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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I loved rereading Harry Potter as an adult – until I got stuck

All of the irreversible wrongs in the series can be traced back to this moment. It didn’t have to be this way.

Rereading a book first read years before is a kind of time travel. As well as the familiar characters, we meet past versions of ourselves between the pages, waiting there to be reencountered. This effect is particularly acute with favourite stories from childhood, I find, or novels associated with especially formative emotional moments. For me, the self that hides in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, for instance, is the one who liked to wear heavy floral perfumes and affect strange loopy handwriting. It’s probably best that she stays in there.

Inside my faded copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix lurks a sunburned teenager with goth tendencies, who left the dubious house party punch behind at a quarter to midnight to go and queue up at a book shop for a copy. I stayed up all night to read it, eventually falling asleep mid-morning in the garden with a chapter to go, only to wake with a peeling red nose that no amount of too-pale concealer could hide. In my subsequent rereadings of the series – usually gulped down in the bloated lazy days between Christmas and New Year – I have sprinted through this volume, trying to avoid reliving the headache and the hangover the book gave me the first time.

Late last year, upon remembering that I had a dormant audiobook subscription with half a dozen credits racked up, I decided to relisten to the series, rather than reread. For the first few weeks, all was well. Although my teenage admiration for Stephen Fry has long since worn off, I could still enjoy his avuncular narration for the Potter audiobooks. Without the physical book in my hand, I was free from the shame that occasionally accompanies an encounter with a past self I’d rather forget. My whole mood improved, even though it was winter and the days were at their shortest: any time I was walking, I was spending time in the wizarding world.

Except then I got stuck.

The problem came near the end of Order of the Phoenix, just as the plot darkens and our young heroes find themselves facing some serious peril once more. I would listen up to the point at which Harry falls asleep during his History of Magic exam and “sees” his godfather Sirius being tortured by Voldemort. I would struggle on through his waking attempts to find out what was really happening, and then right at the point when the members of the rescue mission climb up onto their Thestrals and head for the Ministry of Magic, I would hit pause and rewind back a couple of chapters.

I did this close to a dozen times over the next few days, looping around the same 45 minutes or so, unable to carry on past that crucial moment in the Forbidden Forest. This part of the Potter arc had never affected me in this way before – if anything, Order of the Phoenix, was my favourite book from the series. Yet reading as an adult rather than as a teenager, it was impossible to ignore how pivotal a moment this was in the plot. All of the irreversible wrongs in the series, like the deaths of Sirius, Fred Weasley, Severus Snape, Remus Lupin and many others, can be traced back to this moment. And it didn’t have to be this way.

Unlike the previous four novels, where the machinations of adults like Professor Quirrell and Barty Crouch Jr are outside of Harry’s control, the tragedy that unfolds in this book is avoidable. Harry thinks he is once more setting out on a heroic rescue mission, but like all the best villains, Voldemort has learned from his previously unsuccessful attempts to kill The Boy Who Lived. In line with the other ways that the series’ themes have matured (there is snogging, and general teenage angst now) The Dark Lord has levelled up, evil wise. He analyses what he knows about Harry – his saviour complex, his distrust of authority, his desperate desire to have a family – and uses it to manipulate him.

Like my colleague Stephen, I have long believed that Hermione Granger is the true hero of the Harry Potter books, and this moment in Order of the Phoenix confirms it. It was she, you see, who triggered my inability to keep on listening, knowing the avertable tragedy that was about to unfold. When Harry outlines his crazy plan to dash off to London because of a bad dream he had, she advises caution:

“Look, I’m sorry,” cried Hermione, “but neither of you is making sense, and we’ve got no proof for any of this. . .”

As ever, she’s right. Even though she forces Harry to try and contact Sirius, only to be deceived by Kreacher, it shouldn’t be enough to warrant a suicide mission – why take the word of a long-abused servant who hates his master? Why not talk to literally any of the Umbridge-resisting teachers still in the school, like Professor Flitwick or Professor Sprout?

Across the series, I have so many questions like this. As a result, I’ve read a lot of fanfiction written by authors who prefer to pretend that the Deathly Hallows epilogue never happened, or that the series ended halfway through book six. That’s the beauty of this fictional universe – you can branch off whenever and however you like, to solve the problems you see.

But ultimately, I have to keep on listening. Just because I find Harry’s teenage thoughtlessness hard to hear now, as an adult who knows the terrible consequences that lie ahead, doesn’t mean that J K Rowling didn’t write a story true to her characters. In stopping, I’m as much avoiding the teenage version of myself that I associate with this story as I am the plot itself. Confronting Harry’s bad decisions means reliving my own. And it isn’t just Order of the Phoenix. Once I get beyond this narrative sticking point, there are all my terrible opinions and unrequited passions hiding in Half-Blood Prince to contend with.

Allegra Goodman, in an essay about returning to Jane Austen called “Pemberly Previsited”, from a collection called Rereadings, captured this push-pull feeling of simultaneously wanting to revisit a book and wishing never to open it again:

“I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.”

Perhaps if I come back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in twenty years’ time, I’ll feel differently, with my new wrinkles.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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