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School maps for FPS games - John C. Kirk

May. 18th, 2007

12:22 am - School maps for FPS games

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I know that there have been some questionable security choices made in the last few years, but this one really did amaze me:
Student creates Counter-Strike map of school, gets kicked out of school

(Link via Bruce Schneier's blog.)

The article doesn't give much detail (neither the pupil nor the school is named), so it's difficult to verify the information; however, if it's true then I think it's a ridiculous decision. The Register has a bit more info on this, although again there's nothing specific.

Back in my undergrad days I used to play the game "Doom", which is also in the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre where you see through the eyes of your character and blast away at any enemies who appear on the screen. Once you'd played the game itself, with the built in levels, you could download extra maps from the internet. These were of variable quality, but one of the famous ones was The Unholy Trinity, set in Trinity College Cambridge. I haven't visited the college itself, so I don't know how accurate the map is, but it certainly looked like a real place. A couple of my housemates tried making a map of our college (St Aidans, Durham) but we didn't get very far, mainly because the maps had to be 2D in those days. (You could go up and down in lifts, with different parts of the map at different heights, but you couldn't have one corridor underneath another one.) Anyway, the point is that none of us had any intention of going on a kill spree around the college; it was just a fun idea to have a computerised version of familiar surroundings. In a similar way, when I played Microsoft Flight Simulator I considered the idea of programming a local map, so that I could see my house out of the window. That idea never went anywhere, mainly because I got bored of the game, but the same principle applies.

Anyway, I just want to go on record as opposing this type of knee-jerk reaction.

Comments:

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From:terpsichore1980
Date:May 18th, 2007 07:51 am (UTC)
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While I agree that programming a map for a FPS for your local area does not necessarily mean you are going to go on a killing spree, and I am prepared to admit to considering programming Doom to show my old boss' head on occastion for cathartic effect. Can you imagine the outcry against FPS generally and the school for not doing something about it if the kid did go on a killing spree. Particularly given the all to frequent gun rampages in the US. So while I do not necessarily agree with the decision to exclude the child (and you have to guess there were probably other factors we don't know about), I can understand it.
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 18th, 2007 09:28 am (UTC)
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I did a bit more digging on the web last night, and I found a discussion about this case. I haven't read all of the comments, but the people in favour of the expulsion basically gave two reasons:

a) It's a pretty stupid thing to do right now, so he should have known that people would react badly. [Counter-argument: it takes a while to program a map like this, so he probably started it before the shootings at Virginia Tech; someone else claimed to be from his school, and said that the map was actually made 2-3 years ago.]

b) "You can't be too careful."

That latter point ties into my "coffee theory", as described here. In other words, the basic logic for kicking the guy out (or at least taking some form of disciplinary action) would be "There's a link between computer games and actual violence, so we want to stop you before you get that far." However, the question isn't "What proportion of crazed gunmen have previously made computer maps of their targets?" but rather "What proportion of people who make maps go on to carry out a shooting spree?" That's partly my motivation for this LJ post, since I want to offer a counter-example of people who make maps without killing anyone.

Granted, the school will have concerns about accountability, since if anything does go wrong then they'll have to get quizzed by the police and the media afterwards. However, imagine a discussion like this:

Reporter: "You say that you saw him drinking coffee one weekend?"
Teacher: "Yes, that's right."
Reporter: "But you didn't take any action against him?"
Teacher: "No, he wasn't breaking any school rules, and he was outside school at the time anyway."
Reporter: "But are you aware that several of the previous high school shooters had previously drunk coffee? Why didn't you stop him when you had the chance?"
Teacher: "But lots of people drink coffee and don't shoot people!"
Reporter: "Ah, so you were willing to take that risk, and now 50 people are dead. How can you sleep at night, you monster?!"

I remember some of the Calvin & Hobbes strips involved Calvin daydreaming about blowing up his school (e.g. with the aid of dinosaurs in F15s), and I do wonder how people would react to those comics nowadays.

Coming back to legitimate reasons for doing maps, there's a computer game version of the ICSF library (part of Imperial College London) on their website. The idea of that was to work out the best arrangement of bookshelves, by creating a room that you could wander around without having to do all the heavy lifting. I've done a basic RoomPlan program (2D) which I used for positioning furniture in my flat, and it's the same principle: just a high-tech version of graph paper.

Back when I was at primary school, my homework one day was to create a floor-plan of my bedroom. I don't think it had to be to scale, so the basic point was just to imagine what the room would look like if I was staring down at it from above. I think this was a useful skill to learn (which has helped me with things like cabling layouts at work), and I can see a map of your school (or any other familiar building) giving a similar benefit, since you can get an idea of whether it looks right. You don't necessarily need to do any shooting, you can just wander round and see whether all the walls and doors are in the right places.

When I did my bee simulation (during my MSc), I briefly considered using HalfLife as an engine for it. I decided against it, since high quality graphics weren't important and I didn't want people to have to spend money on an extra program before they could use mine, but I still thought it was worth documenting this in my report.

On a related note, if I ever get round to writing "Gently" (aka my program for testing whether you can get a sofa up a staircase), I'm intending to make that standalone too, but other people did suggest that I could do it via a game like HalfLife, and that would make it easier to generate custom maps (e.g. your building).
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From:terpsichore1980
Date:May 18th, 2007 06:20 pm (UTC)
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I completely understand your coffee argument, and I think it is probably valid. Which is why I understand, but don't agree with the decision.
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From:shuripentu
Date:May 18th, 2007 10:46 am (UTC)
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Well, I was once expelled from a school, and the consensus was that they probably did it as a precautionary, not a reactionary measure. Covering your ass is not a very fair or sensible reason to do a lot of things, but it's understandable when litigation is so easy to come by.
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From:totherme
Date:May 18th, 2007 11:04 am (UTC)
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The article that John was commenting on says a lot of sane stuff about this. In particular, noting the difference between "frequently occurring" and "widely reported" and the difference between an understandable and a rational reaction.

I'm reminded of the song from Chicago...


understandable. understandable
Yes, it's
perfectly understandable
Comprehensible. Comprehensible
Not a bit
reprehensible
It's so defensible!
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From:terpsichore1980
Date:May 18th, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC)
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Completely agree and I was trying to say that I thought it was understandable, not rational. I know most kids who make maps don't go on killing sprees, just as I never killed my old boss, but that doesn't mean you would want to be the headteacher who has to face the reporters if it did all go wrong. Sometimes people aren't rational. Doesn't mean we should pander to their irrationality, just that it is a fact of life that we have to take into account in trying to estimate what they might do (and in dealing with the subsequent consequences of their actions).
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From:totherme
Date:May 18th, 2007 09:49 pm (UTC)
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One of the things I thought was interesting about it was the effect of new technology. The way people react to stories seems to me to be a pretty rational way of dealing with word-of-mouth data in a world without telecoms and press. Not a consciously rational way - but a rational behaviour hard coded into a set of instincts. What breaks it is the world changing faster than the instincts - mass media, etc. The TV becoming a trusted storyteller, and then telling you about improbable things.

So, how best to deal with that? Regulate the media? Seems dangerous... Try to change the way people interact with it? Seems hard... Build something new, that supersedes the old media and interacts more naturally with the public? Also hard...
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 19th, 2007 10:50 pm (UTC)
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I think you're right about the challenge of trusting the media. However, I also think that there's a related concern, in terms of the effect of new technology.

As per my comment to terpsichore1980 below, I'm guessing that most of the people who are in positions of "authority" (e.g. headteachers, concerned parents, journalists) have never tried to create a custom map for any kind of computer game, so it's unfamiliar behaviour, and therefore it seems suspicious.

In a similar way, I ranted a while back about a guy who was charged with child porn offences, since the prosecution lawyer said that he'd built a "super computer" (direct quote) to store the images, i.e. a desktop computer with three hard drives. There's nothing particularly impressive about that spec (under 80Gb of storage), or the expertise required, but it's still unknown territory to most people, so I think that they fear what they don't understand.

I remember a case a while back (probably via Schneier's blog) where some Muslims were arrested for praying in an airport, because they'd been speaking in a foreign language and mentioning the word "Allah" which scared other passengers. There may be an analogy to that here - the foreign language isn't new, but other people don't understand it.
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 19th, 2007 10:31 pm (UTC)
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Yup, fair point - something I try to be aware of (in the wake of some arguments) is the way that people are likely to react to what I say/do. I may think that they're idiots for reacting that way, but it may still be easier for me to handle things differently.

In this case, I suppose the question is "who needs to make allowances for whom?" In other words, who are the stupid people in this situation? I'd hope that the headteacher would be smart enough to see that there's no intrinsic danger in a computer map like this. I don't have that same high opinion of journalists, but if a teacher's job is to teach then hopefully the relevant head should be able to get his/her point across to the baying crowds afterwards (ideally in a more diplomatic way than I would!).

I suspect that one significant issue here is the idea that creating a computer map is just a weird thing to do (from the point of view of a headteacher/reporter/concerned parent), so it's easy to associate that kind of weird activity with dangerous behaviour. That comes back to my original motivation for this LJ post: I'd like to think that I'm a vaguely respectable citizen, so if I'm willing to go on record as supporting the maps then it may ease people's minds. I realise that I'm not an "A list blogger", so it's not likely to have any great effect, but pebbles into avalanches and all that :)
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From:stagknight
Date:May 18th, 2007 09:03 am (UTC)
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I, for one, never go on a killing spree without first meticulously mapping my route in the Rainbow Six engine, adding waypoints and details of the possible paths and guards.
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 18th, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
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Heh :)

"Ok, my strategy is to go in and shoot everyone on the ground floor. The police will have been called by that point, so I'd better do a 'save game' there, just in case I get killed when I walk out of the room, then I can try to find a crate with a health potion inside it nearby..."
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