halo 3

How to understand the Motivation behind Suicide Bombing – with Halo 3

If you want to put yourself in the position of a suicide bomber look no further than… Halo 3. Clive Thompson over at Wired explains that due him leading a normal life he just doesn't have the time to improve his skills to keep up with homophobic teenagers around the world. In short: He sucks at the game, the consequences being humiliation and despair. But Thompson strikes back: While the best Halo players love life, he loves death. From the piece:

But at the last second, before I die, I'll whip out a sticky plasma grenade -- and throw it at them. Because I've run up so close, I almost always hit my opponent successfully. I'll die -- but he'll die too, a few seconds later when the grenade goes off. (When you pull off the trick, the game pops up a little dialog box noting that you killed someone "from beyond the grave.")

It was after pulling this maneuver a couple of dozen times that it suddenly hit me: I had, quite unconsciously, adopted the tactics of a suicide bomber -- or a kamikaze pilot.

Because after all, the really elite Halo players don't want to die. If they die too often, they won't win the round, and if they don't win the round, they won't advance up the Xbox Live rankings. And for the elite players, it's all about bragging rights. Thompson knows he can't win; the system discriminates against him because he doesn't have the most valuable resource at his disposal: time; the time to train for him is a luxury. Consequently he has nothing to lose but tries to screw the system as much as he can. Maybe even to the point where the hardcore players change their patterns of play or start to abandon the game. The only difference being here that the game promises instant resurrection rather than 40 horny virgins in heaven.

Of course there are some issues with this view. Surely despair might play a role in the motivation of a suicide bomber, but eventually he just a follows a blind, basically fascist ideology imposed from above that doesn't care so much about haves and have-nots but about the rule of its religious world-view. Osama bin Laden is a member of one of the wealthiest families of the Middle East showing that it's not solely about having resources at one’s disposal. It certainly is an incredible complex issue, something which Thompson readily acknowledges:

I do not mean, of course, to trivialize the ghastly, horrific impact of real-life suicide bombing. Nor do I mean to gloss over the incredible complexity of the real-life personal, geopolitical and spiritual reasons why suicide bombers are willing to kill themselves. These are all impossibly more nuanced and perverse than what's happening inside a trifling, low-stakes videogame.

But the fact remains that something quite interesting happened to me because of Halo. Even though I've read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an "aha" moment that I'd never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

I think the interesting question here under a design perspective is: How would we be able to convey this ability to feel a motivation, this feeling of comprehension into other games designed for political purposes and campaigning? If games are able to convey the "aha" moment of one the most horrendous acts they surely must be able to communicate a party's stand on healthcare or fiscal policy.