Killing with a Personal Touch


When it comes to video games, creating enemy artificial intelligence for a stealth-action game tends to be much harder than creating the AI for a plain shooter. One reason is a more complex sensory system. Another is the sheer amount of time that you spend in their presence.

In a shooter, the AI is unlikely to spend more than a few seconds alive after they appear on screen. Even when they do, it’s in the context of bullets, rockets, and grenades flying everywhere. There’s a limited emotional and intellectual range required for those circumstances.

In a stealth game, the player is likely to spend several minutes in the presence of the AI, silently observing them. This gives the enemy plenty of opportunities to be unbelievably stupid. In stealth games, the player watches the enemy move around, talk to their friends, get nervous, and investigate sounds. The extra exposure makes it easier for the AI to fall into the uncanny valley because the player has time to get to know them. The more you are watched, the more we can tell if you are human.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: MATEUS_27:24&25

In 1939 Russia invaded Finland. Over 100 days of fighting, sharpshooter Simo Häyhä killed 505 Russian soldiers with his bold-action rifle (he’s credited with 705 kills in total). The feat earned him the nickname “White Death” and a spot on Cracked.com’s prestigious list of Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy.

The crew of the Enola Gay killed 66,000 people in Hiroshima.

Here’s Vanity Fair on relations between snipers and other soldiers in World War I.

…soldiers were willing to advance suicidally against machine-gun fire, but harbored a special dread of snipers’ single shots. To dread in war is to despise. In a conflict where hatred had faded between the combatants, and most killing was impersonal and mechanized, snipers who were captured were invariably bayoneted, shot, or hanged. Summary execution was the norm during World War II as well.

…Truth is, the Allied snipers themselves — though sometimes sought after — were widely shunned by their fellow soldiers on the front lines. The snipers were indeed spooky, the way they stalked their victims, studied them through scopes, and then mercilessly took their lives. They were not wanton killers, as was often believed. But their single shots were handcrafted kills in an era of mass-produced slaughter.

William Langewiesche The Distant Executioner

After World War II, military theorists dreamed of a “push button” solution to war. With improvements in guidance systems and other feedback mechanisms, the goal was to move away from dumb explosives strapped to rockets, or high risk manned bombing runs that were either inaccurate or fatal. Here’s Time’s breathless coverage in 1947.

With enough accuracy, atomic warheads would not be necessary for all purposes. A fair charge of ordinary explosive is enough to destroy, for instance, an aerial target, e.g., an enemy bomber. When launching methods are perfected, the missiles may take off in flocks, rising like falcons from the deck of a giant submarine which has crept toward an enemy coast.

From Time Magazine Science: Push-Button War 1947

For me, “push button war” is permanently entwined with NATO’s 1999 campaign in Kosovo. It was always a pejorative, aimed by critics on the left and the right. The charge was that the U.S. military had become too risk-averse, too antiseptic, not manly enough. The feeling seems to be that if you don’t put people on the line, if you don’t have any skin in the game, then your military actions lack a moral centre. There’s a sense of a lack of fair play.

What we saw in the decision to bomb Yugoslavia was the result of combining US activism (often related to crusading moralism), a rationalist mindset, and the silicon chip. Add to this an extreme wariness of the prospect of US casualties being given the CNN treatment, a President who wants his war (like his sex) without the mess, and we arrived at a policy that rested on hope and ‘smart’ weapons.

Andy Butfoy Kosovo and Western Strategic Hubris

The NATO bombing campaign was a symbol for the desensitization of technological elites. They become greek gods high in their flying fortresses, raining death from above, causing havoc in mortals’s lives without controlling or directing events on the ground to any degree of success. Like greek gods they are capricious – willing to destroy the lives of others to handle their domestic troubles. The unfortunate tendency to hit the wrong targets didn’t help.

In the years between 1947 and 1999 another cultural force had grown to give “push button” a distinctly unsettling edge. As video games became more realistic and violent, commentators worried that they were desensitizing players to killing. Recall that 1999 was also the year of the Columbine Massacre, a tragedy that was linked over and over again to violent games and movies. An abortive attempt was even made to sue video game makers for their supposed role the attack.

The fear is that as video games become more real, more like murder simulators and wars become more like video games, that we will further lose our moral compass when it comes to conflict. The enemy becomes anonymous, faceless, interchangeable, and easy to kill remorselessly. Our side becomes main characters. Each death is significant.

Depictions of events like the Black Hawk Down blunder don’t help. In the movie, we are invited to sympathize with the 7 U.S. soldiers who lose their lives and the rest who make it home. It is only as the credits roll that the toll on the other side gets mentioned. 300-1,500 Somalis killed to 7 U.S. soldiers. Those are arcade death ratios! The incident was turned into a game in 2003. Reviews were mixed.

It features some attractive visuals and a few particularly dramatic scenes. Still, Black Hawk Down is a deeply flawed shooter that has a moment of disappointment or frustration for every moment of fun.

Greg Kasavin Delta Force: Black Hawk Down Review on Gamespot

That video games are being used to train soldiers doesn’t do much to ease one’s fears. The military happily blurs the line between entertainment, training, and recruitment. Their America’s Army project is a free online shooter which features a mix of realistic training, lovingly recreated authentic weapons and, you know, respawning soldiers.

My favourite part of the increasingly cognitively dissonant gameplay is how the game handles being a multiplayer-only product. It’s a game about being in the US Army, but someone needs to be on the other end of your gun. Who plays the enemy? The US gov’t can’t be caught offering a “play as a terrorist” option on the tax payer’s dime. (Besides, they have their own game.) The solution is a technically elegant accidental comment on the relative morality of war.

No matter which side you choose, you and your teammates always look like US soldiers, while the enemy always wears ski masks or other garb that marks them as terrorists.

Scott Osborne America’s Army Review on Gamespot

In the field, it’s much more difficult to tell who is or isn’t a terrorist. And in a conflict marked by the need to appeal to the hearts and minds of a populace (as opposed to merely bringing their leaders to heel) this is an enormous problem. Every dead civilian is a recruiting tool for the enemy. In this context, handcrafted kills start to look like a very good idea. Targets need to be checked carefully, lest you mistake someone gathering firewood for someone planting an IED. Commanders need to decide whether the risk to civilians is worth continuing a firefight. Patrols must dance a line between police-work, outreach, and combat. This is a far cry from firebombing Dresden.

With the rise of UAV drones, the line between video games and war seems to have blurred past the point of any meaningful distinction. Using networking technology, US troops near Las Vegas (of course it’s near Vegas) fly drones over Afghanistan and then go home to their families. They actually use Xbox controllers to fly some of the things.

And so “push button war” has returned, with questions about the morality of drones. We have no skin in the game. We can kill indiscriminately without consequence to the pilots. It’s distant death from above. Impersonal, antiseptic, and thoroughly desensitized. But the game being played by UAV pilots isn’t a shooter. They drop bombs rarely in Afghanistan; 187 launches over 135,000 hours of flight. Mostly, they spend their time watching.

A fighter pilot deploys for a few months and learns little about the ground he flies over, save for terrain features. But Predator and Reaper crews pull three-year tours at Creech, flying combat missions most days of the week. They can more easily see changes in village activity, or traffic on a stretch of road. If they’re tracking an individual, as they often will for days or weeks, they know when he goes to work, where he stops for tea, and whom he talks to along the way. Though civilians do die in some of the missile strikes, this ability to linger can do much to limit unintended deaths. If women and children or the unlucky neighbor is nearby, the plane can wait, and wait, without losing sight.

Brian Mockenhaupt We’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Unmanned for Esquire

This is a stealth action game. This is being a sniper. This is getting to know your target. Drone kills are handcrafted.

Anderson has dropped once. He centered the infrared targeting laser on a group of men that had just planted an IED, and the pilot squeezed the button and trigger, a slight movement of left thumb and right index finger. The missile raced along its invisible tether and half a minute later, the men were gone, erased in a cloud of black-and-white fire. A couple dozen people watched the strike, from operations centers in Afghanistan, Qatar, and the United States. Even a desk jockey at the Pentagon can monitor the feeds if he has the right clearance. So enticing are these voyeur views that a special term for them has arisen in military circles: Predator porn. Everybody likes to watch. But those idly watching aren’t the guys squeezing the triggers and guiding the missiles. That would be Anderson. And on the drive home that night, he kept his watch on longer than usual, replaying the moment.

Brian Mockenhaupt We’ve Seen the Future, and It’s Unmanned for Esquire

If you didn’t watch the drone criticism video I linked to above, watch it now. The deep dread and hatred of handcrafted kills raises it head here. Carefully selecting targets and aiming to remove them with a minimum of other casualties? Not OK. Combat operations with all the collateral damage to infrastructure, economy, people, and environment? Part of the cost of war.

Pay special attention to the complaint that the UN representative is levelling against the use of drones. He’s worried that the drones might be a program of targeted assassination, something which Gerald Ford banned in 1976.

No one ever signed an executive order against carpet bombing.