The Trigger Principle


A few days after the Millennium began, I came across a newly uncrated bin of the videogame everybody loves to hate (and secretly plays) - Quake 3 Arena. I don’t game much – perhaps an occasional whiff of N2O on my Playstation – but as an aficionado of the virtual world, Quake has always fascinated me.  So beautiful, so fast, so violent.  I popped the CD into my Sony VAIO, installed the program, and then, muttering, "C'mon honey, show me what you've got!" under my breath, launched the app.


And nearly puked.


Quake 3 Arena looks more like what we think the virtual world should be; sinister, a bit dirty, and just a little Giger-esque.  It now handles "curved" shapes -- something that had previously been beyond even the prodigious programming abilities of John Carmack, id Software’s 20-something programming prodigy.  I had expected the high-octane realism of the visuals, but when my 19-inch monitor (running at 60 frames per second -- double the speed of your television) displayed a torso blasting into a gelatinous ball of viscera, raining torrents of blood, studded with the impacts of various limbs, one horribly predictable word ran through my mind: Columbine. 


That probably sounds like a bleeding-heart, anti-NRA, knee-jerk reaction from someone crying "But what about the children?" for all the wrong reasons. Let's face it: the relationship between virtual violence and real-world acts is complicated, far more so than those holier-than-thou voices in the U.S. Congress, seeking to infantilize adolescents, would admit.  Even the defenders of these games have a hard time saying that there’s no relationship between the violence portrayed on screen and violent acts.  We live in a bell-curve culture, and someone, somewhere just might see Quake as the practice ground for a sociopathic melee.  But for most of us, the unremitting violence in Quake becomes comedy: a natural reaction to an overwhelming situation.


id's earlier games -- Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM -- had their fair share of enemies perishing under a hail of gunfire, but those characters looked so primitive it felt was like a shooting gallery filled with G.I. Joe dolls.  Quake treats violence as if it were as boundless as cyberspace itself: there are few limits and no consequences; you can blast apart as easily as you regenerate. It's not the gore, then, that troubles, but a specific way of detaching that violence from the usual moral universe that surrounds it -- an ironic trait for a product that so prides itself on its verisimilitude. And the question I kept asking myself was: how much of that violence was somehow imbedded in the original technologies behind virtual reality, and how much had been foisted up on it by subsequent explorations? It's easy to dismiss Quake as a corruption of VR's otherwise innocent roots, but what if the seedlings of Carmack's carnage had been there all along?



IN THE DECADE that I've been working in virtual reality, I've seen three different communities working VR technologies, trying to make something from them.  Visual Artists -- like Char Davies or Brenda Laurel -- have translated their fantasies of a natural world into the synthetic imaginings of graphical supercomputers; colonels and lieutenant generals have explored VR as an operations training environment; and the gamers, who stole virtual fire and brought it to the PC and Playstation, have been shoveling money out of the virtual world and into their bank accounts.


It all began with the U.S. military; like the Internet, VR was developed on DARPA's dime, at the University of Utah, over thirty years ago.  Ivan Sutherland -- perhaps the brightest star in computing's sky -- invented those crazy VR goggles (known as head-mounted displays, or HMDs), real-time 3D graphics, and head-tracking (so the computer knows what you're looking at when you're in the virtual world) way back in the 1960's, when Jaron Lanier was still playing with LEGOs. Not only did Sutherland's work inform every "usability" feature on a computer -- from windows to menus to 3D graphics -- he designed a VR interface to alleviate the biggest scourge of the computer age: information overload.


Sutherland found himself helping the Pentagon crack the hardest nut of the modern era -- information overload.  Along with stock traders and DJs, jet fighter pilots are the most info-overloaded individuals in the world; an F-16 cockpit is one of the most densely crowded informational environments ever created -- surpassing the ability of any human being to fully master it.  It's possible -- even easy -- for a pilot to kill himself in a moment of info-confusion.   Sutherland showed that presenting the information in an easily digestible way would make the pilot smarter and safer, but there were some problems with his designs: the system cost many millions of dollars and weighed a few tons, not exactly ideal for a supersonic jet fighter.  


The microprocessor revolution would take care of the weight issue, and -- by the mid-1980's -- folks at NASA had revived Sutherland's work, and christened it "VR".  The idea of a priesthood persisted: Early VR ran on expensive Silicon Graphics supercomputers, had a private language of nearly indecipherable phrases, and remained closely held within a community of weirdo philosopher-cum-computer-scientists.  But videogames were about to blow the temple of VR to pieces.


IN THE EARLY 1990's, games like Spectre -- a multi-player Macintosh version of the venerable Atari 3D tank game, Battlezone -- became common.  Fast and dirty "software" rendering engines -- which took the power of the graphics supercomputer and brought it to the PC -- became core components in a new generation of videogames, allowing nearly anyone create a virtual world, for any reason at all.  Most games followed the lead of Wolfenstein 3D, with a deceptively simple mission: search and destroy.  Using the arrow keys and the space bar, you could blast away at Nazis or evil space aliens or ravaging wolves all day long -- with a fair degree of realism.  These games showed you the world from a "first person" point-of-view, as if the monitor had become your own eyes.


It shouldn't surprise anyone that the trigger finger shows up so often as the major component of computer games.  It's the extension of the keyboard, the repetitive click, click, click which very easily becomes bang, bang, bang.  If id programmer John Carver had been offered something else by way of interface, Quake 3 Arena would be quite different; it's as simple as that.  But because we are constrained by our interfaces we build games which reflect our actual, physical relationship with computers. Give someone a trigger, and they'll build a gun.


It's not necessarily a foregone conclusion that virtual worlds need to be violent, but it's only after artists moved away from the keyboard-and-joystick interfaces that we began to see more constructive forms of virtual expression.  Char Davies, a Canadian artist who co-founded 3D software giant SoftImage, threw out all of the established interface conventions in favor of a device which used breath and balance -- like a SCUBA diver -- to navigate through the virtual world.  In Davies' virtual worlds, one doesn't feel the need to destroy; instead you feel compelled to explore, as if fifty feet beneath a Caribbean lagoon.


Brenda Laurel -- who lectures frequently on the differences in play behavior between boys and girls -- created a work which embodied its users in animal archetypes.  For example, "crow" flew about by flapping its wings (arms), while "snake" slithered along the ground.  In each case, a network of sensors tracked body movement, and translated that into the actions of the virtual "body."  Violent activity was never presented as an option, nor would it have felt appropriate.  In Laurel's work, as in Davies', the interface set the rules of engagement: no triggers, no guns.


THESE WORKS, WHICH UP TO now have had little market value, would never have happened without the beneficence of a "patron." Davies was able to tap the substantial resources of SoftImage (and its parent, Microsoft) to fund her work; Laurel relied on the secretive Interval Corporation (funded by Paul Allen) to pick up her tab. But there's a new sugar daddy in town.  The U.S. Army is back, and waving fisticuffs of cash.  They've watched the growth of VR games -- based in the same technologies they've been funding for many years, and they see an opportunity to harvest the knowledge of the marketplace, to feed that back into their own research efforts.


My own academy, the University of Southern California, recently inked a $45-million deal with the US Army to create the Institute for Creative Technology.  Their goal: to use the very best in VR technology to make a better soldier.  The Army believes that creating "realistic" virtual environments can help to train soldiers for the kinds of 21st century tasks they're expecting to handle in a post-Cold War world -- such as peacekeeping in hostile foreign environments.  The Army's dream is to harness the power of Hollywood -- that factory of the imagination -- using its creative talent to fuel simulation design, so they've set up shop at the "local" university, hoping that the best writers will come to work in their little "studio."


They're also looking for VR talent, so they came to me. I was assured that this wasn't a project to make a better killer -- and with things like Quake 3 Arena around, I doubt we'd need it -- but I couldn't shake the feeling that they were really up to something else: let's call it brainwashing.  How might this work?  Witness the following gedanken experiment:


Plop a squadron of recruits into a virtual world, just before they're deployed to some far-away location within an alien (and potentially hostile) culture.  This virtual world contains a realistic simulation of that culture, both in the physical look of the place, but also in the types of emotional engagement these soldiers will likely encounter -- gun-waving warlords, screaming mothers, young punks, etc.  The platoon grows comfortable in the environment; they learn to work as a team to handle the unpredictable tasks that accompany peacekeeping.  Now ship those kids to their destination in the real world: they'll react on the basis of their synthetic experience.


It's tempting to react negatively to any military appropriation of VR, but it's at least conceivable that such a system might be explicitly designed to minimize casualties in the real-world, by teaching trainees composure under situations of severe stress. Would it save lives?  Possibly, if it could accurately model the dizzyingly complex worlds of Somalia or Bosnia.  Is that accuracy feasible?  Maybe not.  Emotional "verisimilitude" is an elusive quality in most virtual environments – because the designers themselves (mostly young white male engineers) are, more often than not, out of touch with their own feelings.


Any military simulation -- peacekeeping or otherwise -- will necessary suffer from this lack of consequences. Eliminating the threat of physical harm -- or of death itself -- from the experience of violent confrontations amounts to more than just a rounding error in the simulation. Soldiers trained in a world where physical force is little more than metaphor will be just as disoriented in the field as a team trained in zero gravity. Then again, perhaps our videogames have raised the threshold, made any conceivable abomination just another "Game over." From a distance, that pathology seemed at least a part of the rampage of Klebold and Harris. Who knows how many others are similarly numbed to the consequences of extreme violence? 


When Hollywood got on the patriotic bandwagon and produced "Why We Fight" for the armed forces of WW II, they found that the graphic depiction of enemy atrocities actually drove enrollments down.  This time, it appears that Hollywood has little interest in helping the Army, either because of its vast liberal conspiracy, or because it feels a little uncomfortable with the arrangement.  Most of the creatives I've spoken with have their sites set on their next movie deal, not on some long-term project with patriotic intent and questionable ethics.  As for myself, I don't want to see my program at USC funded by the Army -- though the offer has been made; I'd much rather do business with Fox or MTV, because at least I know they're playing with the minds of consumers, not killers, and I can sleep at night knowing that.  But I wonder if John Carmack ever ponders the power of his own creations, if he ever dreams himself in Quake's arenas, fleeing implacable, emotionless peacekeepers.