Let’s kick things off with the grindingly obvious: there’s always been a disparity between how real-life items behave and how they are portrayed in video games. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that the next first aid kit you see in real life will be imbued with instant healing powers. It’s a safe bet that the next book you read won’t immediately be committed to memory after a couple of seconds, with all the useful information handily available from an in-life menu screen. And should your occupation, lifestyle or upcoming shopping-mall-murder-spree require familiarity with firearms, chances are the next gun you pick up won’t resemble the science-fiction technology on display in the latest shooter.
Or will it?
Are the weapons that trigger-happy gamers use in Gears Of War, Halo or Fallout 3 really so different from real firearms? We’re already seeing games that accurately reflect genuine weaponry in painstaking detail (such as Modern Warfare 2‘s assault rifles like the FAMAS or SCAR-H, all lovingly adorned with attachments like the Holographic Sight or Heartbeat Sensor, the former of which exists, the latter of which has long been in real-world development). Just as works of fiction once predicted the invention of television and the Internet, games may yet foretell the future of weaponry.
But that’s not all – what if weapons in the real world are a lot closer to their videogame counterparts than anyone suspected? Like, right now? What if the ray-guns and force fields and shoot-lightning-from-your-nipples power-potions are already here? Some of them might not be as advanced as the goodies in Gordon Freeman’s backpack just yet, but rest assured they will be.
Much of gaming’s arsenal to date has been based on tweaking and evolving present weapons to create something much more destructive. Take the Railgun, for instance. Once only considered a hypothetically possible device, it uses electrical current to push a hefty projectile along a pair of metal rails. The design has been around since 1918, when Frenchman André Louis Octave Fauchon-Villeplée patented his catchily titled “Electric Apparatus for Propelling Projectiles”. Videogames like Crysis, S.T.A.L.K.E.R and the Quake and Fallout series have had something of a love affair with the railgun – allowing you to splatter enemies with the massive kinetic energy of a heavy metal rod.
The concept of a railgun has remained purely theoretical – that is, until fairly recently. In the 1980s, the Yugloslavian military were working on a railgun-device that reached a projectile speed of 7,000 m/s. The United States has since taken up the mantle – with their most recent 2008 test showing off a weapon that could take down a 5-metre target over 200 miles away. It’s due to be ready around 2020, should you like to place your order. Memo to old-school Quake players: when they eventually make a handheld version of this baby, no-one’s going to buy all those excuses about ‘lag’ anymore.
Snatch and switch a letter or two from “railgun” (just make sure you don’t get shot while doing it) and you get “raygun,” another gaming stalwart. While this concept is a little more esoteric than a railgun, it’s a hugely popular weapon that has blasted its way through Command & Conquer, Doom, F.E.A.R, and Super Smash Bros. It delivers a beam of directed energy at a target, usually incinerating it, and it is sometimes known as a plasma gun. The difference? Well, your bog-standard raygun can only fire off a beam of electrically conductive laser-induced energy, whereas a plasma gun utilises a harmful stream of ionized matter. Simple, really. While actively destructive rayguns may be unrealistic for now, the ever-ambitious US Military has been hard at work on a riot-deterring device, which levels a beam of intense yet harmless heat at unlucky targets. It won’t turn you into a pile of ashes and experience points just yet, but you really don’t want to bask in its blaze either.
What about the big boys? The ultra-weapons that get called in when your hands get too quivery or fingerless to operate a handheld device? Gears Of War officially swooped up the Coolest Weapon Name Award with the Hammer Of Dawn – an absolute bastard of a weapon that rains down Imulsion-powered satellite beams onto helpless troops. There’s no way a weapon like this could be remotely feasible on this plane of existence, right? Wrong. While lacking the red-hot power-beam, the US Military has been beavering away on a similarly hefty satellite-controlled weapon called ‘Rods From God.’ It essentially hits targets and bases that are deep underground by firing a whole bunch of large metal poles to Earth at 7000mph. From space. Those protective bunkers aren’t safe anymore, kids.
It seems like stopping a Rod From God – which is a horribly phallic name when you think about it – would be nigh-impossible. That is, unless you had a force field. While the concept of an invisible shield of force blocking projectiles has long being a sci-fi/gaming staple, it has been treated with the most innovation in the Halo franchise. Not only did Master Chief have his own rechargeable shield, but the Bubble Shield saved many a life in multiplayer matches. It acts as a temporary force field against bullets, explosions, lasers, flames, grenades and other conventional weaponry, before disappearing after roughly 20 seconds of use.
Such a force field would come in quite handy in real-life. While not technically a shield, the Trophy System blocks incoming missiles from blowing up tanks. Designed by Israel, it uses ‘top-secret’ technology to stop projectiles and missiles from striking their intended target. What is that top-secret technology? Well, the powers-that-be are a little reticent to reveal exact details, other than that Trophy uses a radar system to detect those pesky missiles before taking counter-measures (what looks to be a retaliatory burst of ammo) to render it useless. The missile may still hit your precious tank, but, rest assured, by that stage it’s simply a harmless metal cylinder. It might not have the cool shimmering texture that Master Chief’s sports, but it’s certainly proof that the technology of the United Nations Space Command is not entirely the work of fiction.
2K’s BioShock introduced plasmid serums which gave the player numerous powers, one of which was the ability to whip enemies into a furious rage and force them to attack each other. While the delivery mechanism might differ, the notion of meddling with an enemy’s mood and desires is certainly both powerful and possible. Unlike inducing rage in BioShock, there were designs to create different kind of response – wild, orgiastic, sexual desire. Ladies and gentleman: the gay bomb.
The devastating weapon was dreamt up by the US Air Force Wright Laboratory in 1994. The proposal was to introduce pheromones over enemy forces in order to make them sexually attracted to each other. Other non-lethal ideas cooked up by these enterprising chaps included a “flatulence bomb” and a “halitosis bomb,” as well as a chemical which would induce wasp or rat attacks. While the subject of much mirth (and rejected for further development in this case) the proposals nevertheless imply that the technology is at least possible – and that the emotive theatrics of Rapture may soon be happening outside of fantastical underwater cities.
Of course, even with all these marvellous combat options it still makes sense to take humans out of the equation altogether. Why send inconveniently fragile flesh-and-blood troops into combat when you could just deploy robotic cannon-fodder instead? Best to avoid the shit-talking turrets from Portal, but the noisy propeller-whirled blighters so intent on ruining your day in both Half-Life 2 and the aforementioned BioShock might work. Look no further than the Modular Disc-Wing Urban Cruise Munition, a creation which developer Triton Systems claims will “provide revolutionary tactical access and lethality against hostiles hiding in upper story locations and/or defiladed behind obstacles.” Once they find these hostiles … well, that’s where the fun begins. Fun that involves shooting armor-piercing explosives and jets of molten metal. It’s a pretty sprightly device for something that looks a Frisbee.
If any of these sound incredible or unbelievable, it’s worth noting that the weapons here are all either protoyped or technically feasible, yet momentarily impractical. Technology will always evolve in amazing directions, and sometimes what it produces will appear far-fetched or even magical. The same is true in videogames. Imagine trying to describe Left 4 Dead‘s “Director” or Grand Theft Auto IV‘s weather system to a 1981 Atari gamer – just as futile as laying out the pros and cons of the CZ 805 BREN A1 assault rifle to a Civil War-era rifleman.
Videogames will always be at the forefront of the imagination but it’s going to be a long time before anything that can be dreamed by a game designer can be made in our world. Yet as the imaginations of H.G. Wells, William Gibson and Philip K. Dick have all been credited for their remarkable foresight in how technology would advance, you can expect gaming to have significant contributions predicting the next breakthroughs going forward. Some might say that it’s a shame that those breakthroughs are most evident in weaponry, but then again force fields, plasmids and death-dealing Frisbees are undeniably cool.
C J Davies is a television writer and journalist presently based in London. He can be found over at www.cjdavies.com.