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

A drone protestor.
Games and the military - a match made in hell? Photograph: Getty Images.

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.