainly do not yet understand) and how making games as well as playing them encourages a modular mode of thinking and interacting with the world.