Shall we play a game?


If you were young in 1983, WarGames was a movie that enthralled every sense of you as computers were left to play out “War Games” with each other to bring about the end of the world.  Humans were too fallible to have such life and death decisions left to their meandering minds.

WarGames made Matthew Broderick a star and we were all warned against trusting our heavenly stars — instead of ourselves — when it came to rationally dealing with machines and critical life decision-making.

Oh, what temporary memories we all have!

It’s now 25 years later, and we still haven’t really heeded WarGames director John Badham’s warning against against waging war with emotionally detached destruction:

More broadly, while video images engage the public in a whole new way, they can fool many viewers into thinking they now have a true sense of what is happening in the conflict. The ability to watch more but experience less has a paradoxical effect. It widens the gap between our perceptions and war’s realities. To make another sports parallel, it’s the difference between watching an NBA game on television, with the tiny figures on the screen, and knowing what it feels like to have a screaming Kevin Garnett knock you down and dunk over your head. Even worse, the video segments that civilians see don’t show the whole gamut of war, but are merely the bastardized ESPN SportsCenter version. The context, the strategy, the training, the tactics–they all just become slam dunks and smart ­bombs.

War porn tends to hide other hard realities of battle. Most viewers have an instinctive aversion to watching a clip in which the target might be someone they know or a fellow American; such clips are usually banned from U.S.-hosted websites. But many people are perfectly happy to watch video of a drone ending the life of some anonymous enemy, even if it is just to see if the machines fighting in Iraq are as “sick” as those in the Transformers movie, the motive one student gave me for why he downloaded the clips. To a public with so much less at risk, wars take on what analyst Christopher Coker called “the pleasure of a spectacle with the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not the spectator.”

Will we ever learn to believe in each instead of only in the machines of ourselves?

Are bloodless wars any good? Don’t we need to inflict, and also feel, suffering in order to learn the lessons against waging war?  War should be hard, difficult, public and fraught with terrible choices.

If we become — Technocrats of Bloodless Coups — how will we know what we have won anything meaningful beyond mere bits and bytes?

When will we realize we lost our souls by selling our spirit to the robot warrior and General CPU?

Will we be lucky enough to be saved from our selfish selves to realize the virtual ends never really ever justified the mechanical memes?

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