Gamers Playing For High Stakes In Space

View from the Cassini orbiter. Image: NASA

Donya Al Shirazi is a hero. But whose?

The central character in Alec Medén’s From A Remove, the winning entry in the latest Art of Future Warfare project war-art challenge, has the highly prized reflexes of a championship gamer in the 2090s and an allegiance to an online non-state community that we can see in its infancy today.

Al Shirazi is technically a heroine, but one that somebody like Medén, a 20-year old sophomore at Chapman University in Southern California, can relate to. Given the short story contest’s mandate to envision space/interstellar conflict during the last decade of the 20th Century it would have been easy to create a lead character drawn from the square-jawed astronauts of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.

Medén wanted to shake things up and so he made Al Shirazi “an Iranian woman who’s just like everyone else … not a battle hardened badass. I wanted a person who’s normal.” Normal, maybe, but with extraordinary talents. As a former “Major League” gamer, she is using her winnings to pay her way through Stanford University. Al Shirazi is also an undercover operative recruited by Scalpel, a paramilitary organization working for the Sovs – not the Soviet Union, however. The Sovereignties are the global populace whose allegiance is not tied to territory, but an idea bigger than any one country. As Al Shirazi’s professor explained: “When the Sovereignty movement started really taking off, they scared the hell out of the U.N. Imagine it: a few million of your own citizens claiming dual citizenship to a nation that only existed on the Internet!”

Scalpel has put this young idealist’s lightning quick reflexes and gaming-honed instincts to work protecting some of Earth’s most valuable strategic assets. The way she operates her remotely-flown space fighter will be familiar to gamers today and past readers of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game will see that this type of warfare need not be disguised as a game at all.

Medén is of the Call of Duty generation that played the best-selling title as it evolved from a World War II themed game to become a groundbreaking exercise in future-casting warfare. In a sense, Al Shirazi is the great granddaughter of those who will be playing Black Ops III when it comes out this fall.

“She is a product of the blurred line between games and actual military affairs, and almost a naïve understanding of the nature of conflict,” Medén said in an interview. In the story, however, she can no longer keep the death and destruction at bay.

The story took shape gradually. Medén started out five times as he fit the creative work in between classes and college life. The creative writing and screenwriting major said he is already producing a story every other week for his classes.

Originally, he had set From A Remove far from Earth but decided it would not allow him to say something about drones, nor have rising stakes like one of Tom Clancy’s novels. “At a far-out outpost it wouldn’t work that way,” he said.

Technology plays a central role in the story, as it should given the future setting. This led him to think through the devastating potential of space-going ships or satellites, among other inventions like spaceship power plants and the African Confederation’s Tsetse 7 missile. “Every ship has the capability to destroy a planet if you give it enough time” to accelerate. That is something that Al Shirazi comes to personally understand as she fights a war from her Palo Alto dorm room. Other innovations, like using low-cost drones as a crude form of missile defense, will be immediately apparent for their ingenuity and relevance. Railguns in development today by BAE Systems, he said, helped inspire the kinetic weapons used by Al Shirazi in her space combat missions.

While remote technology may trivialize warfare for policymakers, “I actively reject that it does for the people who have to carry it out,” he said. “Even if you’re operating from a remove, you can’t escape the psychological effects.”

That is especially true for Al Shirazi.

Read From A Remove at the Art of Future Warfare project website.