The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 offensive strategic nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are on a 15 minute alert to be launched at the decision of one human being?
- Robert McNamara, The Fog of War
At the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.
- In The Loop
eeps & Boops readers, being some of the canniest on the Internet, may have noticed that politics has grown into a major theme of this site. This was not really by design, but – in retrospect – was an unsurprising result of two politically-minded young liberals starting a video game blog. We’ve talked about games with unintentional political content, and games with very intentional political content. Today, I want to talk about DEFCON: easily one of the most political games I’ve ever played, probably the most effective, and certainly the most beautiful.
The term “political game,” as far as I know, doesn’t have any established meaning outside of the common sense one: a game with prominent political content. For my purposes, however, I define it more strictly: as a game with a specific policy argument. DEFCON is a game of international nuclear warfare, and with the official subtitle of “Everybody Dies,” it’s not difficult to imagine where the developers stand on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Mechanically a strategy game, DEFCON does not attempt to contextualize its warfare with any sort of narrative device outside of using the names of real world countries. Games begin with the assumption that countries are going to launch nukes at each other, and, eventually, they do. That’s the point of the game: to kill as many millions of people as you can for some unstated reason (or perhaps for no reason), while losing as few of your own, though millions always die regardless.
So when I say the game is one of the “most political,” I mean it presents a laser-focused argument against nuclear war, unconcerned with anything else. As with any politically-minded media, the game’s true appeal lies in its presentation. DEFCON, as with all of Introversion Software’s games, uses a heavily abstract, dark, and cold visual design. All of your airbases and submarines are presented as simple line drawings. When you launch a nuke, a crude bullet shape arcs smoothly over the map, trailed by dotted lines. It’s as if you’re watching a computer monitor from some anonymous command center, and the irony is obvious: you’re watching nuclear war through a cartoonish lens, stripping it of all its humanity, and disguising its devastation. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry when a bomb hits a city, prompting a pop-up message both profound in its truth and absurd in its simplicity: “2.5M DEAD.”
Whatever humor might be found in DEFCON, the game’s humanity is underscored by its sound design. Occasionally, you hear the soft, faded whimpering of a woman, mixed in with the ambient background music. This may seem heavy-handed, and perhaps it is, but it makes it nearly impossible to forget what the game is really about. At no point are you allowed to grow desensitized to the “reality” of your actions, which you do with virtually every other violent video game. In fact, as the game progresses, the map grows progressively busier and harder to read. Missile trails cloud continents and explosions punctuate the landscape. The end result is a transfixing, inevitable, inscrutable vision of conflict.
Ultimately, though, the game’s real genius is that it’s a game at all. Juxtaposing nuclear war with some ironically trivial or absurd presentation is hardly unprecedented, but there is perhaps no more trivial form to work with than games. Games are associated with children, with mindless leisure, with bored office workers, and, most importantly, with simplistic notions of winning and losing. By presenting nuclear war as a game, we see, even in the absolute best case scenario, winners are merely those who lose less, and those who think of war in such terms are committing a grave error of judgment and a betrayal of compassion. There is no win state in war, even when it is a game. Everybody Dies.