Nuclear Fruit: How the Cold War Shaped Video Games

Nuclear Fruit: How the Cold War Shaped Video Games


They say knowledge is power – and this is
seldom more true than in war. To know your enemy’s plans and deny them the
same privilege is to stack odds in your favour. Military cryptography has a history as long
as any signal corps: from the simple ciphers used by the ancients – to more complex electromechanical
devices of the 20th century. One such machine was the German Enigma. It resembles an overengineered typewriter,
but the encryption it provided for the Nazis proved tough to break. Plaintext is passed through a scrambled pathway:
a series of rotors set to a secret configuration each day. Orders, locations or mission details could
all be safely transmitted over radio, with no fear of interception. Without knowing the machine’s state, translating
a coded message back into a readable form would have been almost impossible. Almost. Its complexity was such that mere manpower
could not solve it within any reasonable time: to crack the code would require a mechanical
mind instead. The first successes in cracking Enigma belong
to the Polish Cypher Bureau – but much of the wartime glory is attributed to one man: The brilliant mind of Alan Turing. Known for his pioneering work in the emerging
field of computer science, he found himself at Britain’s codebreaking centre at Bletchley
Park. It was here that he and his team achieved
the impossible – a machine was made that could unravel the German ciphers, leaving their
private plans laid bare. No doubt, the effort spent breaking Enigma
saved lives and shortened the war. A secret success that shaped the Allied victory. The world would never be quite the same after
1945: nuclear punctuation marked the start of the modern age. The computer’s role in war had only just begun. Many of us have grown up with video games: but video games grew up during the cold war. This is a story about how the modern age took
shape – and how new technology and political tension gave rise to the games we play today. From mechanical minds, to the pursuit of other
worlds; huge nuclear arsenals and their alarming potential: Video games and war have more in common than
you think. The aftermath of World War II saw Europe in
ruins, and two new superpowers emerged in the stead of the old: the Soviet Union, and
the United States. Former allies left standing in a divided world:
rife with paranoia and espionage; An inevitable struggle for power had just
begun. Having proven their wartime worth, computers
found their way into an academic setting: governments were keen to invest in technology,
lest they be left behind. Turing’s work on Enigma was shrouded in secrecy,
and so he quietly resumed his role in computing research. With no codes left to break, he instead sought
an answer to a question that has dogged the mind of philosophers and engineers alike: Can machines think? Turing’s approach to artificial intelligence
was a pragmatic one: a convincing opponent need not think like a human, only behave like
one. He devised a method to evaluate AI ability:
a blind test in which a neutral party poses questions to both a computer and human participant,
in an attempt to discern which is which. He called it an Imitation Game: but we know
it better as the Turing test. The game a veil between machine and mind. The Mechanical Turk was a marvel of a machine
built by Hungarian engineer Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. A formidable opponent, this metal man best
flesh with a clockwork efficiency. It was all a fake, of course – but the idea
of an automaton opponent – a thinking machine – was fascinating. Artificial intelligence is a natural application
for a game like chess, albeit a very challenging one. Simulating a chess board is easy – 64 squares,
32 pieces, 16 for each each of the 2 players. Implementing the rules is a little trickier
– but still feasible on early machines. Grids and rules are concrete. Logical. A natural
fit for a computer’s memory. More difficult is a simulation of not just
the game board – but an opponent. The game grows in complexity as it is played:
Decisions. Strategy. Hundreds of possible moves compound into trillions in just a few
turns. The first chess-playing programs appeared
in an academic setting: Alan Turing wrote one during his time at The University of Manchester. Dubbed ‘TurboChamp’, it started life as an
algorithm without a computer: a theoretical implementation only, but a working one nonetheless. In 1951, Christopher Strachey developed a
program to play the simpler game of draughts, and Dietrich Prinz implemented a practical
chess algorithm that could solve mate-in-two problems. Computers of this era were slow, taking minutes
or hours to deliberate all available permutations – but these early programs sowed the seed
for later AI routines, including those that found their way into video games. Hunt The Wumpus was originally written in
the BASIC programming language in 1972, and was later adapted for a number of other platforms. The premise is straightforward: you are in
a labyrinth comprising multiple chambers, one of which is occupied by a monster. As the title of the game implies, you must
navigate the maze, avoiding hazards such as bottomless pits and bats – and hunt the Wumpus. The catch is that you must do it by smell
alone – if you stumble into the monster, it’s game over. Instead, you must fire your arrows blindly
into an adjacent chamber: if you strike the beast, you win – but if you don’t, the Wumpus
will move. A very simple program, but from its few lines
of code emerge a virtual adversary: governed by simple rules yet affording an interesting
challenge to the player. 1980’s Pac-Man was a hugely popular arcade
title: and much of its appeal stems from its character. The yellow circle-section was the star, but
the 4 ghosts who chase him were each given names – and a different behaviour. All operate under 3 different modes: chase,
scatter and frightened, the latter limited to a brief duration after a power pill is
collected. Scatter mode sends each of the ghosts to a
separate corner, and occurs at preset times during a level. By default, the ghosts will chase Pac-Man:
and it’s this mode where the individual AI routines start to make the game interesting. The red ghost, also known as ‘Blinky’, is
the most aggressive – making a bee-line directly for Pac-Man’s position, and speeding up as
dots are consumed. ‘Pinky’ attempts to ambush the player, targeting
the position 4 squares ahead of Pac-Man’s direction of travel. Light-blue ghost ‘Inky’ has the most complex
targeting, seeking the tile opposite the red ghost’s position relative to Pac-Man – effectively
a pincer manoeuvre designed to trap the player. Finally, the orange ghost ‘Clyde’ will target
Pac-Man directly – until he gets too close, in which case he’ll retreat to his maze corner
instead. These four independent AIs give each of the
ghosts their own behaviour: and by extension, their own personality. Today, computer opponents are a little more
developed – far from perfect, but still capable of some surprisingly human manoeuvres. They perform best in games with a rigid ruleset,
with discrete turns: scaling from the simplest, such as the perfectly solved Tic-tac-toe;
to the greater scope of Grand Strategy games. A computer opponent can prove formidable to
play against, but a human player can exploit an AI player’s predictability to their own
advantage. Some games feature more adaptive intelligence:
shaping their own algorithms based on previous input – allowing for growth over time, and
the potential to overcome previously failed objectives. However, such techniques are difficult to
implement, and come with potentially unwanted side effects: there’s nothing worse than a
neurotic machine. Similarly challenging is parsing natural language:
computers struggle to understand English, much less compose a cogent response. This is fatally apparent in early text adventures:
only a sanctioned list of keywords are permitted, and attempting to interact with characters
in any way outside these bounds is often met with disappointment. Real-time decision making is an essential
part of first-person shooters – with reactive enemies more satisfying to kill than static
targets. Smaller touches, like when the monsters fight
each other in Doom, can be quite effective – a reaction to unexpected circumstances,
and a break from relentlessly targeting the player. The radio chatter of the enemy soldiers in
Half-Life gives an insight into their mind: and while such a stream of conciousness isn’t
entirely realistic, it’s nonetheless satisfying to hear their panic when you toss a grenade
in their direction. Like Pac-Man’s ghosts, diversity in the enemies
you face can make for more interesting battles: the varied makeup of the Covenant in Halo
helps communicate expected behavior. The smaller grunts are tough in larger groups
when led by an Elite: but decapitate their command and they’ll disperse, rendering them
less effective. Even the stalwart elites can be broken: get
too close and they might reposition – a contrast to the relentless assault more mindless enemies
might offer. AI remains an emerging field, and there are
many challenges left to overcome – but within the context of games, the ability to provide
a simple opponent is very valuable. The best AI is invisible: the illusion of
intelligence only breaks down when an opponent does something stupid. Without it, single player games would be a
hollow experience: No challenge, no surprise – no real opposition. Silicon versus flesh, man versus machine. In 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue – a supercomputer
– was able to best chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. This was the first time a world champion was
defeated by a computer, under regular time restraint – and it wouldn’t be the last. Upon its victory, Deep Blue ranked amongst
the fastest machines on the planet: But today, you can find a similar amount of
number-crunching power in your pocket. With the right application, artificial intelligence
is smart – And it’s only going to get smarter. The impact of the work Turing did cannot be
understated. He defined the very essence of computing; Considered how they might think, And proved their military worth. His death a tragedy. His treatment, an embarrassment. As one war ended another began. A power vacuum fuelled by paranoia; Two nations
found themselves perpendicular: American individualism versus Soviet collectivism. Blue versus Red. Us versus Them. Post-war America was peaceful. A strong economy, festooned in more modern
conveniences than ever before – an endless summer captured in Kodachrome beauty. Space travel was the reserve of sci-fi: idle
dreams of distant worlds. Project Vanguard was the closest America had
to a space program: tasked with getting a satellite in orbit. Its schedule was relatively unhurried – until
a rude awakening. The starting pistol of the space age had a
strange report: commencing not with a bang, but with a beep. In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched
Sputnik 1 into orbit: the very first artificial satellite. It wasn’t much to look at: a silver sphere
with four trailing antennae, a little over half a metre in diameter – but was it was
the first man-made object to pierce the sky. If anyone had any doubts about Soviet capability,
the evidence was overhead. Its radio transmitter emitted a steady beep
as it orbited the earth, a simple message broadcast to all: The Space Race had begun. The ‘Sputnik Crisis’ triggered a massive technology
investment within America, ordained by President Eisenhower. Science budgets bloomed and new initiatives
were born – such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, who would later
be responsible for the precursor to the internet. The same year, space agency NASA was founded
with one simple mission: to wrest space superiority from the Soviets. The red’s momentum carried them to a number
of space firsts: Laika in 1957, the first dog in orbit; Luna 2 in 1959, the first spacecraft to reach
the moon; and 1961: Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. A final goal line was drawn: one that would
prove the culmination of the space age, proposed in JFK’s 1962 speech: “We choose to go to the Moon” American progress kicked into a high gear.
Billions of dollars poured into education, and no expense spared on technology. Computers were now an essential part of academia,
and a new generation of programmers could get to grips with these machines. Many early games spawned in an academic setting:
a fertile mix of bright mind and accessible hardware. Spacewar! was a product of this ‘hacker culture’
at MIT in 1962. A two player game played on the circular CRT
display of a DEC PDP-1 – a minicomputer which cost the equivalent of nearly one million
dollars today. Its gameplay was simple: two ships, “the needle”
and “the wedge”, embroiled in a space dogfight. A star in the centre of the display complicates
things, with its gravitational pull altering the trajectory of anything passing nearby. Avoid crashing into the star, projectiles,
or your opponent – and land a successful shot to win. Spacewar! was an on-campus hit, proving popular
with those able to play it – but the high cost of the hardware prohibited any commercial
exploitation. Nevertheless, the game was particularly influential
– a prototype for future arcade games. Meanwhile, time was ticking. The Apollo project’s first launch was in 1966,
testing the Saturn rocket needed for a lunar mission. 1968, Apollo 7. The first manned test of the
platform. Apollo 8. The first manned flight to the moon. Every mission a step closer to the goal – every
delay an invitation for the Soviets to slip ahead. July, 1969. Apollo 11. After years of planning,
it was time to shoot for the moon. One small step for man. One giant leap for
mankind. In 1950, 9 percent of American homes had a
television. By 1962, it was 90 percent – a rapid transformation
from rare luxury to true mass media. An estimated half a billion people worldwide
witnessed the moon landings live – 14 percent of the world’s population at the time. Space was firmly lodged in the public consciousness. It was around this time that the very first
coin-operated arcade machines began to appear: a chance to take video games outside of their
academic setting, and rake in a few coins in the process. The first was a game from Stanford University
named Galaxy Game: a clone of the earlier Spacewar! running on a PDP-11/20 minicomputer. It was popular, but with only one machine
its impact was limited – a mass produced game was needed. Computer Space was the first: yet another
version of Spacewar! brought to market by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Some 1500 units were sold, although Computer
Space proved too complex to be real commercial success: while the general public might have
been fascinated with new technology, few had any experience with video games. Bushnell and Dabney’s next game in 1972 would
fare much better – as would their company, Atari. Pong is a definitive video game – the first
to really break into public view, and proof that there was a market for this new form
of entertainment. It wasn’t space-themed, but it was definitely
space-age – and by emulating a familiar sport Pong was far more accessible than any other
video game that came before. Its instructions were distilled into three
simple lines: Deposit Quarter. Ball will serve automatically. Avoid missing ball for high score. Around 35,000 arcade units were sold, with
countless more clones – and home console versions designed for domestic televisions sold by
the hundreds of thousands. Atari became a household name – and video
games a permanent cultural artefact. As arcades started to flourish, this space
age sentiment was perfectly encapsulated on film by the 1977 release of Star Wars. A translation of the recent space mania into
a fictional realm, and a runaway success that shaped pop culture for years to come. This renewed interest in sci-fi sparked a
golden age of the arcade: with more advanced hardware offering a wider variety of games. Space or sci-fi themed cabinets were incredibly
popular early on: with games like 1978’s Space Invaders an alternative amongst dwindling
interest in pong clones. Space shoot-em-ups were the next big thing:
the empty background of space perfect for the spartan graphics of the age, and with
high-score led single player gameplay. Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Galaxian, Defender. These games defined the golden age of the
arcades: a heady space-age mix of an Apollo afterglow and Star Wars fantasy. Space will forever remain a part of gaming’s
roots. Exploration is a major theme of space games:
a satisfaction of the desire to travel to worlds beyond our own, and a bridge to span the seemingly insurmountable
gap between the stars. Elite from 1984 is the perfect example of
the sort of freedom such a game can offer. It kickstarted the space trader genre – just
you, your ship and a cargo bay full of interstellar profit. A chance to retell tales of pirates on a new
frontier: and a surprisingly comfortable seat at the helm of your craft. Some titles seek to inspire the same sense
of drama and danger of the real space race. Games like Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space serve
as an educational means to convey the difficulties of a lunar landing. Even the light-hearted challenge of running
your own Kerbal Space Program is fraught with danger: The cold vacuum of the cosmos is an unforgiving
place. Simply reaching outer space is one challenge
– to forge a world anew is another entirely. The colonisation of space is a common sci-fi
extension of strategy games: what better place to explore, expand, exploit – and exterminate. A chance to fix the faults of the old world
– but all the violent baggage that mankind insists on carrying leads to an inevitable
descent into space war. A longing for an investment lost. A chance to imagine humanity free from its
cradle, free from petty dispute – but fraught with challenge anew. Even after all these years, there’s something
magical about space. A certain hope. An aspiration for the future.
A trancendental leap to a new era for mankind. We might have been born to early to explore
the universe – but we can still dream. The pursuit of space is a noble goal: it grants
new technology, a greater understanding of our universe – and a chance the extend our
reach to the stars. However, a more insidious side of humanity
lurks in the shadows of progress. The embodiment of war; and a currency of peace. Nuclear weapons unlock the explosive power
of the atom: pound-for-pound, a potential a million times greater than TNT. A destructive force that can strike terror
into even the most powerful nation. A secret struggle for superiority which would
define the decades ahead. The first nuclear weapons were designed to
be delivered by aircraft: by dropping the payload directly on the target. A B-29 Superfortress named ‘Enola Gay’ embarked
on an historical mission – the first atomic bomb used in war: 1945, Hiroshima. It’s hard to keep something so loud a secret,
and so America’s time as sole nuclear power was short: the Soviets tested their ‘First
Lightning’ in 1949. In the standoff that followed, strategic bombers
were the agent of destruction: massive, long range craft like the Tupolev Tu-95 and B-52
Stratofortress bearing the fate of the world on their frame. Aircraft were the most visible aspect of the
tensions between two nations – and the missions flown the closest approach to conventional
war. It wasn’t just bombers – Cold War skies saw
a menagerie of exotic birds, in tentative sorties of all kinds: from spy planes like
the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird – to scrambled air superiority fighters. Flight simulators have long been used to train
pilots, with scale simulacra far less expensive than risking a real plane. Amateur flight simulations made an appearance
shortly after the rise of the 8-bit home machines, with aeronautical enthusiasts seeking to emulate
the thrill of aerial combat. They vary in realism, with some titles taking
authenticity very seriously – and others seeking simpler, action-centric gameplay. The Soviet MiG-31 caused quite a stir in the
west in the late 70s, with claims of a new super fighter faster than anything else and
capable of intercepting cruise missiles. This panic was reflected in 1982 film Firefox,
along with its tie-in game on LaserDisc. Even more popular was 1986’s Top Gun, with
dogfighting MiGs a backdrop to fighter pilot drama. It too spawned a number of video games to
cash in on its name – and it likely influenced Sega’s After Burner, released in 1987. Not a particularly realistic simulator, but
the impressive scaling graphics, imposing cabinet and non-stop action made for a memorable
arcade experience. The most pressing threat of the cold war wasn’t
delivered by aeroplane, however: but instead a self-propelled means, able to target anywhere
on the globe – and nearly impossible to intercept. Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. A sinister side effect of developing rockets
able to travel to space, it was the Soviets who devised the first in 1957: the R-7 Semyorka. This was the same platform that launched Sputnik,
but rather than reaching for the stars, its nuclear payload was aimed squarely at American
shores. Naturally this caused a bit of a stir, and
the US quickly developed a similar platform in response: the SM-65 Atlas. Total annihilation anywhere on earth, delivered
in 30 minutes or less. While the space race stole the limelight,
the real struggle was behind the scenes: a failure to keep pace with the Soviet’s nuclear
arsenal might be to cede superpower status. Ballistic calculations have been a necessity
since the earliest days of artillery. The sooner you can calculate a projectile’s
trajectory – and thus its point of impact – the more likely you are to strike your target. Precalculated tables were the go-to means
in the early 20th century, but as computer technology took off their ability to rapidly
crunch numbers meant that they soon played an instrumental role. Nuclear missiles are no exception, and the
machines used in the 1950s to calculate their path were typically analogue computers, reliant
on variable voltage instead of discrete digital bits. These machines could simulate basic physical
scenarios – and this ability gave yield to a very early video game example: Tennis For
Two. Like an early version of Pong, the game is
a two-player rendition of tennis: with the ball shuttling back and forth between the
players. One of the first games ever to use a graphical
display, it was created as an attraction for visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Technology designed to deliver destruction
instead co-opted for peaceful play: swords to ploughshares, doom to delight. The threat of missiles raining from the sky
was present for most of the Cold War: and as nuclear arsenals swelled rapidly throughout
the 1960s, their use seemed inevitable. Atari’s Missile Command perfectly encapsulates
this fear: with an endless onslaught of missiles headed towards an unwitting population. You are tasked with their destruction, by
means of interception with counter-missiles – careful placement required to make sure
all threats are blocked. Should a missile slip through your defences,
one of the six cities at the bottom of the screen might be hit – and permanently destroyed. Missile Command is unusual in its defensive
approach, rather than the conventional shoot-em-up formula: while the mechanics are parallel,
shooting becomes more about saving yourself than destroying an opponent. This is mirrored in real life with the Strategic
Defense Initiative, or ‘SDI’ program, sometimes known as ‘Star Wars’. It was an attempt to build a defensive shield
against the soviet missile threat – a means to defuse Mutually Assured Destruction, and
to tilt the scales in favour of the west. The technology required was a tall order,
and an impermeable shield would have required decades of research – by which time newer
missiles capable of bypassing it might have left the project moot. Like in Missile Command, it was a futile effort
– the missiles keep coming, in ever greater numbers, until all your cities are destroyed
and there’s naught left to save. Such is the nature of nuclear war. Tensions reached a crisis point in 1962, when
the Soviets brokered a deal with Cuba to host their nuclear missiles. This placed them a mere 90 miles from Florida,
and granted a distinct advantage in first-strike capability. The Cuban Missile Crisis saw the world on
a knife edge – and is probably the moment closest to midnight: the world on the brink
of its doom, with all-out nuclear war a button-press away. Thankfully, it was resolved via diplomacy:
the Soviets withdrew their missiles in exchange for the dismantlement of American missiles
in Turkey, and an agreement to stay out of Cuba. For all the potential of the atom, it proves
impotent through stalemate. This futility is a common trait in the depiction
of atomic weapons: providing instant obliteration at your fingertips, but inviting your opponent
to deliver the same fate unto you. Such terrible weapons shape the balance of
power – an opponent without an equal ability to respond forced to capitulate, leaving an
oligarchy of nuclear states left to battle for superpower status. With the prospect of a surprise decapitation
– a strike rendering a nation unable to respond – the concept of ‘second strike’ capability
has the potential to upset the balance. A secret fleet of submarines, each capable
of launching multiple nuclear missiles – and each instructed to retaliate should the enemy
take action. Perhaps you could eliminate every last missile
silo – but can you be sure of destroying every single submarine? Retaining the ability to strike in retaliation
serves as a very potent deterrent – and renders any first-strike strategy almost untenable. Almost. Mutually Assured Destruction is an odd sort
of equilibrium. Who would dare launch the first missile? Who
would dare disarm? The only viable option is to match your opponent
– to do otherwise might invite the apocalypse. As technology evolves, so too will the balance
of power: with neither side seeking destruction, nor prepared to back down. The power of nuclear weapons all but denies
their use, but mandates an atomic quiver ready for immediate despatch. A power so compelling even Ghandi himself
might not resist. There’s an art to this political game of chicken:
the deft balance needed to stay close to the edge without falling in: they call it brinksmanship. It takes nerves of steel, but you can exploit
your enemy’s fear to gain political concessions: treaties, disarmament, or currying public
favour. However, even the strongest leadership is
subject to chance: and the most terrifying thing about nuclear war might not be a deliberate
act. What if someone made a mistake? In 1983, the Soviet early warning system detected
the launch of an American ICBM – retaliation was poised for immediate despatch. It was a false alarm, a malfunction – but
only the judgement of a single man prevented the counterattack. The event wasn’t made public until the 1990s
– but the potential for a nuclear false alarm was the subject of 1983 film WarGames. It was a fusion of cold war fear and the rising
popularity of video games: a young Matthew Broderick hacks into a military computer and
unwittingly starts a training exercise in the belief that it was just a game. Truly, we live in a fragile world – with Armageddon
hanging by a thread, and where a single mistake invites destruction. The fate of the world subject to a slip of
a button: How about a nice game of chess? An unwinnable war, a futile pursuit – the
only winning move not to play. The ultimate weapon at mankind’s disposal
– and the first of our creations that might prove our undoing. Nuclear weapons might be a currency of peace
– but what a terrible price. For all the fear nuclear weapons instil – we
know little of their actual effect. Testing can reveal explosive yield, and the
dispersion of radioactive isotopes: but the impact of nuclear war on society remains largely
unknown. ‘Duck and Cover’ was the best advice on offer
to civilians during the 1950s – there’s not much else to be done in the face of a surprise
attack. Safe to say the aftermath wouldn’t be pretty:
scorched flesh and demolished homes; but what about those who survive? Could society rebuild? And if so, what would
life be like after the apocalypse? The first step towards survival is a well-stocked
fallout shelter: an insurance policy for the American Dream. A sturdy refuge underground will bear the
brunt of an explosion, and also provide a place to live until it’s safe to emerge. Fallout is perhaps the best-loved series of
games set in the post-apocalypse, and their underground vaults underpin the story. The smiling face of Vault Boy sells Vault-Tec’s
altruistic goal: to save humanity in the case of nuclear war. However, their true purpose is altogether
more sinister: the vaults serve as an experiment on their human subjects, unbound by ethics
and with scant regard for safety. Nevertheless, life in the vault is as comfortable
as it gets for many – but the warm confinement of the womb is no place to stay. A rebirth is inevitable: an emergence; a dream,
shattered – a world, transformed. The death toll, if it were able to be measured,
would rank in the millions: beyond the realm of tragedy, instead a grim statistic. In nuclear strategy, a million deaths are
rolled into a rather sinister concept – ‘Megadeath’. A post-war vision of tactics not designed
to avert destruction, only to mitigate it. Earth left scorched by scores of artificial
suns, robbed of its warmth by a gyre of radioactive ash. The onset of a nuclear winter: a world left
cold – dead. This resultant wasteland is the stage for
the post-apocalypse. Few could survive: between searing light,
toxic pollution and the resultant chaos – life on earth would be all but annihilated. Mass extinction, the destruction of agriculture
– the collapse of ecosystems and the entire planet left barren. Upon emerging in such a world, the living
might envy the dead. It’s no surprise that nuclear weapons are
so feared – the destruction they could wreak is the stuff of nightmares. However, the secondary radioactive consequences
are more insidious: capable of invisibly destroying life from the inside-out. Nuclear material is dispersed by atomic detonation
into the upper atmosphere, where the fine particles can be carried for thousands of
miles by atmospheric currents before falling to earth. Nuclear fallout can contaminate entire continents
with poisonous isotopes, and exposure can lead to radiation sickness, cancer – and death
. The power of the atom has some lingering side-effects
– not to mention terrible PR. Nuclear power was once the herald of a new
Atomic age – but between bombs and fallout, it was never going to have it easy in the
public eye. Accidents such as the Chernobyl disaster in
1986 were the final control rod in the sarcophagus, with a catastrophic meltdown irradiating millions,
resulting in countless cancer cases and directly costing the lives of at least 31 during the
clean-up operation. It is the single most severe accident in the
history of atomic power, soured the public perception of the entire nuclear industry
for generations to come – and rendered a parcel of land with a radius of 30 kilometres unusable
for the next 20,000 years. Notably, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is set
in the zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant: a territory torn by radioactive
emission and strange anomalies. This setting builds the game’s atmosphere:
unrelentingly hostile, bleak, fractured: devoid of comfort, save for a few trading boltholes,
and nomadic bands of stalkers drinking vodka round a camp-fire. Its story drives you closer to the heart of
the zone, where the threat level multiplies exponentially – bands of soldiers, grotesque
mutants, and some truly terrifying hazards that can’t be seen with the naked eye. The depiction of an invisible radioactive
threat can be quite difficult: its effects are not immediate, and its appearance not
distinctive. Dangerous material is sometimes marked with
bright colour and an ominous shine – green like a radium glow, the bright hues of yellowcake,
or an otherworldly blue seen in Cherenkov radiation. Other times it’s a more subtle, unsettling
effect – static-like noise, a clinging fog, or blurred vision. Audio cues are less variable, and somewhat
more realistic: the soft clicking of a geiger counter marking discrete ionisation, with
the pace picking up the closer you get to a radioactive source. However it’s indicated, the gameplay mechanics
behind radiation mirror that of real life: bad things will happen if you suffer too much
exposure, so it’s generally wise to move on as quickly as possible. Such is the nature of a nuclear wasteland:
a hazardous place pock-marked with poisonous scars. And yet – the environment represents
only a fraction of the danger. For the denizens of the wasteland, survival
means scavenging: picking clean civilisation’s corpse. A new frontier: a desperate world with scant
relief, fertile only for humanity’s worst traits. From this crucible emerges a polarised morality:
those seeking to rebuild versus chaotic agents of destruction. This dichotomy is the plot basis of Steven
King’s ‘The Stand’, but an exploration of righteousness and virtue is a common theme
in post-apocalyptic fiction. A mirror for the biblical idea of the end
times: the last judgement – the world on the brink between salvation and damnation – culminating
in a final battle of good versus evil. Life in the wasteland is tough; homesteads
there are normally ramshackle, rough-hewn abodes cast together from salvaged materials. Clustered settlements form around natural
resources, or easily defensible positions – built in a fashion aping former civilisation:
with shops, clinics, bars. A cruel pastiche of the old world, built on
its bones. Still, there remains a will to rebuild society
– and the desire to restore some aspect of civilisation is often the driving force behind
a story. Water, electricity, food, weapons – all such
commodities command a high price: but come with commensurate risk. As a new society emerges, so too does the
need to defend it – assemble a shining city, and jealous eyes will look on from the wilderness. Man’s tribal nature is not so easily tamed. As new settlements are built and groups coalesce,
factions unite under banners and ideals. Some seek the glory of the old world; others
wish to forge a new empire; some simply revel in chaos. With the veneer of civilisation stripped away,
there is a regression to a more primal state: but this new dawn is destined for an all-too
familiar sunset. So it goes. Wandering a world in ruin is a deadly pursuit:
A lonesome road, a journey. Mad Max is what happens when a road movie
meets the end of the world: A ribbon of asphalt torn through a desolate land. Its traversal mirrors the hardships faced
in the story, the distance travelled a reflection of a changed protagonist. The perfect avenue for a post-apocalytic tale
– the wasteland is an anvil for heroes to be forged. For a subject so dark, apocalyptic fiction
seems surprisingly popular. What’s the appeal in the end times? Is there
a dark desire in us to see our own destruction? An end to all our problems – or perhaps just
a wish for a new beginning. Any game that explores Armageddon has to take
a few liberties with reality, but gently bending world events to fit fiction can paint a more
believable back-story. Like slipping into another dimension, an alternate
history can help explain a terrifying outcomes. ‘What if the Nazis developed nuclear weapons
first?’ ‘What if North Korea invaded America?’ Exploring these questions results in a radically
different world – but one familiar, real: but for the grace of fate. Not every apocalypse is brought about by nuclear
weapons: but when faced with a destroyed world, the details rarely matter. Sometimes it’s a bacteria, a virus or voodoo
curse – zombies are a common theme which lead to similar circumstances: the collapse of
society, and a resultant struggle for survival. Invariably set amidst urban decay: ruined
buildings ransacked for supplies, tribal bands of survivors wary of outsiders – and the sustained
gnawing of a shambling threat. The walking dead are the destruction of humanity
made manifest, a reminder of a selfish hunger in the hearts of all men. Similar themes of world destruction turn up
in science fiction, normally where a thinly-veiled super weapon serves as an analogue to the
atom bomb. In Gears of War, we see the ruins of a human
colony, torn asunder by orbital weapons: cities of ash that while familiar, belong to another
solar system. The massive scale of space can magnify consequence:
nukes threaten destruction on a planetary scale, but the reapers from Mass Effect have
galactic consequences. Old mistakes in a new world: a look to the
future can cast a new light on the past. The end of the world makes for a great story. True, there are few happy endings – but when
you start in the midst of hell, what hope could there be? Even when faced with the greatest testament
to our sins: Man’s nature will never yield. Destroy the world – and we’ll rebuild just to do it again. It’s kind of funny when you think about it: Gallows humour – with all our necks on the line. 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.