Monday, February 22, 2016

Autonomous Defense Systems and The Lenten Armistice of 2016

The sense of joy afforded by tiny victories, like finding a parking space within 5 stalls of the door at Costco, or simple pleasures, such as the depth, more so than the frequency or duration, of a good belly laugh, is commensurate with one's appreciation of same.  It goes without saying that our world is filled with people who feel entitled to such things, and rather than appreciation of their presence, experience only rancour at their absence.

In my own experience, a periodic hiatus creates even more gratitude for them, hence my annual tradition of giving up something for Lent. In the past I have foregone beer, chocolate, alcohol and even cursing, but to keep things different, this year I gave up video games.

Playing a lot of console games is not something I do consistently. I tend to dabble, for the most part, and will often go weeks or months without hardly touching them, but if one catches my fancy, especially an adventure with an engaging story unfolding around me, I can go to binge-player mode fairly quickly. It's kind of a feast or famine situation, for the most part.

Currently, however, foregoing such entertainments is more difficult than it once was, because it is something Glory and I have been doing together.

Neither of the girls plays much in the way of video games on their own, but they enjoy doing it as a group, especially on the Wii. We like to play Rock Band together, or kart-style racing games where all of us are interacting at once. It turns out that this is also something Glory likes to do with her bestie, and includes playing a fair amount of first-person shooters (FPS) on the X-Box when she sleeps over.

I was flabbergasted, then delighted, and told Glory that such a game had actually come with the PlayStation 3 I bought a few years back, but I had barely touched it because they are not really my thing. When I asked if she would be interested in playing with me sometime, she happily agreed.

The game in question is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and is probably considered a bit long in the tooth now. The setting is a near-future world similar to our own, but in the midst of a full blown global war with Russia, orchestrated by ultranationalist terrorists, so the settings and weapons are relatively realistic, and sometimes creepily so, as you wander around a devastated London tube station or shattered highway interchange filled with familiar looking vehicles. (The single player mode has a pretty engaging story as well, and the script is by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Haggis.)

Having no interest in exposing either my youngest or myself to the vicissitudes of online gaming, our first games were relatively slow-paced, mano-a-mano affairs, pitting one of us against the other. This quickly devolved into a strange version of hide and go seek but with fully automatic weapons and fragmentation grenades replacing the flashlights, and was entertaining for a while, but quickly lost its appeal.

Then we tried some of the other missions, like Demolition, which required finding a bomb in the middle of the map which you then had to deposit at the opposing team's headquarters. They would have a short amount of time to defuse it, but since the other player knew exactly where they would be headed, this scenario also lacked any real tactical flair so long as only two people were playing.

The real breakthrough came when we discovered that two people could play alongside as teammates in 'Survival Mode', which pits our heroes against wave after wave of enemies of increasing difficulty. Suddenly things got incredibly interesting, as we tried to explore the various maps while giving each other cover and support. Best of all, if one player went down, the other could rush to their side and revive them, provided they got there before the onscreen countdown reached zero.

Playing as a team meant learning more about the different weapons, enemy tactics, the lay of the land, and the importance of teamwork. Having a little more experience, I tended to take point and do much of the heavy lifting, but Glory could be counted on to save my bacon countless times, spotting flankers, covering blind spots, or madly emptying her clip into the crew who had just incapacitated me before racing to my rescue.

In Survival mode, cash is earned by both vanquishing one's foes, and, well, surviving, as the name suggests. In our earlier games we would quickly run to the various upgrade points and trade up to bigger and more powerful weapons. Eventually we branched out into things like claymore mines, or even allies that could be dropped in to help support us. Soon enough we realized that by foregoing the purchase of upgrades and relying on our pistols, knives, and the slightly better longarms dropped by our foes, we could save more money more quickly, and became ruthlessly efficient at the earlier levels of this mode.

Now, I am not going to bandy the ethical repercussions of playing a relatively realistic violence simulator with my teenaged daughter as a means of spending quality bonding time together, but the hesitant among you need to understand one thing: these are bad people we are virtually terminating here. They attack repeatedly, without warning, and using the most abhorrent tactics, including, but not limited to, chemical warfare, C4 deadman switches and suicide bombs. The only ones Glory and I feel even remotely sorry for are the attack dogs they feel obliged to sic on us every few rounds. No, without exception, these merciless automatons require the swift judgement of their silicon maker, and the two of us are all too happy to arrange the meeting.

On the Paris map, we had sketched out a reasonably effective defense by centering ourselves on a short tunnel next to an open plaza, then setting up claymore mines along the more common approaches. By following the dictates of Sun Tzu and "gathering in plunder" (XI, 13) instead of buying upgraded firearms, we were able to afford the services of a squad of 4 French GIGN troopers equipped with riot shields, which made them far more durable than the Delta Squad chappies who were considerably more affordable.

Hunkered in our respective positions, it was invigorating to watch one of our Gallic comrades burst out of cover and use his momentum and riot shield to knock an attacking commando onto his back, before dispatching him with his submachinegun. Even when the enemy dispatched a pair of juggernauts wearing bomb disposal suits and armed with light machineguns, these brave soldiers pressed the attack, unfooting one of them, but perishing under the withering fire of the second. When all was said and done, Glory said ruefully, "Daddy, we are all out of French guys now."

The Air Support terminal was too far to reach before the next wave, so I rushed to the Explosives station, hoping I could make up the difference with claymores and the like, but I noticed something on the menu that hadn't been previously available.

"Sweetie," I ventured, tenuously, "It says here I can get a... Sentry Gun? for $3000..."

Glory paused briefly from looting magazines off the bodies in the plaza. "A Sentry Gun?" she mused. "(Gasp) YOU MEAN LIKE THE ONES WITH THE MOTION SENSORS IN ALIENS?"

I should perhaps mention here that it is a particular point of pride for me that one of Glory's favourite movies is James Cameron's Aliens, and, like her father, LOVES the scenes with the robot sentry guns that were never part of the theatrical release. So enamoured were my friends and I with this scene that we chained together three VHS machines and painstakingly edited our own special release using footage taped from a television broadcast.

At any rate, I said I supposed they would be similar to those ones, and she breathlessly exclaimed, "THEN YOU HAVE TO GET IT!"

I can't say with certainty whether the source of my immediate and considerable pride was due to her recognition, her excitement, or her clear understanding that this was a moral imperative, so I quickly bought the gun and deployed it in front of her position in the tunnel.

No sooner had I stepped away then the next wave showed up, packing body armour and 6.8 mm Adaptive Combat Rifles.  I sprinted to the other end of the tunnel, knowing my failure to lay down any claymores meant I was likely to have my hands full. It turns out though, that the initial deployment were drawn to my position at the start of the wave, and ran right into our automated defense.

I could hear the whine of the servo bringing the rotating barrels of the minigun up to speed, followed by the industrially lethal sound of 6000 rounds per minute turning our adversaries into sloppy servings of cold cuts. No more than a handful came around to my side, and having scoped my own weapon, I was able to deal with them at range. "How's it going on your side, Bug?" I inquired.

"I've hardly had to shoot anybody, the sentry is doing most of the wor- HEY! STOP SHOOTING MY ROBOT!" An extended burst of fire from her purloined MP5, followed by a grim chuckle and the wry observation, "The nerve of that guy."

Needless to say, our subsequent strategies soon came to include Sentry Guns at the earliest opportunity, and experimentation to find the optimal location. They have made us far more effective combatants, and this small variation has increased our enjoyment of the game immeasurably, in a fashion consistent with the examples given at the beginning of this post.

It is perhaps unfortunate that we made this discovery almost immediately prior to the beginning of Lent, but I choose to look at it with different eyes. Glory and I can still get a game in on Sundays during our weekly respite from Lenten observances, and even though we aren't quite as effective as we might be with more practice, we enjoy our time together on our make-believe battlefield all the more because of its rarity.

Sure, it isn't the most conventional observation for a season of reflection and repentance, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. I wouldn't want to close by wryly noting something about moving in mysterious ways or anything, but if the reader were inclined to, I would hardly be in a position to disagree.

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