On July 16th, 1945, the world of war changed forever. In Socorro, New Mexico, scientists and soldiers of the US military watched as the first nuclear detonation caused by man lit up the sky with a fireball and mushroom cloud that surged seven and a half miles into the sky. The shockwave from the detonation was felt over 100km away, and as he watched Los Alamos Director J Robert Oppenheimer was reminded of a line from hindu scripture: I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.
The threat of nuclear war defined the generations that followed. Russia and America had missile after missile pointed at each other for the better part of half a century,and even now when North Korea somehow manages to fire a missile – presumably starving several of its citizens to death in the process – it makes front page news all over the world.
Nukes are the very definition of the power of gods in the hands of man, the power to obliterate cities with the push of a button.
And in videogames, that power is placed in our hands.
A world without consequence: The Nuke and You.
One of the most obvious, and yet most key differences between games is interactivity. It’s very different to present you with a movie of a nuclear detonation and quite another to give you the choice between pushing the button and not. So why are nuclear explosions in most games presented in such a manner that they have virtually no consequences?
There are exceptions. Fallout 3, for example gives you the choice between setting off or disabling the bomb in Megaton, either killing or sparing the settlement. But for many games, all nuclear weapons are a convenient plot point.
When I was researching this blog entry, I started playing around with NukeMap 3D, a neat little plugin for google maps that simulates the effect of a nuclear weapon on your city or town. It is, to be fair terrifying seeing the spread of fallout out across the country and – in my case – into the north sea. Yet you see virtually none of this in video gaming; a nuclear bomb is usually just treated as a big explosion and (I’m looking at you, Call of Duty) as a convenient plot device for the end of the second act. Hell, in most FPS’s they tend to set off nukes on pretty much every day that has a Y in it.
De-mystification is all well and good, but there is always the risk of trivialisation.
The Nuclear weapon as a Deus Ex Machina.
Nukes are lazy. Theres no two ways about it. Ironically, this laziness is indicative of the nuclear weapon in general – to shoot or stab someone, you need to be relatively close, but all a nuclear missile takes is a press of a button. Ironically, in many ways the button itself gained a level of imagery that the bombs themselves never developed – the idea of all that destructive capacity at the fingertips of a single person, even if that wasn’t actually the case.
But in many video games, Nukes have become nothing more than a plot device. Need an excuse to get your hero out of a city in a hurry? Nuke it. Need something catastrophic for your characters to race against? Nuke. Need a “superweapon” to give your hero? Nuclear gun!
It’s all far too easy. When you can fire guns that shoot nuclear shells, such as the TAC gun in Crysis what is there left for a nuclear weapon to prove?
Probably the best known games series for nuclear weapons is the Fallout series, and generally they are one of the few games to show the consequences of nuclear war, but even then the symbolism of nuclear catastrophe is occasionally lost amidst the noise and sound of the big boom.
East Vs West.
Possibly one of the most cited reasons for the differing attitudes towards nuclear weapons on fiction is that of culture, and no two cultures have been more affected than that of the USA and Japan – two of the biggest centres of videogame creation in the world.
At the risk of being crude the USA, for a long time, treated nukes as the biggest cultural peen-extension you could possibly get; borderline jingoistic films such as Red Dawn defined filmmaking during the cold war, with the ‘Evil’ USSR on one side and the bright shining light of the US of A on the other. Even films such as The 300 Spartans were given a cold war flavour with the freedom loving spartans fighting off the cruel empire-building Persians. When the Apocalypse did come about, it was often just used as a segue to strange new worlds, such as the Planet of the Apes.
Japan, on the other hand, has a very different perspective of things. As the only nation to have actually been attacked with nuclear weapons, they’re culture has been deeply influenced by it. Anime and games feature nuclear weapons as devastating events, and rarely, if ever, does the player have their finger on the proverbial button. Off the top of my head, the only game I can think of from Japan where you directly see a nuclear attack is Metal Gear Solid three, and the consequences and near setting off of world war three were thoroughly explored.
‘Winning’ the game.
The idea that videogames desensitize people to violence is one I’ve long disagreed with – ultimately, I’ve always held to the idea that fiction is fiction. But has the over-use of nuclear imagery devalued the idea of an apocalypse? Has it desensitized us to the biggest threat the human race faces?
Possibly. But the next question should be, is this a bad thing? Ultimately, several generations of humanity lived in fear of the Bomb. They lived under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. That threat may still exist, but – like casual swearing – the repeated use of nuclear imagery has made us used to it. Having our fingers on the button has taken away our fear of the real button.
After all, its difficult to fear something when you’ve held that power yourself.