Nuclear weapons came to video games as far back as Missile Command, and have made regular appearances ever since. Now it's time for video games to come to nuclear weapons, in the form of a game development contest designed to raise awareness.
N Square is an organization set up to alert the world to the modern dangers of nuclear weapons, of which there are an estimated 17,300 in existence. Funded with $2.4 million, N Square aims to "ignite the public imagination and spark new ideas about how to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons," according to its website.
"Security experts warn of a near one-in-three chance of a nuclear event in the next ten years."
This week, it announced a partnership with Games for Change — a "catalyst for social change through video games" — which will attempt to fix the minds of game fans and developers on nuclear bombs.
A contest has been announced, which is seeking a game design that successfully speaks to the danger of nuclear warheads. Anyone can enter. If the winning entry is a person or a team with the wherewithal to complete the game, they will be paid to go ahead. If not, a development team will be drafted in to work with the winning designer on the game.
N Square is funding the effort and providing marketing and distribution support. It is also planning a roadshow during which the game will be demonstrated to members of the public.
"The threat posed by nuclear materials may be greater now than ever before," said N Square executive director Erika Gregory. "Security experts warn of a near one-in-three chance of a nuclear event in the next ten years. With the game challenge, we hope to spark new thinking and engagement to cut the risks associated with nuclear weapons and fissile materials."
Nuclear war games
Missile Command, released to back in 1980, was a trackball arcade game in which players sought to shoot down ballistic missiles before they hit cities. The game's designer, Dave Theurer, said that during development, he suffered nightmares about nuclear bombs hitting cities (read the full story here).
War Games, a 1983 movie that straddled video games and a potential nuclear holocaust, was made into a Coleco game in 1984. Broadly based on Missile Command, it successfully explored the contemporary fear of a nuclear war triggered by accident.
Heroes rarely decide to press the button.
Chris Crawford's Balance of Power, released in 1985, was a Cold War simulation in which players sought to avoid all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, while engaging in posturing brinkmanship in order to maintain spheres of influence.
Nuclear blasts are also a favorite staple of action shooter games, such as the explosion in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in which a nuke is detonated in a Middle Eastern city. Raccoon City is hit with a nuke in Resident Evil 3.
Nukes are also an important element of grand strategy games like the Civilization series and tactical war sims like Command & Conquer: Generals and World in Conflict. Saints Row 4, which never shies away from poor taste, allows the player to upgrade to nuclear warhead capabilities.
Nukes have usually been used in games to make a point. In strategy games, it is usually a bad idea to use them. In action games, heroes rarely decide to press the button.
A new generation
While nuclear bombs were deeply frightening to children and adults who lived through the Cold War, they have been superseded by other fears in the last 25 years. Terrorist attacks and school shootings are plenty enough for people to worry about.
But as more countries seek the bomb, and as more organizations desperately try to get their hands on a warhead, the issue is becoming urgent.
"N Square are looking to engage with a whole new generation," said Games for Change's acting president Susanna Pollack, in an interview with Polygon. "They want to raise awareness of nuclear security as an issue that is relevant, that is as much of an urgent threat as it has been since the Cold War.
"This is an issue that touches every person on the planet but which has faded from consciousness. The risks are very real, just in a different way than for previous generations. Engaging with a creative, forward thinking community like game developers is a natural fit."
Games for Change is keen to stress that the contest is open to anyone (you can find out more here) and that there are no limits on creative direction. The game can be about the bombs themselves, or about a detonation, or about a world post-holocaust.
"We're leaving that open to different creative ideas," says Pollack. "We want to make this personal for everyone. We want to see how we can think and invent our way through these challenges."
"N Square's ambition is to try to reach a wide audience. They can engage people around games," said Games for Change's Emily Treat, who is in charge of the contest. "We want to reach the widest possible audience so by making the challenge conceptual and theoretical, we're really lowering the bar of entry. Anyone with a good idea can submit it and we will make all means possible to execute that winning idea."
The deadline for submissions is Nov. 13, with a winner due to be announced on Nov. 20.