Curtain Falls – Nuclear Fruit, Part Five

In the middle of the 1980s, the end of the
Soviet Union was nigh. Decades of conflict, and a stagnant economy
– A change was needed, and the ‘glasnost’ policies of Mikhail Gorbachev began the process. A move away from state censorship and the
oppression of free speech – and a realisation that technology was starting to make the complete
control of information impossible. The miniaturisation and cost-reduction of
microprocessors paved the way for the rise of the microcomputers in the late 1970s. These cheap 8-bit machines had crude graphics,
and even cruder sound – but it didn’t matter: for the first time, computers were becoming
commonplace in homes. First found in the hands of hobbyists, the
earliest micros were sold in kit form: but later products like the Apple II and Atari
8-bit range broke into mass-market appeal. Many were bought with the intent of settling
home accounts, or working out of the office – but invariably the most compelling feature
was the games. Unlike consoles, microcomputers were programmable:
with the right know-how, you had everything you needed to create your own software from
scratch. An invisible cottage industry emerged: passionate
individuals with a love of games, and the curiosity to master this new hardware. The dawn of the bedroom programmer. Finally, the means of video game production
– in the hands of the people. With the widespread distribution of computers,
surprisingly popular games can spring from unexpected places. The best-known Soviet contribution to the
interactive arts was a game developed by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, whilst working as an Artificial
Intelligence researcher at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre in Moscow. Tetris is a puzzle game based on the arrangement
of falling tiles – tetrominoes comprising various arrangements of four squares. The game requires that you arrange a sequence
of these tiles to form contiguous rows: and upon successful assembly, the lines disappear,
supplementing your score and granting more room to manoeuvre. A surprisingly addictive game emerges from
these simple rules, and its early popularity led to Western publishers clamouring for its
license rights. Tetris was the first entertainment software
to be exported from the USSR to the west – and how it was marketed is an interesting reflection
of the attitude of the time. The original game was quite spartan: a text-only
monochrome display, no music, nothing superfluous to the gameplay. However, in the west the game’s exotic origin
was trumpeted at every turn: festooned with the hammer and sickle; faux cyrillic lettering;
Russian imagery from cosmonauts to the Kremlin; and in the case of the Game Boy version, a
particularly catchy version of a Russian folk song. It’s this handheld version that helped to
establish Tetris’ popularity, with the game included as a longstanding pack-in with the
Game Boy – its simple-yet-addictive gameplay the perfect fit for the shorter gameplay sessions
of handheld play. Even today, Tetris remains a popular title
– and you’d be hard pushed to find a platform that doesn’t have its own version. With near universal availability, the game
from beyond the Iron Curtain defied the odds – and became one of the most important games
in history. ‘From Russia with Fun!’ As millions built with blocks in Tetris, millions
more sought to tear down a divisive wall. The Revolutions of 1989 spread across Communist
Europe, with a weakened Soviet Union ousted in favour of Democracy: the close of the Iron
Curtain; an Autumn of Nations. The USSR was formally dissolved in 1991 – the
event which marks the end of the Cold War. The world had seen massive change over its
duration: the advent of modern computing; man’s first journey to outer space; the mass
adoption of television; and the cultivation of weapons of mass destruction. Not least of all, the birth of a new industry:
The product of a half-century of research, and already an established part of popular
entertainment. Video games had truly come of age. Their formative years had seen them moulded
by the political events of the Cold War, and some of the conventions established then persist
today. Beyond the broad themes – space, nuclear tension,
and the fear of annihilation – forty years of conflict has had some subtler influences. Games are littered with Cold War clichés
– even down to the simplest element. The need for an opponent leads to a distinction
of two or more sides – and even the colours used evoke images of propaganda. Red versus Blue. Both primary colours, and both distinct: Perhaps
it’s just a convention that stuck – but enemies are often red, and most players will instinctively
avoid them without instruction. A convenience for game designers, a trope
repeated without question: the good guys shoot blue lasers, the bad guys shoot red lasers. There are very few groups who make convincing
enemies without causing too much upset – and it seems as though Russians are first pick
from the gallery of evil. Of course, a good bad guy must dress the part
– and so military greatcoats, ushankas and hammer and sickle flags are all standard issue. A thick Russian accent is a must, too – along
with an enduring loyalty to the motherland. The ‘Evil Soviet’ stereotype can turn up anywhere
– and frequently does – but is most at home within the political tension of the late 20th
century. Considering the influence of the Cold War
on video games, it’s perhaps surprising that more games aren’t set within it. Perhaps it’s the lack of conventional action:
most fighting was via proxy wars, such as in Korea and Vietnam: and few such conflicts
had as satisfactory an end as World War 2, nor one particularly flattering to the Americans. When these theaters are depicted, the focus
is normally on special forces rather than regular troops: stories of subterfuge during
secret missions. Such tales are filled with far more intrigue:
delicate operations with high stakes, emphasising the romantic idea that the heroic few can
influence the fates of many. The 90s were a dynamic time for video games:
an emergence, from novel diversion to multi-billion dollar industry. We saw technology evolve, with the first machines
powerful enough to render 3D scenes in realtime: dedicated GPUs; and CD-ROM storage enabling
recorded voice, soundtracks and full motion video. As the scope of production increased, small
groups of hobbyist programmers coalesced into ever larger studios. The industry blossomed in the areas that had
invested most into technology education: America, Japan, Europe – and Russia. It’s no coincidence that the majority of games
are made in the first and second world. The 1990s officially ended with a damp squib
of millennium celebration: we’d have to wait nearly two more years for the true end of
an era. An uninvited awakening that served as a reminder
of a fragile world: 9/11 changed everything. From fear, to fascination – and back again. With two monuments to America toppled, after
the shock subsided, a collective lust for revenge emerged. As one war ended, another began: This time,
a ‘War on Terror’. And if you thought nuclear war was futile,
try fighting an abstract concept. Nevertheless, America found an enemy in Iraq:
Action broadcast live on 24-hour news; The world witness to an invasion, live from the
front lines. A new us versus a new them: and this time
it was personal. Terrorists entered the stable of acceptable
opponents: Ushankas shed for keffiyeh instead. The stage set for a new theatre: Modern Warfare. The fear of a Soviet strike replaced with
something even less predictable: an errant arsenal, in the hands of terrorists with nothing
to lose. A nuke by any other name: weapons of mass
destruction. WMDs cover a broad spectrum of threats: nuclear,
chemical, or biological – united by their capacity to do harm. A small device in a densely-populated area
could be devastating – and a strike could come anywhere, at any time. Of course, the threat of terrorism is incredibly
small – perhaps not worthy of the attention paid to it – but, like the elevated fear of
shark attacks that followed the release of Jaws – humans are not best known for their
rational behaviour. Some fears are more justified than others
– and what could rouse more terror than the possibility of one’s web history being made
public? Governments rely on mass surveillance to curb
potential terror threats, and our lives are becoming increasingly searchable online: Privacy
has become a major political issue. Such themes have become quite common in video
games, as surveillance cameras and hacking lend themselves well to gameplay. Cameras can work both ways, particularly in
stealth games: avoiding their slow-moving cone of vision to avoid detection, or accessing
a security console to gain insight of threats that lie ahead. Hacking is something which is almost never
depicted accurately – and games are no exception, normally using the activity as an excuse to
add a puzzle-based minigame. Still, these mechanics can help diversify
playstyles: an element of strategy in games which may otherwise be dominated by brawn
– and, in some cases – can serve as a social commentary on the potential risks of unwarranted
surveillance. Some technological threats lurk menacingly
on the horizon, yet to come to fruition: The idea of a rogue Artificial Intelligence has
been a long-present facet of fiction: from HAL-9000 to the Terminator, there exists a
wariness of killer machines. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that some
reservations have been expressed about the combat use of autonomous drones loaded with
missiles. For now, these platforms are governed by a
human operator – but even remote-controlled weapons platforms are not free of ethical
dilemma. It’s no doubt safer for the pilots to be removed
from the action – but killing by proxy almost seems unsporting. More troubling is the expansion of such weapon’s
autonomy: should a machine be allowed to make its own assessment of targets? Would it ever
be wise to grant full fire control to an algorithm? Perhaps it’s an unfounded fear based on decades
of science fiction – but AI has no problems beating humans at chess – and war might not
be much different. If knowledge is power, then technology is
its weapon. From longbows at Agincourt, to the machine
guns, tanks and aircraft of the 20th century: technology and war are inseparably intertwined. A chain reaction ignited by our greatest hopes:
and darkest fears. The information age was built on cold war
technology: and culture, like war, has a thirst for communication. The rise of television has kept us fed with
a stream of news: now, major political events resonate louder than ever – with works of
fiction exploring the fear and consequences of real world actions. Video games are not exempt: games which explore
the topic of war are commonplace, and some of the most popular titles in recent years
are a mirror image of recent conflicts. When the computing technology that drives
them has roots in military research – the link might be uncomfortably close for some. To condemn war is not to condemn video games
– for all their violent imagery, they are just a reflection of reality. Games appeal to mankind’s competitive nature: A chance to tell a hero’s tale of valour; or to serve as a warning of humanity’s folly. War might yield a terrible crop: death, destruction,
terror – but even from these bitter roots, something wonderful can emerge. A product of war – but for the purpose of
peace. An unintended harvest – a nuclear fruit. Thank you very much for watching – and until
next time, farewell.