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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era