Playing at nuclear war via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Timothy Westmyer


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.

[…] The first game I tried wasMegaton Rainfall, a “superhero simulator” designed by a company in Spain that gives you nearly unlimited power—but 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. […]

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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