Technofile

Warfare has come over all digital - and we're not just talking shoot-'em-up games. Technofile marvels at the delicately named Wargasm, endorsed by the Army, which offers all the thrills of simulated combat in the comfort of your own home
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The Independent Culture
THE ACCEPTABLE FACE OF VIOLENCE

What's the difference between Carmageddon and Wargasm? Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now (SCi, Windows, pounds 35) invites you to "smash, trash, crumple, burn, blast, skid and jump with sick-bag-inducing realism". Wargasm (DID, Windows, pounds 40) promises "the full excitement of combat" in a cyberspace that "looks and feels every bit as violent as the real thing". Both have benefited from publicity coups, but in very different fashions.

Carmageddon II (below) has entered into a highly successful partnership with the British Board of Film Classification, which has obliged the game's promoters by playing the out-of-touch old buffer in a revival of the routine Malcolm McLaren turned into a national institution.

Wargasm (above) has a partner inside the Establishment too, but its collaborator is an entirely willing one. The game is to feature in the Royal Armoured Corps' recruitment roadshow, which will be taken to schools, Cadet Force sessions and county shows around the country.

On its Web page, the Royal Armoured Corps describes itself as "the mailed fist of the British Army" whose "role is to seek and close with the enemy and defeat him using Firepower, Mobility and Protection". Combining advanced graphics with the demand for tactical thinking, Wargasm is felt to convey an appropriate impression of the Armoured Corps experience. It ought to, since it is based on a commercial simulator that its developers, a company called DID, created for the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle. "This game gives a good overview of what life in a tank is like," Lt-Col Richard East of the King's Royal Hussars told me.

Each generation bestows illusions about war upon the next, and with the Army's adoption of Wargasm, we can see the illusions that tomorrow's soldiers will take into battle. The public-school myth of honour led young officers to enter the trenches of Flanders inspired by some version of the belief that they were "like swimmers into cleanness leaping", in the poet Rupert Brooke's phrase. Tomorrow's warriors will have no such transcendent visions. Their esprit de corps will depend not on a notion of honour, but one of "professionalism" as expressed through technology and a mastery of complex procedures. But it will still be tested against the age-old challenges of discomfort, terror, pain and death.

This, and the absence of civilians, are what mark the limit of "realism" in simulation games. In an article published by the webzine Metamute, Ian McClelland points out that military sims, which invariably boast of their "realism", never attract the moral condemnation heaped on games like Doom, which may encourage the player to shoot anything that moves but do not purport to represent the real world. For McClelland, the combat sims' slick argot of gung-ho and technobabble is far more pernicious than "escapist, cathartic fantasies" with no concealed political agenda.

A view like this depends on suspicions about the military and the powers behind it. If, like most of the public, you have faith in the Army, you should be untroubled about the military-gaming complex. All the same, I was surprised that the Royal Armoured Corps is happy to be associated not just with the game, but with its sensationalist title. I asked Lt- Col East if that meant they have no problem with the idea of taking pleasure in war. "Well, it's our business," he replied. "It's not pleasure in war so much as training for it. What we're trying to do is give people a realistic idea of what a modern soldier is involved in."

Like politicians and police officers, soldiers sound increasingly like managers these days. Perhaps we should indeed think of war as a business, with the armed forces as its operations division, and computer games as its entertainment wing.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Wargasm isn't the British Army's only venture into digital gameplay. Most army websites are stiff and institutional, but the British one is a full-blown multimedia spectacle. The "Army Challenge" presents three mission scenarios, in which the player proceeds by selecting from options for action. This is the polar opposite of the combat sims and the shoot- 'em-all fantasy games - there are civilians at every turn. You rescue them from floods in Belize - full marks for prescience there. You hide in their houses on a mission in the coyly-named "Middle East" scenario. You deliver aid to them in Bosnia.

The message here is restraint and rules. In the Bosnia mission, negotiating with local militia leaders is always the correct choice, and the aid always gets through. It is, in other words, an interactive apologia for the Army's implementation of UN policy. And this is as close to home as the Challenge gets, though I found it quite easy to improvise an interactive script for a scenario involving unarmed civilians and roadblocks in Northern Ireland.

CATASTROPHES FOR GOOD CITIZENS

Emergency (ASCII Entertainment, Windows, pounds 35) is the game for those who thrill to the spectacle of calamity but want to do it by the book at the same time. This catalogue of catastrophe includes earthquakes, forest fires, a Jumbo jet crash, a nuclear plant meltdown, a roller-coaster disaster and poison gas in the Metro. No extra points for mowing down pedestrians here; instead, you park your police car (green, betraying the game's German origins) and alert approaching traffic to the hazard. The facade cracks with the offer of a water cannon, which the game suggests can be used to disperse rubberneckers.

DON'T MENTION THE COUP

This is the face that the Chilean Army presents to the World Wide Web, a smiling young woman in a helmet. There's a history page, available in English, but it's not exactly what Archbishop Tutu would call Truth and Reconciliation.

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