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Operation Greenhouse nuclear test, Marshall Islands, 1951
14 December 2017

Playing at nuclear war

Timothy Westmyer

Timothy Westmyer

Timothy Westmyer is a project manager in nuclear security at CRDF Global. He also hosts the...

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The hallmark of a Norman Rockwell Christmas morning is gathering around the fireplace to drink hot chocolate and open gifts with your loved ones. Depending on what you find in your stockings this year, you might come face-to-face with nuclear war like you never have before. Virtually speaking, that is.

On the Christmas gift list of many children (and geeky grown-ups) these days are the latest virtual reality, or VR, systems for use with a video game console, computer, or smartphone. The PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and others give enthusiasts many options to explore the rapidly emerging catalog of virtual reality games and applications.

In a way, this marks the latest iteration of a trend that has been around since the advent of the atomic age. Nuclear science and nuclear weapons have occupied a dominant position in mainstream popular culture, so it should be no surprise that VR has gone nuclear as well.

But virtual reality systems contain something inherently different: They use technology to create realistic images and surround sound to make a person sense that they are physically present in a simulated environment. This feature has the potential to make VR ideal for immersive storytelling and for professional training for emergency situations, as well as for documentaries and for what some refer to as nuclear disaster tourism.

And don’t forget video games.

What remains to be seen is whether this brave new VR world could be harnessed to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons—or if it will remain an entertaining gimmick, destined to go the way of drive-ins and hula hoops.

To find out where the technology stood, I decided to try out the different virtual reality applications myself. After telling my wife that it was essential for vital research for an article I was working on, she let me buy a PlayStation VR. What follows is not an exhaustive compendium of all that is out there, but a few highlights—though it does take in virtual reality applications that have been created from around the globe.

Playing nuclear war in virtual reality. A great piece of art—whether it is a film, a painting, or even a video game—has the ability to provoke emotions and push the viewer to see an issue from a new perspective. During the Cold War, the anti-nuclear weapon movement used painting, music, poetry, and film to comment on nuclear risks. Now, that medium may be virtual reality.

First, some background. The VR setup uses a camera to track movements of a headset and two handheld controllers, so that when I turned my head or moved my arms, the 360-degree environment displayed on the visors moved in nearly perfect unison. Though a long way from the holodeck virtual reality environment featured in Star Trek, it is nevertheless extraordinary how riveting the visuals look and how strong a reaction they evoke.

There are certainly technical limitations in VR systems today. It can be difficult to focus the lens, and the graphics are a step down from what you see on high-definition televisions or the latest gaming consoles. There is a noticeable lack of tactile feedback and some people suffer from motion sickness after using VR for long periods of time. And while there are cheaper options available, high-tech VR systems are still largely cost-prohibitive for the average household.

But these constraints are unlikely to hold back VR systems as long as there is a steady demand for content. And the technology is sure to improve.

In my pursuit of what VR has to say about nukes, I tried out a handful of video games and several VR applications that are akin to interactive documentaries. The first game I tried was Megaton Rainfall, a “superhero simulator” designed by a company in Spain that gives you nearly unlimited powerbut also the global responsibility of stopping an alien invasion. Inspired by the movies War of the Worlds and Independence Day, the game allows the player to fly around Earth to fight off intruders with powers such as a “Megaton blast” that can destroy massive spaceships but also inflict city-leveling collateral damage. The first time I missed an enemy and accidentally hit a city center, I was forced to listen to thousands of digital screams as a fireball destroyed people and collapsed buildings, with imagery torn straight from the most iconic nuclear detonations on film. No matter where I turned my head in real life, I was confronted with the verisimilitude of megadeath and needed to take a long break to regain my composure. This was not a situation that I found myself in playing Super Mario Bros.

Using a Google Cardboard VR headset and my smartphone, up next was the mobile game Cold War Nuclear Strike VR, made by a consortium of educators using technology to enrich teaching in schools across London. The game puts you in the backyard of an average early-1980s British home, enjoying your day before the radio advises you to seek shelter in a nuclear fallout bunker because World War III has just started. You only have a couple of seconds to head inside your bunker before the game declares you dead.

There is not much to do once you are underground, but players can look at the piles of recommended bunker supplies and at a survival checklist on the wall that has a reminder to stock the shelter with board games for your family. I suddenly noticed that I was standing alone; my virtual family apparently did not make it into the shelter with me. This realization left me fearing for the safety of my virtual loved ones and feeling a creeping sense of survivor’s guilt—something which the National Academies of Sciences’ study, Psychological Consequences of Disaster: Analogies for the Nuclear Case, had said might happen. According to the game’s creators, the stimulation of such feelings was intentional; their mission was to “create a scenario that presented pupils with a realistic experience of the genuine level of fear” during the Cold War and to “portray how life could change dramatically and instantly in the case of a nuclear strike.” They also promised, however, to not “leave students traumatized” and instead “provide just enough jeopardy and threat to leave them feeling they have just experienced something significant.”

(It’s worth noting that the incredibly popular video game Fallout 4, about life after nuclear war, is also available this holiday season. The Bulletin already delved into the popularity of this game, but playing the expansive story in a VR environment promises to be an entirely different adventure.)

Nuclear tourism with a VR passport. Several virtual reality programs brought me on a tour of the same two key locations in nuclear history. The first was Atomic Ghost Fleet, an application developed by a UK-based company that lets you tag along with a marine research crew as they use 360-degree underwater cameras to film naval vessels sunk at Bikini Atoll by US nuclear tests in 1946. The story starts with you standing on a beach looking at the ocean as an immense atmospheric nuclear test mushroom cloud fills the screen. You then dive further into the narrative as a submarine visits ships that survived World War II, only to later be used as target practice in nuclear tests to measure the impact of atomic weapons against navies. Edited together with contemporary World War II footage, there were several moments where I forgot for a moment that I was not actually there, floating mesmerized past corals as big as the 44mm guns on the sunken USS Lamson destroyer itself, amid abundant schools of fish—showing the resiliency of life in the waters of Bikini Atoll after being laid waste by a nuclear test more than 70 years ago. I involuntarily swayed on my couch with the imaginary ocean current—which seemed as real to me as the sight of the massive submerged aircraft carrier right in front of me.

I turned next to a pair of virtual trips to Pripyat in Ukraine to witness a once-bustling community now largely abandoned in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Frontline partnered with New York University to film a tour of the exclusion zone with a guide who had been evacuated as a child but who now brings visitors to the site to share his experience and teach about what happened. Return to Chernobyl is an amazing look at the human toll of the nuclear disaster that displaced upwards of 300,000 people.

In contrast, the Chernobyl VR Project was a more interactive experience, designed by a studio in Poland, that “combines video games with educational and movie narrative software” to allow players to freely walk around locations and interact with objects on-site. Locations include the nuclear plant, a dilapidated school, an abandoned amusement park, the radiation containment shelter, and others. Players can hear from survivors of the accident and deploy Geiger counters to measure radiation levels at specific areas. The Chernobyl VR Project also lets you visit the Duga-1 radar, an over-the-horizon early warning system built to allow the Soviet Union to detect incoming ballistic missiles and heavy bombers from the US Eastern seaboard—before the system was contaminated by the nuclear accident.

The Chernobyl VR Project is a good example of how virtual reality systems could be used as an interactive learning tool. Walking around the 3D-rendered environment of a music room at the school, you can hear faded memories of instruments and children’s laughter, alongside wind blowing through broken windows and the sounds of creaking floorboards. “Playing”—if it may be called that—a piano in the music room cues a narrator to begin talking about what life was like for average schoolchildren in the Soviet Union. These two virtual tours of Chernobyl leave the viewer with a deeper understanding of this tragic event in nuclear history beyond what even the best writers can describe on paper. I felt the sadness of the citizens of Pripyat in being uprooted from their homes, and their frustrations with the government’s response to the accident—along with a sense of optimism about what Pripyat citizens were trying to build today.

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Virtual reality goggles, 2017

Possibilities and pitfalls in using VR to teach about nukes. From my own immediate responses to the technology, I got the impression that virtual reality truly does have the potential to let people engage with nuclear topics in innovative ways. A well-made VR application can offer the closest thing to a real-life nuclear accident—making it a great hands-on training tool. Apparently, I am not alone in coming to this conclusion; an official with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Incident and Emergency Center said that VR enabled his team to “conduct large scale [nuclear] emergency simulations and let participants train “in environments impossible to simulate otherwise, such as emergencies with very high radiation exposure scenarios.” Similarly, the Nuclear Futures Laboratory at Princeton University and the nonprofit corporation Games for Change are working together on using VR to demonstrate verification techniques for future nuclear arms control treaties, as well as helping the public understand the risks of keeping large nuclear arsenals ready to launch at a moment’s notice.

Virtual reality applications may also be able to update how civil defense planners prepare for a nuclear attack. Instead of Civil Defense pamphlets and public service announcements, VR could help people visualize how to prepare to survive fallout, or what to do in the event of terrorists exploding a radiological dirty bomb. Of course, participating in a virtual reality experience in the comfort of your living room does not approach the horror of a nuclear detonation, but its immersiveness may help bring home the consequences of what happens when large quantities of radiological material or nuclear weapons are left vulnerable around the world.

Once you go beyond using VR as a training tool, however, and start to think about how it can be used in storytelling or as a call to action, the situation becomes much more complicated. It is not enough to just simulate the sights and sounds of nuclear horror. As I discovered, this exposure can leave you feeling overwhelmed and without the ability to do anything about it. I may have sensed a tiny fraction of what it is like to be near ground zero for a nuclear detonation, but what am I to do with this observation? The Doomsday Clock is at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight and my atomic anxieties are already dialed to eleven.

There are several endeavors that use virtual reality to try to deal with this problem of feeling helpless.

One is the Ways of Knowing project undertaken by Lovely Umayam, a research analyst with the Stimson Center and founder of Bombshelltoe, a blog featuring stories about nuclear history, politics, art, and media. This multimedia project uses 360-degree cameras and other VR technologies to better understand the Navajo people’s health and traditions via their enduring, traumatic encounters with uranium mining. By sharing these narratives, the project seeks to ask whether there are “steps we can take as individuals or communities to support environmental rehabilitation and remediation caused by nuclear weapons production.”

Another, similar project is the Australian VR movie Collisions, which tells the story of indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan, whose first interactions with the outside world were during the Maralinga nuclear tests in the state of Western Australia during the 1950s. Released in 2016 and featured at Sundance Institute, the story tries to come to grips with an often-overlooked part of the history of the land down-under, when British atomic bombs were tested on Australian soil.

What all these projects have in common is that they use the technology of virtual reality to tell powerful, nuanced stories that inspire people toward important causes. They are also evidence of how it is possible to keep the immersive nature of VR from devolving the player experience into atomic voyeurism. (For example, the popular DEFCON series—a real-time strategy game inspired by “the big board” of Dr. Strangelove and WarGames—lets users play a game of global thermonuclear war. Earlier this year, a VR update was added, that allows players to sit in a simulated war room as spectators to the end of the world.)

On a similar note, disaster tourism—travel by curiosity seekers to sites of major catastrophes—can be a real dilemma for those seeking to better the public’s understanding of these events. I would enjoy interacting with a simulated missile launch facility or a demonstration of how the president can authorize an attack with the nuclear football, but the application would need to be designed properly to work as an educational tool instead of just a game. Artists are free to create whatever art they wish, of course, and there is definitely a place for escapist entertainment in video games. But if they aim to inspire people to do more than sit in their Adirondack chairs to watch the spectacle of a nuclear bomb exploding, the creators of VR applications will need to think carefully about their craft.

Virtual reality is a cutting-edge technology that empowers storytellers and nuclear policy wonks alike so they can talk about nuclear weapons in imaginative ways. It can help people visit faraway destinations and engage on topics that remain largely inaccessible to the average person. If nuclear VR is handled irresponsibly, we will miss out on the broader possibilities. In the words of Lovely Umayam, “we need to widen the aperture” on what we envision that VR can accomplish.

As Edward R. Murrow once said about the disruptive new technology of television back in 1958: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”