Ruth Ozeki's Booker-shortlisted novel highlights a real dilemma for the games industry

In Ozeki's novel, A Tale for the Time Being, a games interface developer is confronted by the possibility that the military will use his software to create user-friendly weapons technology. It is a conflict some in the gaming industry are desperate to avo

As you read this, your present shall be my past. I might have written an hour ago, a month, a year, ten years ago. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re here now, reading. Our connection is the premise for Ruth Ozeki’s Booker shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being, an interlocking narrative connecting the lives of a 16-year-old diarist, Nao, and her reader, Ruth, who discovers the journal a decade later. But it is the presence of death, not life, which ultimately fuels the story.

Harry – Nao’s father – is plagued by thoughts of death; of both his own, and of the thousands of deaths for which he could be responsible. He works in interface development for the gaming market, and the problem is, he’s good at it. So good, in fact, that the US military show an interest in the enormous potential of his research for drone weapon technology. In an email to Ruth, Professor Leistiko of Stanford University explains Harry’s moral dilemma: “what ma[kes] a computer game addictive and entertaining would make it easy and fun to carry out a massively destructive bombing mission”.

Ozeki’s subplot is an example of fiction’s ability to highlight pertinent issues in the real world. This summer, the US Army conducted an experiment. It incorporated Epic Games, Inc’s award-winning Unreal Engine to create a game to train its infantry, to combat the expenses of field training. But like Harry’s drone interface, this too raises some questions of conscience. Will this encourage a war culture where it’s acceptable to rejoice Boom, headshot! after every successful death?

Applying game engine technology to a military setting isn’t exactly new. Michael Brooks's article, “If you can fly a video game, you can fly a drone”, illustrates this. He writes:

Control technology is becoming ever more similar to that used in modern video games. A recent recruitment ad for the British army features a soldier explaining UAV use while using an unbranded Microsoft Xbox controller to fly his drone over a troop of patrolling soldiers.

It is this technology that Harry is in conflict with. But it’s easy to see why it’s piqued the interests of the military. The gaming interface offers a distancing effect between the pilot and victim, turning deaths into killstreaks by making the art of war as enjoyable – and playable – as possible.

The $60 million 2013 deal, forged between Intelligent Decisions (US Government) and Epic Games, is the next development of Harry’s interface. You don’t have to be a gamer to recognise the titles of games that the Unreal engine has conceived: Batman: Arkham City, BioShock, Gears of War and Medal of Honour. Until now, Intelligent Decisions have used Bohemian Virtual Battlespace Engine, but Unreal is a first attempt for a more immersive virtual reality. In this new simulation, avatars can use hand signals, tilt weapons and shoot around corners, allowing for a more realistic environment in which to train.

A Tale for the Time Being is full of questions without answers: does Ruth finally track down Nao? Has Nao followed through with her suicide pact? How about her father – a man who commits (and fails) suicide before chapter one – does he finally succeed? The one question I’d like a definitive answer to concerns Harry and his problem:

He was trying to figure out if there was a way to build a conscience into the interface design that would assist the user by triggering his ethical sense of right and wrong and engaging his compulsion to do right.

Let’s hope Intelligent Decisions has the answer.

Games and the military - a match made in hell? Photograph: Getty Images.
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution