Last night I watched the 80s cult movie WarGames, starring a very young Matthew Broderick. For all its retro arcade games, teen drama and Cold War intrigue, it still managed to eerily resonate with the current standoff between esteemed President DrumpfTrump and ‘Rocket Man‘.
The plot of the film revolves around classic high school underachiever David Lightman (Broderick), who has developed a penchant for hacking computers. He primarily uses his skills as a hacker to alter his failing school grades, but when he tries to hack into a new computer game system, he inadvertently comes across a military supercomputer called WOPR, which he accesses using a backdoor password. In doing so, he launches a game of Global Thermonuclear War, not realising that the computer contains an advanced form of artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately, WOPR is unable to tell the difference between simulation and reality, and feeds false information to North American Aerospace Defense Command, prompting the raising of the DEFCON level. Even after David stops the game, WOPR continues the simulation pushing the US closer to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, David is accused of being a spy and goes on the run to find WOPR’s inventor to try and stop the US from mistakenly launching its nukes.
Despite the early computer technology in the movie seeming quite dated now, WarGames is surprisingly ahead of its time and arguably remains relevant in a number of ways. Firstly, the AI in the movie is still more advanced than anything we have today, despite significant progress being made in this area. In the movie’s climax WOPR independently initiates a nuclear missile launch to complete what it thinks is a ‘simulation’. This seems remarkably prescient given current fears of killer robots and AI that will one day make humanity subservient.
I think the bigger lesson from WarGames though, is that so much of nuclear strategy takes place in a realm of ‘unreality’ where there is no winning outcome. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is based on the premise that if two sides have the same nuclear weapons, neither will use these weapons due to the threat of mutual annihilation.
For much of WarGames, the looming possibility of a nuclear conflict is because of false intelligence being fed to the military by WOPR. Yet, the simulation could be seen as a proxy for the kinds of assumptions that are made by military strategists about the actions of opponents. In this way, the current escalation between the US and North Korea demonstrates how the misinterpretation of actions, rather than direct military action, could lead to conflict.
Once you throw two mercurial and unpredictable leaders into the mix, it’s very easy to see how we wouldn’t need a rogue supercomputer to plunge the world into a nuclear crisis. Humans seem perfectly capable of fucking things up on their own, and to me that’s far scarier than nascent AI.
It may seem a little strange writing about my first impressions of a game that came out four years ago. Having previously played Bioshock and Bioshock 2, I would’ve loved to have played Bioshock Infinite when it first came out. Unfortunately, my choice of computer, a 2011 MacBook Pro, didn’t have the capability of playing such a graphically demanding game. I upgraded my computer a while back (another MacBook Pro – I’ll never learn) and finally can play a number of games that I’ve been itching to get my hands on since they were first released. So when Bioshock Infinite went on sale on Steam late last week I couldn’t resist buying it.
I’m about nine hours into the game so far and plan to write a full analysis of the many IR related themes and concepts once I’ve finished the game. In the mean time though, these are some of my initial impressions of Bioshock Infinite, relating more to the game’s setting, mechanics and story.
Columbia is an incredible setting but it feels hollow
One of the main reasons that Bioshock and Bioshock 2 remain two of my favourite games is the setting of Rapture. I honestly don’t think any other game I’ve played evokes as strong a sense of place as this series. The fallen underwater city of Rapture is creepy, intriguing and incredibly detailed. It somehow manages to be far more immersive than many open-world games, even though it actually follows a fairly standard linear level design.
Bioshock Infinite takes the series in a very different direction. The utopian air city of Colombia, ruled over by religious fanatic and ‘prophet’ Father Comstock, is a Rapture that hasn’t fallen (yet). It’s a breathtaking realisation of turn of the century America complete with steampunk technologies, nationalist propaganda and beautiful architecture. It’s certainly a departure from the dark and depressing feel of Rapture, although there’s still plenty of horrors below the surface of Colombia.
As beautiful as it is though, it does feel a little hollow. Many of the character models for non-playable characters (NPCs) are continuously repeated, especially in the early game, which detracts from the level of detail in the rest of the world. The mechanics also don’t always fit with the setting. Whereas scavenging through shops and trash cans for coins and supplies made sense in the ruins of Rapture, doing the same in Colombia as people go about their daily business didn’t really make much sense.
In a lot of ways Rapture works better as a setting because it doesn’t have to try to make the world feel lived in. Rather than NPCs providing insight into the world, it’s the objects and recordings you discover that provide Rapture with such a compelling backstory. Colombia applies a similar approach with voxophones (audio logs) and kinetoscopes (short films) but relying on these to bring Colombia alive means that the city can often feel like wallpaper. Beautiful wallpaper, but still wallpaper.
Where Infinite does a better job is in its level design. Many levels, especially towards the end, are open environments with lots of areas to explore along the way. This is a commendable achievement, especially as many more recent first person shooters (FPS) are still boringly linear.
The violence can be confronting and jarring
Let’s be clear – Bioshock and Bioshock 2 were both extremely violent games. The violence in these games, although intense, fit with the chaotic setting of Rapture where society had completely imploded and only the most anarchic, brutish elements remained fighting for power. In Bioshock Infinite, Colombia has not yet made this descent, although the story quickly moves in that direction. What results is a jarring experience in which the beautiful vistas of the city are offset by excessive acts of violence. Sometimes this seems to be a thoughtful contemplation of how extreme violence is possible in any society, no matter how supposedly utopian it is.
This is particularly demonstrated early on when you arrive in Colombia and after being blown away by its beauty are suddenly confronted with overwhelming brutality (spoilers ahead). You rock up at the annual ‘raffle’ and are (unsurprisingly) announced as the winner. The prize though turns out to be throwing a baseball at a defenceless pair of slaves. You then horrifically dismember several policemen and flee as all hell breaks loose. This abrupt change in the story is shocking but it also makes a strong point about how fragile human society can be. From this point on though, the violence is almost unrelenting and somewhat undermines this initial point. I’m not sure whether the contrast between the utopian setting and the violence is a clever commentary on human nature or simply a function of the game’s FPS roots but I’m not completely comfortable with it and I think the emphasis on killing actually undermines the depth of the story.
Elizabeth is an excellent companion
Early on in the game your character, private detective Booker DeWitt rescues Elizabeth, a young woman with supernatural powers who is being held captive by Father Comstock. Elizabeth isn’t your typical damsel in distress and quickly becomes a valuable partner in your efforts to escape Colombia. In addition to her help in combat opening ‘tears’ that allow you to access resources from parallel universes (yes it’s as silly as it sounds), the dialogue between DeWitt and Elizabeth is actually thoughtful and well written. Elizabeth has been locked up her whole life and is extremely curious about the world around her. As she tries to make sense of the violence and chaos that’s occurring, she looks to DeWitt to provide insight.
It’s refreshing to see a female video game character who isn’t simply set-dressing but rather a strong, independent individual who adds real value to the story.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about Bioshock Infinite – it’s exploration of American exceptionalism is particularly compelling – but I’ll wait until I’ve finished the game to do this justice. Overall, Bioshock Infinite probably isn’t my favourite in the series but it is an ambitious and largely successful attempt at video game storytelling that tries (and sometimes succeeds) exploring some pretty big themes.
Note: the following article is based on the TV adaptation of The Expanse, not the books, which I have every intention of reading in the future.
Although I only recently discovered it, The Expanse has quickly become an obsession of mine. It’s refreshing to see a mature, slick sci-fi TV show that’s inherently anchored to realpolitik and real science (sorry you’ll have to go elsewhere for an analysis of that – I’m not qualified). With so many worthwhile IR-related subjects featured in the show, including nuclear proliferation, rebellion and insurgency, and military strategy, I’m sure that I’ll return to The Expanse for future posts.
For this first analysis though, I want to look at the show’s exploration of supranationalism – the transcendence of political power above national governments. The Expanse takes place two hundred years into the future, where technology has enabled humans to spread out and colonise the Solar System. At the same time, resources have become scarcer, leading to conflict between Earth and the various colonies. Earth itself is now governed by the United Nations.
At first, the notion of Earth being ruled by the UN might seem far-fetched. In 2017, there is a strong push against supranationalism. Trump has declared a policy of ‘America First’, signalling a troubling move towards isolationism. Meanwhile, the UK is preparing for a hard Brexit and the EU struggles to maintain support in the face of panic over migration and economic austerity.
The UN itself is often seen as weak and ineffectual, divided by the competing national interests of its members (yes, I am a realist). The UN of The Expanse universe is unrecognisable from this current form. Instead, it is a powerful intergalactic organisation with bases throughout the Solar System, a powerful military and a ruthless approach to rebellion and unrest. Although the show doesn’t fall into the ‘Phantom Menace trap‘ of lengthy exposition describing the inner workings of the UN (or the taxation of trade routes), it’s clear that the future organisation isn’t exactly democratic. There’s no mention of elections and power seems to be concentrated in an elite group of public servants and military officials.
What’s more, the UN has developed a penchant for crushing rebellion and gathering intelligence through torture methods that wouldn’t be out of place in Guantanamo Bay. It also has a checkered history of killing defenceless ‘Belters’ (marginalised working class inhabitants of the asteroid belt) when they protest their poor treatment. But does this representation of an empowered and dominant supranational UN accurately project what the organisation could one day become?
In a world in which colonisation of the Solar System is possible and a much greater variety of threats exists, it doesn’t make sense for Earth to be divided by nation states that cannot fully exploit the technological advancements that have occurred. It also serves as an effective narrative technique that allows the story to focus on the decisions of the UN leadership, and their wide-reaching consequences, without getting bogged down in Earth’s internal politics.
On closer examination though, the UN of The Expanse is actually based on more conventional concepts of international relations than it seems. Although Earth is governed by an empowered, supranational UN there is still a significant opponent in the form of Mars. A former colony of Earth, the Congressional Republic of Mars has now become a powerful, independent military power, which competes with Earth for power and influence in the Solar System, risking a wide-scale space war that could destabilise the entire Solar System. Sound familiar?
Although the tension between Earth and Mars takes place on a wider scale, it in fact mirrors a bipolar power struggle in the tradition of US-Soviet Union competition during the Cold War. Earth and Mars may command unprecedented swathes of territory compared to the nation states of today but they still behave as conventional sovereign states, controlling territory and resources, commanding military forces and protecting their ‘national’ interests.
In this way, The Expanse is in fact saying much more about the continuation of the Westphalian state system than supranationalism, albeit on an expanded scale in which entire planets are now sovereign states. The UN may be depicted as a powerful supranational organisation but its characteristics are almost identical to those of a sovereign state, demonstrating that regardless of how far humanity has expanded, the traditional power structures of the international system still exist.
It’s hard to believe that in just 200 years humanity will have colonised the Solar System to the extent that’s portrayed in The Expanse, but the show says something much more fundamental about the international system that seems remarkably prescient. Regardless of how far humanity reaches and how advanced technology becomes we will still be subject to traditional notions of state sovereignty. States may take on new forms but they will ultimately behave in similar ways to how they do today.
This vision of the future fits well with the current trend of states reasserting sovereignty in response to the erosion of physical borders by technological advancement and economic interdependence. The world 200 years from now will probably look very different to the one portrayed in The Expanse but it’s hard to imagine that the Westphalian state system will no longer exist in some form.
Even if we have managed to colonise the Solar System it’s likely that states will compete to exert power and further their interests, just on a scale that spans planets, moons and asteroids. It’s this recognition of state sovereignty as a fundamental pillar of international (or intergalactic) relations that makes The Expanse such a realistic vision of the future, and an excellent simulation of international relations.