Sean Smith on Sat, 26 Jul 2008 04:04:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Abstracting Ender, Swarming Sender

"All of us are already civilian soldiers, without knowing it. And some of us
know it. The great stroke of luck for the military class's terrorism is
that no one recognizes it. People don't recognize the militarized part of
their identity, of their consciousness."[1]

* * *

Two articles recently retrieved from the data networks, each located
somewhere in the nexus between war and interactive entertainment, have
given me pause to consider Virilio's question of the civilian soldier anew.
The first comes from Wired's Danger Room blog, in which David Hambling
details the use of console videogame controllers as the interface for
piloting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).[2] He quotes an executive from
defense contractor Raytheon, who points out that "the video-game industry
always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction,"
and hence the logic of such an interface choice.

For many would-be soldiers this synergy is years in the making. The blend
of muscle memory and proprioception required to operate a console videogame
controller, honed throughout childhood, readily transfers to military-level
applications much more smoothly (and cheaply) than developing new motor
skills for proprietary military interfaces. While various sporting pursuits
(boxing, archery, football, etc.) were perceived in eras past to translate
in a more abstract biomechanical sense to the battlefield, today the
translation is far more concrete: no longer will kids play make-believe
with toy guns before a subset someday handles the genuine article; instead,
everyone that plays console videogames will always already be handling the
real thing and training their bodies for "combat."

The second news item concerning the civilian soldier comes from the 2008 E3
conference, where Sony announced the future launch of its new massively
multiplayer online game (MMO), tentatively titled M.A.G. - Massive Action
Game.[3] An online war simulation game, M.A.G. promises a substantial
innovation in that it will allow 256 players to play simultaneously on the
same server without experiencing performance lags (generally speaking, the
average online console game might support 20-30 players simultaneously on
the same server). Players will compete in squads of eight soldiers, and
progress through a "character development" arc that adds certain skills to
the soldier's portfolio, from commando, to medic, to demolitions, and so on
(embedded journalist didn't appear to be on the list). Though the
announcement seems to be as much promotional blitz as substance at this
time, it speaks to a concerted effort by Sony to vastly develop its
capabilities in online gaming and move the console genre from traditional
fantasy world to war simulation.

Online multiplayer gaming is not new. And the war simulation genre is as
old as videogames themselves. But Sony's desire and capital investment to
shift war videogames to bigger and better online gaming experiences should
be of interest as it heralds a significant change in the relationship
between war and interactive entertainment, for once the game moves off the
console proper and into a server farm or data cloud we create the potential
for a radical shift in the notion of the archive as it relates to play and
violence, war and peace.

In distilled form, the logistics of war are about tracking a variety of
objects -- soldiers, vehicles, munitions -- as they move spatiotemporally
to, from, and within theatres of conflict. Advances in tracking technology
have allowed such logistical endeavours to become more granular and
synchronized, allowing, for example, real-time remote control of assets on
a cartographic grid. But as Jordan Crandall notes in his recent Nettime
post, we are making a mistake if we view this primarily as a problem in
space. "While it is possible to map ...  tracked objects in space, such
spatialization is not primary. The map is secondary; the numbers are what

This becomes even more apparent when the "space of conflict" in question is
the mathematically-generated non-space of the MMO game: when the numbers of
polygonal geometric structure beget the numbers of discrete object
tracking, which beget the numbers of individual player and team scoring,
and so forth.  When videogames are played locally on consoles or personal
computers, this data stays on the local hard drive or else isn't captured
at all. Massive numbers of players in an MMO game, on the other hand,
create massive amounts of data, all captured by the owner of the servers.
And increasingly, as Ian Ayres points out in Super Crunchers, this data may
be mined with sophisticated statistical methods to create actionable
information of considerable value to its owner.

Using M.A.G. and the nexus of war and interactive entertainment as an
example, such database mining may operate along at least three dimensions
to create actionable information of interest to the military: first, to
analyze and understand in the aggregate potential outcomes of a mission
gamed thousands of times with real human factors and decision making
involved; second, to determine within the connected intelligence of this
gaming community how learning takes place given objectives with more or
less clearly defined goals; third, and perhaps most interesting, to extract
statistical outliers at the long tail of the distribution curve that may
provide strategies and tactics superior to those put forth by existing
military doctrine.

In this last dimension science fiction aficionados will find echoes of the
so-called Ender's Game scenario, after the award-winning science fiction
novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card. In Ender's Game, children
playing videogames are used, without their knowledge, as tools of war
against an alien species:

"Mazer reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Mazer
then grew serious and said, 'Ender, for the past few months you have been
the battle commander of our fleets. This was the Third Invasion. There were
no games, the battles were real, and the only enemy you fought was the
buggers. You won every battle, and today you finally fought them at their
home world, where the queen was, all the queens from all their colonies,
they all were there and you destroyed them completely. They'll never attack
us again. You did it. You.'

"Real. Not a game. Ender's mind was too tired to cope with it all. They
weren't just points of light in the air, they were real ships that he had
fought with and real ships he had destroyed. And a real world that he had
blasted into oblivion. He walked through the crowd, dodging their
congratulations, ignoring their hands, their words, their rejoicing. When
he got to his own room he stripped off his clothes, climbed into bed, and

In conjunction with the statistical analysis of the petabytes of data they
produce, Sony's M.A.G. and its ilk potentially bring the Ender's Game
scenario to full fruition, albeit with two major caveats: the role of Ender
is no longer played by one person but has been abstracted from the
databanked performance of thousands of gamers and aggregated together in a
"wisdom of crowds" logic; and instead of Ender controlling a fleet of
soldiers in real-time as in the book, our current scenario describes an
asynchronous feedbackforward of generated information flowing to and from
ludic and violent spaces, oscillating on different temporal registers
between the cyborg soldier on the battlefield and the cyborg gamer jacked
into the simulation.

In raising such a red flag I may be accused of potential paleo-futurism[6]
or paranoid conspiracy, so let me attempt to deflect both of those
critiques in advance. With regard to paleo-futurism we must note that most
of the exhibits Matt Novak identifies on his blog concern speculative
technologies not in existence at the time of their historical prediction,
and which would have required significant modifications in consumer
behaviour in order to be realized. As the various tidal flows of capital
investment in information technology over the past two decades
demonstrates, predicting consumer acceptance of disruptive technologies is
tricky business. But data mining the archives of play in MMOs does not
require any new shift in consumer behaviour: the move from local console
severality to non-local online multiplicity has already taken place. It
simply becomes a marketing promotions exercise to channel users into the
"right" war game or downloadable module at the "right" time.

Nor is it conspiratorial to point out that the traditional nation-state
military force has ceded to a complex web of interdependent relationships
between various branches of armed forces, intelligence agencies, university
research institutions, private militias, and corporate defense contractors
-- a process that has been underway for the past century:

"They could no longer simply say that on one side there was the arsenal
which produced a few shells, and on the other civilian consumption and the
budget.  No, they noticed that they needed a special economy, a wartime
economy. This wartime economy was a formidable discovery, which in reality
announced and inaugurated the military-industrial complex."[7]

Likewise, it is not conspiratorial to note that the communications and
entertainment industries are being woven into this web, as the first
article about console videogame controllers being used to pilot UAVs
illustrates.  Rather, this weaving should be considered a logical outcome
of the Revolution in Military Affairs and subsequent introduction of C4I
technology and strategy, which Haraway hinted at thirty years ago as
leading to a "homework economy ...  controlled by high-tech repressive
apparatuses ranging from entertainment to surveillance and

The only question, paranoid or no, seems to be how fully the entertainment
industries will become enmeshed in the society permanently at war, not
simply at the level of human-machine interface -- as with the use of
console videogame controllers in military situations -- but at the level of
intelligence generation and strategy formulation.

It is noteworthy to point out that data mining the movements of players in
war-based MMO games would not be the U.S. military's first foray into
attempting to harness the collective intelligence of civilians. In 2001 the
United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- not
uncoincidentally the same agency responsible for the internet's genesis --
funded two projects under the label of "Electronic Market-Based Decision

One of these projects was called Policy Analysis Market (PAM), which was a
prediction market that offered traders the ability to financially speculate
on the possible occurrence of future geopolitical outcomes. Though
substantial development was completed on PAM, it was canceled before its
launch in 2003 due to pressure from the U.S. Senate, which accused the
system of basically allowing people to bet and profit on the potential of
terrorist attacks and assassinations. Political considerations aside, Brian
Holmes' more nuanced and formal analysis of PAM suggests that it "produces
information, while turning human actors into functional relays, or indeed,
into servomechanisms; and it 'consumes freedom' for a purpose."[9]

Data mining massively multiplayer online war videogames accomplishes
similar goals with potentially lucrative gains for entertainment companies
like Sony.  Indeed, there is a precise calculus of profit maximization to
be located between the price elasticity of downloadable game content and
the value of data-mined algorithms resulting from exponentially increasing
network effects in the game environment. And the freedoms of human actors
-- the freedom of play, the freedom to choose -- are consumed in the
production of these algorithms as the civilian soldier lurking within every
war gamer is extracted towards servomechanistic ends.

The geopolitical landscape has been changing inexorably since the Cold War,
and the tactics and strategies of contemporary conflict have radically
followed suit. For example, swarming -- of bodies, DNS attacks, etc. -- has
become a common tactic in material and immaterial fourth-generation
warfare.[10,11] By contrast, then, we might conceive of our MMO data mining
scenario as a *swarm-in-being* of minds and partial-bodies (cf. Virilio's
"fleet-in-being"), that is actualized at a later date by soldiers in the
battlefield. In other words, it is an "apparatus of capture" by the State
-- understood in the sense articulated above as a complex web of
interrelationships linking public and private interest -- that aggregates
together diffuse molecular elements at the micropolitical scale.[12]

As a corollary to the first two caveats regarding the Ender's Game scenario
mentioned above, a third emerges: in the novel Ender is racked with guilt
upon learning of his role in exterminating the enemy bugger species,
despite his ignorance at the time of the reality of the situation. Since
Ender becomes in our scenario an abstraction from the databased activities
of thousands, questions of morality and intentionality in war as they
relate to the agency of one individual are shattered when considered in
this emerging, diffused, servomechanistic form: who, exactly, is
responsible? This swarm-in-being is frightening in that it may exert a
significant controlling influence over wartime operations without ever
engaging in an overt act of violence -- or the moral deliberation that
accompanies such an act.

(cross-posted with links and metadata at sportsBabel:


1.  Paul Virilio, Pure War, p.26.
2.  David Hambling. "Game Controllers Driving Drones, Nukes."
3.  E3 2008 Sony Press Conference "MAG" PS3.
4.  Jordan Crandall. "Between Tracking and Formulating."
5.  Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game, p.296.
6.  Matt Novak. Paleo-Future: A Look Into The Future That Never Was.  
7.  Virilio, Pure War, p.16.
8.  Donna Haraway. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.
9.  Brian Holmes. "Future Map."
10.  John Robb. "Global Guerrilla Swarming."
11.  William Lind, et al. "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation."
12.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

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