New Sensation

The military use of haptics technology includes ideological indoctrination

VR World is a cyberpunk–arcade bar lovechild with the modest aim of “totally [changing] your world.” I’ve trekked to midtown Manhattan to experience firsthand what the website describes as a “new way to engage with art, film and gaming in mixed reality.” Human bodies with mechanical heads dance around me, silhouetted against reflective white flooring and walls glowing in blue-purple light. The space is composed of stations where you can don a variety of apparatuses — generally some combination of VR headsets, vests that deliver haptic feedback, and controllers that let you manipulate hands and objects in digital space — designed to immerse you in the virtual world of your choice. The gamers here duck, weave, and strike action-movie poses as they gun down incoming enemies (or each other), reacting to each hit as they feel a rumble in their chest. Somewhere, a DJ pumps a steady stream of electronic music into the cavernous room as if to keep these bodies in motion. 

My road to this techno-consumerist temple starts with a desire to unfurl the paradox that seems to lie at the core of these technologies. On the one hand lies Silicon Valley and its gospel of transcendence: The promise that these haptic systems, in returning us to our bodies, will simultaneously let us move beyond them, toward total immersion into the digital world and its infinite possibilities. On the other hand lies the obscured, bloody reality lurking behind these utopian aspirations. These tools aren’t simply idle playthings, but technics capable of delivering death — potential objects of war — knowledge easily repressed or forgotten, even as we shoot our way through hordes of enemies on our consoles. 

Touch is often ignored as a site for ideological construction

Gaming and war have shared a symbiotic relationship for centuries, an often-told history that Jeremy Antley traces in this magazine from the likes of chess and go through contemporary simulators. As tabletop war games were deployed in military training in the 19th century, they began to shape the conduct of war itself to mirror the operations of the game. The simulation “[transformed] the conditions of the original,” Antley writes, as warfare took on the logic of the games that simulated and anticipated it. In the late 20th and early 21st century, that mantle was largely taken up by PC and console games — from popular shooters like Call of Duty to more “realistic” simulators like ARMA — which acclimate users to the idea of combat and warmaking, while training military recruits in tactical strategy and cooperation. 

The latest evolutionary step in this history includes haptic, immersive tools like VR headsets, omni-directional treadmills, haptic vests, gloves, helmets, and motion sensitive controllers — technologies centered around full-body movement and sensation.  These technologies draw attention to a dimension of this relationship that has historically been neglected: touch, which can be leveraged in myriad ways to prime subjects for war. 

Though there is plenty of analysis on the military’s connection with gaming — ranging from its deployment of gaming’s aesthetics and the use of its logic in training, to the role of gaming in military propaganda — relatively little has been said about the tactile dimension of this relationship, the role that physical apparatuses have in shaping it. Touch is often ignored as a site for ideological construction — rendered invisible in discourse — which makes us all the more receptive to indoctrination through this unguarded domain. The unreflective familiarity of touch — the way our tactile engagement with motion controllers and wearables recedes into the perceptual background over time — makes it readily exploitable for a war complex hoping to regulate bodies and hone them for use. Haptic gaming apparatuses allow the military to wage a subtle but pernicious campaign of embodied readiness on the general populous. If, as Foucault observes, the proliferation of surveillance technologies turned our civilization into one giant prison, then the proliferation of these systems is poised to transform society into a massive boot camp, and our bodies into an always-ready reserve of military power.

Plugged into my headset and vest and blasting my way through a virtual cityscape with a motion controller designed to mimic a gun, I start to get a sense of what happens when gravity and weightlessness collide. After an hour of playing, my head is spinning. After two, an eerie disassociation washes over me. My stomach is shaken by the delay experienced in the to-and-fro between virtuality and physicality, weight and weightlessness. Nausea. An attendant tells me that queasiness isn’t uncommon for first-timers, and by the time I leave, my body feels unfamiliar to myself — my reflexes are alert, but my sense of concreteness, of self, is foggy, as if seen through a smudged screen.

In Archaeologies of Touch, David Parisi traces our notions of haptics and touch from the 18th century onwards. Though initially confined to the laboratory as a conceptual tool for scientific investigation, hapticity eventually found its way to wider discourse in the modern era through tech marketing and advertising. Partially motivated, as Parsi notes, by a commercial complex interested in producing a demand for touch-based interfaces, touch became characterized in popular culture as an “ancient, primitive, and pre-rational” sense that could help us commune with technology in a more naturalistic manner. This discourse teaches us that touch belongs to a sort of natural, pre-representational state of being: ahistorical, non-technological, simply what it is. Touch is then considered “unwaveringly grounded in the body’s physiological capacities, and less open to critical intervention and interpretation,” as the authors of the special issue Haptic Media Studies write. “It seems immediate, a form of direct and incontrovertible experience.”

Contrast this with our conceptions of sight and sound, which are widely acknowledged as being discursively and ideologically constructed, and form the axis along which much of the military-gaming analysis is performed. Plenty of ink has been spilled unpacking the ways the military benefits from the aestheticization of violence — how visual mediation not only abstracts or fetishizes violence, but also transmits an idealized vision of war through the spectacle-driven lens of heroism, equipping the military with an aesthetic strategy by which they can entice potential recruits and whitewash their own crimes. 

The assumption that touch is not subject to discursive conditioning — because it doesn’t pick up on semantically loaded “content” in the same way as sight or hearing — is too narrow a view, and it obscures the ways that touch can be exploited. Moreover, it relies on a crude mind/body distinction: the “notion of the individual subject as… a transcendent brain housed in a decaying animal body,” as Anne Cranny-Francis writes in an article for Social Semiotics. Many have successfully pushed back against this idea in recent history — notably, writers exploring gender and race, for whom it was always obvious that the body was ideological, a contested site of the self. 

An attendant tells me queasiness isn’t uncommon for first-timers. By the time I leave, my body feels unfamiliar

Once we open ourselves up to the possibility, we realize that few things are quite as ideologically loaded as touch. Even banal moments gain immense depth: A friend’s story about his fraternity initiation in which pledges were asked to take a punch before being embraced as brothers; the common midcentury imperative to present a firm handshake; and the affectionate bro shoulder-punch all exemplify how the language of male touch is shaped by the logic of force. Every gesture and move begins to glow with the halo of meaning. As David Howes writes in the introduction to his anthology, Empire of the Senses, touch is, along with the other senses, “imbued with meaning and carefully hierarchized and regulated so as to express and enforce the social and cosmic order.”

The body is constituted by the tools it wields and wears, and our analysis of touch extends to these as well. As Giorgio Agamben writes, apparatuses aren’t passive, but exert force back onto us. Any gamer who has gotten “in the zone” could testify to the way the bounds between their hands and the controller seem to dissolve in this flow state, the way their sensorium creeps beyond their normally bound self into circuitry of the machine. Our hardware forms us as subjects, circumscribing our bodies through touch, and in doing so, changing them; it comes loaded with meaning that our bodies absorb. In writing about the “docile” body, Foucault notes how military discipline involves a “meshing” between body and object to create a “body-weapon, body-tool, body-machine complex.” A U.S. drone operator wracked with guilt admits that on missions, he often felt inhuman, that he was “merging with the technology,” becoming “a robot, a zombie, a drone itself.” A new subjectivity more powerful in its destructive capacities, but less free.

The connection between gaming and military hardware runs deep. Historically, gaming took from mechanics of war — the joystick comes from aircraft, and as Ian Bogost notes in How to Do Things with Videogames, “force feedback, motion simulation, and vibration [were] built into expensive flight and military training simulators for decades” before they were worked into popular gaming systems. Video gaming’s earliest origins are steeped in war. The first computer game, Spacewar! — in addition to being developed by Pentagon-funded MIT funded grad students — was a shooter, and the first at-home console peripheral was a light gun made for Magnavox Odyssey.

As the gaming industry grew its own legs, a reversal began: the military started to incorporate the tools of the gaming industry into its apparatuses. In 1997, the military took the popular game Doom and modified it into Marine Doom to teach tactics and decision making. In 1999, the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT) was founded at USC with a $45 million contract from the military to “explore and expand how people engage with technology.” The opening ceremony welcomed the president of USC alongside the CEO of Silicon Graphics, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and the deputy mayor of LA, along with the secretary of the U.S. Army: Computer games, higher education, movies, local government, and war, now all bedmates.

Hardware is appropriated from gaming, too. On the outside, the new Israeli Carmel model tank looks like any other. Inside, however, an operator finds an Xbox controller they can use to control steering and weapons systems. This isn’t the first, nor likely the last time that gaming controllers have been integrated into weapons. The Xbox controller has, in the past, been used to manipulate periscopes on Naval submarines and test Boeing’s High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, among other things. The stated rationale behind this incorporation is often couched in the terms of familiarity. Soldiers already “know exactly the position of those buttons, and they can reach much better performances with that system,” Meir Shabtai, general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ robotics systems operations, tells the Washington Post. Make the weapons right, and it transforms civilians into pre-trained soldiers, already well on their way to dealing out destruction. Crucially, this training happens free of charge, on our own time, as we play as children and teenagers at home.

This sort of preconditioning — button-mashing our way through hard opponents before rage quitting — is unregulated, undisciplined, unmatched to the gravity of real conflict. But it conditions us on a haptic level, teaching us to respond to the feel of an object in certain ways. Heidegger makes the case that we cannot come to grasp a hammer’s essence through detached observation, but through its use — only when we’re hammering do we come to an understanding of what a hammer is. Gaming is the means by which the controller is known, revealing the essence of this tool as one of play: we grow to see it as weightless, inconsequential, and the conscious substitution of “fake” tools for “real” ones can’t easily displace the knowledge inscribed into our bodies and hands. The artist Rachel Berger acknowledged this tactile risk when she created an Xbox controller cast in lead and copper to respond to its weaponization. Discussing her piece, she said that the “Xbox controller’s seeming innocence is the key to its danger.” The way it feels in our hands, so light and familiar, makes it unthinkable as a heavy, alien instrument of death.

The “gamification” of war extends far beyond the visual domain in which it’s usually discussed — beyond, for example, the use of screens to abstract soldiers from violence, or the integration of game design elements into drone monitor interfaces to make them more “user-friendly.” It occurs at the level of touch as well. In contrast to these optical appropriations, touch presents a more “pre-reflective” pathway for ideological transfer to occur, as bodily knowledge can be leveraged to gamify war and desensitize soldiers to the gravity of their actions while remaining largely tucked away from conscious awareness. This presents a unique challenge to intervention, as the embodied immediacy of touch can be easily exploited to resist the efficacy of critical tactics that rely heavily on education and higher-level reasoning. For an institution that frequently sees turnover thanks to an epidemic of “moral injury”— the trauma caused by the rift between one’s actions and one’s moral sense of self — the less reflection the better. The more intuitive and embodied we can make war, the more efficient it becomes. 

The military’s interest in hardware doesn’t end with those haptic tools we’re already familiar with — it extends far into those emergent technologies being developed today. The notion of “freedom” is central to the framing of these new devices, and this myth is used to introduce and disguise a mechanics of control. Omni-directional treadmills promise to collapse virtual and physical motion to let you “move freely and at full speed” in the digital world, while VR headsets and independent controllers let you look one way while aiming at another, something “impossible to do in a modern video game,” as one gaming writer notes. By integrating our bodies into the virtual (and vice versa), these wearable apparatuses promise to return our full embodied agency to us —  to free us from the metaphorical constraints of mouse, trackpad, controller, and screen that we currently use to navigate the digital world. Reality is less liberatory than this simplistic techno-utopian stance might have us believe. As David Parisi notes, these wearable technologies will “ooze data” on our embodied responses — “every motion will be captured, every gesture will be mapped, and every haptic stimulus we respond to will be recorded.” 

These wearables promise to free us from the metaphorical constraints of mouse, trackpad, controller

Every gesture and reaction having been mapped and subjected to endless analysis, militaries will find ever-more nuanced ways to optimize those bodies for control. Foucault’s discussion of discipline via elaboration and systemization here is prescient: the way that “time penetrates the body and with it all the meticulous controls of power,” when every “act is broken down into its elements; the position of the body, limbs, articulations…  defined,” and “each movement [is] assigned a direction, an aptitude, a duration.” An analytic breakdown of motion and body is the first step by which increasingly granular nudges and mechanisms of discipline can be introduced. The military can enter our bodies to regulate and assess ever-finer gestures, movements, and actions using tools like haptic gloves that leverage microfluidic technology to give granular force feedback and electromagnetic sensors to track movement “accurate to the submillimeter”— technologies that let recruits “feel what it is like to pull a trigger” and guide them so they “are more likely to do their job correctly.” The soldier will be fully reconstituted as a “biomechanical platform,” a body integrated into the larger network of measurement and precision control, another “node within the larger network.” 

A gamer friend once told me he thought VR headsets effectively turned your head into the right joystick. His point was that rather than returning our eyes to us in digital space — capable of seeing, winking, affectionately beholding, expressing anger, serving as “windows to the soul” — the headsets reduced them to the sole function of opticality, managing our visual field. Rather than expand our control within digital space by letting us use our bodies in all their infinite possibilities, these technologies threaten to structure our bodies according to the pre-existing logic of the controller, to map us onto certain discrete functions while ignoring those dimensions that lie outside of that architecture. One might even begin to internalize these reductions, to develop a limited view of ourselves as subjects in the controller’s image.

At VR World, my hands can grasp guns and bows; they can punch opponents in the face, or hold the steering wheel of a race car, but they can’t embrace or hold another person. Play apparatuses like VR gloves or wireless motion controllers position my hands as tools good for wielding weapons but little else, reducing their vast semiotic and existential possibilities to a few rote actions. Upon leaving the building, my hands felt more like talons or clubs than hands. I patted my friend on the shoulder, just to make sure I was still capable of using them for a gesture of warmth. At scale, these technologies could limit our sensorium to only those sensations and actions deemed productive. Over time, one could imagine forgetting all those things our bodies are good for outside the bounded logic of these tools. One reporter for Polygon cleverly remarked that VR training in the military leverages the fact that the “one controller that every soldier knows how to use best is their own body.” What that statement picks up on, but doesn’t acknowledge explicitly, is that these systems don’t simply take advantage of the fact that the soldier’s body is a controller; it transforms the body into one — limitations and all. A new social regime of touch, enforced by hardware.

These tools can also shape our view of the world that lies beyond our bodies, and our relationship to it. In the past, the U.S. military has wanted to make virtual training hurt more — to essentially create haptic technologies that reframe the language of touch through the lens of punishment and pain. What happens when every point of contact is one designed to communicate harm? American police training that teaches recruits to “consider everyone and everything a potential threat,” rather than potential partners or allies, gives us a chilling indication of the needless deaths and paranoia complexes that can follow from such a regimen. The body is conditioned to an overriding logic of pain, to register everything outside itself as a danger to be preemptively struck down. The idea of introducing this logic to civilians via gaming is not so far-fetched. Greg Burdea, a haptics researcher at Rutgers, tells Wired that “by introducing sensorial overload — sound, sight, touch, even pain — you addict the user.” Fear is a sticky ideology for our bodies. Once assimilated, it’s hard to get rid of.

These haptic technologies don’t actually bring us back to our bodies — after all, our bodies never went anywhere — but they do remind us of the centrality of touch and feel in our experience and subjectivization. The world around us is made up of graspable things, things that we can wield, use, feel, and that shape us in return. Touch anchors our orientation towards the world of objects. Haptic technologies inevitably transmit specific value systems of touch based on their application and design. They train us to conceptualize and respond to our bodies, the bodies around us, and the broader physical world in certain ways — in short, they are normative and prescriptive, subject-making. Institutional powers like the military are eager to exploit this capacity; they’re already doing so. But we can still push back against this appropriation, if we first acknowledge the ways these technologies can, and are, being used to mold us into passive subjects, susceptible to control.

Some might complain that this is a temporary consequence of our present technical state — our hands are designated only for shooting because the technology hasn’t advanced enough to allow us to pat a friend on the shoulder in-game. But this “almost there” ethos has accompanied these technologies for decades now. Moreover, the fundamentals of game and product design are by nature parameter-driven: What sort of game designer would waste their time programming these non-violent dimensions into a shooter? What studio would budget for it unless explicit demands were made by consumers or regulators? Limitations in one form or another will inevitably be built into these tools of the future as they are in the present — despite the promise of embodied agency — with the potential to subtly structure our relationship to our bodies and make them susceptible to control. 

This isn’t the age-old gripe that violent video games result in violence in real life, nor is it a technologically determinist claim that these tools will inevitably lead to militarized applications. Rather, it’s a first step in unpacking the logic of tactile ideology, an acknowledgment that what is invisible, peripheral, forgotten in experience is often the most important. Deconstructing the assumptions and myths that form our embodied understanding of these tools is the first step in making sure they can’t be further exploited — reintroducing gravity to weightlessness.

A few hours after I left VR World, I slowly felt my body returning to itself, but the nausea remained for a while longer — a comedown from a nasty trip. Weeks later, I still get whiffs of it when something on my screen moves a certain way, like a smell that triggers the memory of food poisoning. I had scheduled another session at a different VR site for the day after, which promised to be even more immersive, more total. But I had underestimated how profoundly these apparatuses could affect me. I bailed.

Leo Kim is a writer based in New York. He covers film for the zine From the Intercom, and spends most of his spare time wading through contemporary image culture.