The Arma question: is it easier to kill a man than a woman in a videogame?

We find ourselves trapped between realism and reverence.

Sometimes questions of equality do not give easy answers. Sometimes they do not give the answers that feel right. And sometimes your belief that everybody is equal and your sense of right and wrong find themselves at opposite ends of the same track, travelling towards each other at equal speeds, doomed to collide in the middle like a maths puzzle gone awry.

What brings about this sort of moral dilemma for the gamer? Not the knockabout fun of a Saints Row dildo clubbing rampage, nor firing a bunch of birds head first into some oblivious pigs. No, it’s the games that create a world that feels real with characters that look and act in realistic ways; these are the ones that can be a test.

The debate as to whether the Arma series of military simulators should include female characters not just as civilians but as actual soldiers is one that has been bubbling along in the background of the series development for years. With the sudden popularity of the Day Z zombie mod for the game which brought with it female playable characters, and of course more female players, the debate about whether female characters should be allowed to fight in Arma 3 appeared to really take off.

Arma games have included women in the past, of course, and you could even play as one. However, there was the caveat that all female characters were civilians and they could not pick up or use weapons, at all. For all intents and purposes they served the role of the decoy target in the firing range that you’re not ever meant to shoot at. In some ways this is actually the worst way to put female characters into a game, mimicking the standard story tropes of women as damsels in distress, victims to be avenged and other completely powerless entities.

From a realism perspective of course this position is indefensible and has been getting less defensible year on year. Women now make up a large proportion of the armed forces of most countries and while very few countries use women in a front line infantry role the front lines are notoriously difficult to define these days. To be realistic a game should include female soldiers, even if only in supporting roles. This is something that the newly released Company of Heroes 2 has done, featuring women in the roles of snipers, aircraft pilots and tank crew for the Soviet forces. Arma 3 could do it easily too and really that should be the end to it.

However a second trend has appeared in the debate regarding female soldiers in Arma and it is the question not of whether people want to play as female characters, but whether they are happy to kill female characters.

At first this might sound strange, but on reflection there is some merit to this argument.

There is a degree of intelligence required with a game like Arma 3, a degree of engagement that you do not find with a cartoon style game like Saints Row 3 or even something fantastical like Skyrim. The Arma games require calculation and consideration almost more than they require reflexes or other traditional game playing skills. The game demands that you make the right decisions, often under pressure. The ability to shoot in a straight line, always a bonus, is usually a secondary consideration because if your decisions are wrong you’ll probably be dead before you can shoot anybody. The beaches of Day Z were littered for months with the still twitching corpses of Call of Duty and CounterStrike players who didn’t really appreciate what they were walking into until they’d been gunned down and had their beans robbed off them many times over by more experienced players.

Bearing that in mind, and also bearing in mind just how one-sided a properly planned engagement in an Arma game should be, this does bring certain ethical concerns into play. It is one thing to gun down other men in a game and sure it may not be sporting to do so while they have their backs turned or otherwise oblivious to them, but that’s just how it has to be, otherwise you get killed. But to do that to a woman? That may well require your blood to be a little bit colder. Unlike most reflex-based games, in Arma you will often find yourself watching your target, choosing your moment. A well-executed plan in an Arma game is more a series of murders than a fight. Inflicting that sort of calculated carnage on female characters isn’t necessarily going to sit as comfortably with players as shooting men would.

It is notable that even Saints Row 3, that most heartless of harlequins, did not feature female police officers or soldiers. Women remain in two of the gangs you fight against, but make up part of the rank and file of only one of them, appearing as bosses for the second. When even a game as ostensibly tasteless and disrespectful as that is willing to recognise some degree of chivalry in its enemy selection it seems apparent this is something designers are aware of. It can be hard to see the lines that Saints Row is not willing to cross, just due to the size of the truck they cheerfully drive over the lines they will cross, but they are there.

And so the ethical train wreck occurs. Women should be on the battlefield in a realistic game, but it doesn’t feel entirely kosher to be killing them because, particularly for a man, violent acts directed towards women are considered morally worse than those directed towards other men. We could say the same about other groups too. For example, what if the Arma series set a campaign in a civil war with one faction employing child soldiers? Would players go near a game where your opponents are horrifically exploited tweens? Not likely.

But then here’s the thing. If we’re going to get into this sort of discussion, what makes one digital representation of one demographic more ideologically safe to murder than another? Why is it so much easier for people to shoot a male avatar rather than one of a woman, or a child? It is pixels and polygons, it shouldn’t matter. But it does matter, even when we can clearly differentiate between what is a game and what is real our human empathy will kick in. We all know Bambi’s mother is a huge pile of pictures of a deer shown in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, she’s not real, we know this, we understand this, but we’re still sad when she dies. This is because we’re sensitive creatures and it is completely understandable that a lot of us will be less comfortable killing a digital woman than we would a man, at least for the first few times, until we’ve become suitably desensitised.

So here we are, trapped between realism and reverence. Arma 3 will almost certainly feature women in combat roles, this is 2013 after all, but we should not discount all of the protests as simple misogyny. People will have to accept that women are not delicate flowers to be stepped over while those of us equipped with Y chromosomes handle the rougher aspects of life, whether it is considered to be for their own good or not. For some people that acceptance will not come easily and it might require some adjustment, but nobody said the Twenty-First Century wasn’t going to be complicated.

The Arma games require calculation and consideration almost more than they require reflexes or other traditional game playing skills.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood