When reality is just an illusion

A revolutionary new computer game uses television news footage and real military intelligence to blur the line between fact and fantasy. Is it just entertainment - or a dangerous distortion? Josh Sims investigates
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Uday and Qusay Hussein are holed up in a villa in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. And you have got a crucial decision to make: should you storm the building? Intelligence reports suggest that opposition forces have been under-estimated; satellite imagery shows that the approach would leave many soldiers exposed; and graphic modelling of the interior reveals a potentially unbreachable stronghold for gunmen. What do you do?

Such life-and-death dilemmas are now the stuff of living-room entertainment, thanks to Kuma:War, a PC game which went online earlier this month, offering a radical alternative to the conventional shoot-'em-up video game. As a player in its computer-generated combat zone, all the information you have at your fingertips is factual, culled from respected wire services, from contacts within the Pentagon, from transmitted and incidental video reportage, declassified Department of Defense reports and pricey satellite photos, assisted by top-rank military advice and presented, not so much for the thrill of the kill, as for your improved understanding of the intricacies of recent historic events.

While the Kuma:War launch package, produced by Kuma Reality Games, focuses on incidents from the Iraq war, subscribers to the website can also play out key moments in Afghanistan and the dispute between North and South Korea. It costs $10 a month for unlimited access to a growing number of continually updated missions, during which gamers re-enact the events at close quarters, and through gamesmanship, try alternative histories to see how the news might have turned out. Think of it as CNN with an itchier trigger finger.

Why, for instance, did US forces decide to bomb the Husseins' hideout, thereby losing the opportunity to capture and interrogate them, and perhaps find Saddam sooner? "All traditional news channels can do is ask the questions," says Keith Halper, CEO of the New York-based news-cum-games service. "What we did was get on-the-ground photos, satellite images and so on to model the building exactly. You put that all together, provide all the info for the user to consider the alternatives, to see the place as the soldiers there did, and then you perhaps understand why they didn't storm the building, how it could have meant a lot of troops getting shot...

"We live between being the news and being a game," adds Halper. "We wanted to put people in the middle of situations they read about or see on TV so as to better understand them. People submerge themselves in games, so they're important in terms of the emotional perspective they can offer. And to win them you need a grasp of the strategic detail that is often hard to grasp when presented through normal news channels. This is a potentially very powerful adjunct to traditional media."

But some people have expressed concern about Kuma's melding of news and entertainment. "Clearly this kind of game is going to be deeply interactive, and wherever you cross the boundaries between real life and screen life the danger of confusing the two is presented," suggests psychologist Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, who is an authority on the effects of online games playing.

"Adult players won't end up with a distorted view of the reality, though it's a very different story for the young. Reality games can alter the way you perceive the world, and condition stereotypes. That said, the familiarity of the game's subjects, the fact that many of these news events will already be known to the players, may work to enhance their empathy."

The team behind Kuma:War's report-and-play system comprises some 70 people, including software engineers, journalists and special advisers, such as Major General Thomas Wilkerson, a former US marine commander. Halper, a video games producer, borrowed the idea from the US military. In the last few years, rapid advances in artificial intelligence and 3-D rendering technology may have made gaming more entertaining, but the military has also seen their value as strategic decision-making tools.

Games that simulate events of decades past, or look forward to a hypothetical future, have already been stand-out successes in a market worth some £1,242m annually (up 28 per cent year on year) in the UK alone. Among the earliest bestsellers was Balance of Power, which applied game theory to the nuclear arms race and typically ended in armageddon. More recently there have been Nova Logic's Black Hawk Down, based on the disastrous US military incursion into Mogadishu; Counterstrike, the world's biggest online game; Battlefield 1942; Desert Combat; and last year's Command and Conquer. Id's 1997 blockbuster Doom was so impressive that the military adapted it to create its Marine Doom training software. Halper himself worked on Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six, the hit games based on highly detailed military scenarios imagined by the novelist Tom Clancy.

"After the fantasy settings and characters that were the dominant trend of just a few years, the last two or three years have seen successful games getting as real as possible, perhaps because the convergence of films, TV and games means people feel more comfortable in a world they recognise," says George Georgiou, marketing director for Vivendi UK, publishers of Counter-Strike. "But attaching a game to news events will make it hyper-real. It's something of a test case. It will be interesting to see just how real gamers want their games to be."

Kuma claims to be able to take an event of global newsworthiness and create a simulation within three to eight weeks, and plans to launch simulations of crime and sports events early next year - Halper hopes that a more advanced, topical system might appeal to the growing crossover of those who use their broadband connection to both play online games and get the news. That's some 46 per cent of broadband users - 16.5m people - in the US alone (the US accounts for roughly half of the world's 90 million broadband users). "Video games, after all, have been available for 15 years now, and gaming's early fans are getting old and looking for a more mature games experience," reckons Halper. "There's only so many times you can zap aliens."

Halper is well aware that some people might see Kuma's games as making light of war. When the company launched last year it planned to avoid using the word "games" altogether, precisely because of the frivolity that might suggest, but decided that it was the only way to hint at the new use of the medium.

Some games critics are dismissive of the venture for more prosaic reasons, saying that anything programmed and distributed as quickly as Kuma:War inevitably fails to meet the glitzy standards of the multi-million dollar extravaganzas, years in the making, now released by the major games design companies.

"Bringing reality into games has been used as a way of examining an alternative history before, but it's an interesting twist to make gamers feel like they're in a news-driven environment," says Suneel Ratan, a games industry expert for Wired magazine. "As graphics have become more realistic and connection speeds improved it doesn't surprise me that someone has concocted a system for armchair generals. But it will have to be a fun game too for people to use it, which may sound an odd thing to say about something dealing with war..."

And especially one that is still claiming lives daily. Certainly others, notably Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, have wondered whether Kumar:War might represent a touchstone in our changing attitudes to conflict or crime. The military uses the likes of its free America's Army online game to recruit. The anti-war movement uses games such as Velvet-Strike (a hack that allows you to spray paint the walls in Counter-Strike) to protest. And the media, especially in the US, uses games graphics to explain military strategy. So, Jenkins asks, is the commercial games industry now simply seeing if we are ready to filter our understanding of war through games much as previous generations have through films? The PLO has already launched Under Ash, their own politically-oriented game, and Sony trademarked "shock and awe" as a title for a planned, but since abandoned Iraq war game.

Halper certainly believes that Kumar:War is at the forefront of a new generation of infotainment products designed to exploit the unique potential of broadband - just as TV gave rise to a different content from that of radio. Unlike CD-based games, Kuma's is, importantly, online and continually updated so you can play the news and interact in novel ways - the site even allows you to donate to the Fallen Heroes Fund for families bereaved by the war.

"What we're doing may be very expensive and may utilise a very different production cycle to traditional video games," says Halper. "We have to be very accurate and very fast, sometimes working on hunches and intelligence to try and second guess what will happen so we can pre-plan. But the idea is that we go very deep on just a few events, rather than shallow over the broad news agenda like other news sources. We know it's going to take a while for people to understand reality games as a new hybrid. But we think it's one that's going to be huge."