Author: Ed Halter | Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press, PublicAffairs | 2006
In From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Videogames, Ed Halter presents a sweeping historical narrative of the different connections between war and gaming. Some of these are brazenly explicit (i.e., America’s Army (2002), a highly successful downloadable computer game that was developed by the military as a promotional and recruitment tool), while others are eked out through Halter’s extensive historical research (the most morbid being Airfight, a late 1970′s computer game produced for the government developed PLATO network—a precursor to the present day Internet and the main inspiration for the first Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game now infamous for training 9-11 hijackers), but all reveal a startling relationship between the real horrors of war and the simulated battles that take place in games’ virtual spaces. Halter’s book, in his words, is “a history of warfare told through videogames, or a history of videogames told through war…It is about how videogames are products of war, but have in turn become ways to think about war.” In the course of telling this history, Halter not only offers a fresh perspective on the military’s driving force behind advancements in technology, but provides a close socio-political and cultural study of electronic gaming that most serious writing on ludology neglects to mention.
The title of the book indicates the chronology that Halter traces in his exploration of war and gaming, beginning with early board games such as Go and Chess, games created for entertainment that subsequently simulate “an idealized drama of war.” Sun Tzu’s The Art of War even doubles as a guidebook for Go strategy, which reinforces the concept of strategy shaping the way modern wars are fought and won. The emphasis on strategy eventually resulted in the ultimate “analog” war game, the ‘Kriegspiel,’ which proved to be both entertaining and educational as it was used as a training device in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The interest that military institutions took to games and their ability to train recruits under the guise of entertainment is a historical vein that runs throughout Halter’s book, from the first ‘Kriegspiels‘ to the U.S. Army’s commission of a prototype tank trainer from the Atari Corporation in 1980 (which was actually a Battlezone arcade game modified to the exact specifications of a Bradley tank), to the recent Full Spectrum Warrior console game developed with soldier training in mind. As modern warfare evolved into what Halter describes as the “pushbutton” battles that were fought in the Gulf War—the “Nintendo War” as some media journalists dubbed it—the need for more advanced technology in war simulations became apparent, resulting in the government funding and resources that eventually led to the present day Internet and realistic CGI graphics that both videogame developers and players currently enjoy. The idea that the hardware and software “wars” raging between videogame companies are not only triggered by the military’s need for more advanced simulation and training methods, but are also indirectly sponsored and funded by these institutions, is a startling one. Halter, however, offers compelling evidence in favor of his argument that “the technologies that shape our culture have always been pushed forward by war.”
If Halter’s book offers a history of videogames in war, then it also produces an equally rich history of war in videogames. As gaming technology evolved over the past three decades, so did the portrayal of battle, ranging from the abstract blocks and colors of games like Missile Command and the thinly veiled ranks and files of alien “troops” in Space Invaders to the realistic first person shooters that dominate the market today. Now, Halter writes, there is a commercial factor in pushing the boundries of war in videogames—“no subsidies” necessary. September 11th effectively created a deluge of war-themed games that saturated the household market from 2001-2004, when anger and fierce patriotism fueled the need for a catharsis. Although most of these games—by their manner of being quickly and cheaply produced in order to keep up with current trends and maximize profit—were universally panned by critics, their popularity lies in their ability to give gamers at least some manner of control over current events, albeit a simulated, fleeting one. Halter singles out Kuma/War (2004) as an example of this; at a time when viewers were scrambling for any sort of information on the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kuma/War uses actual news reports to create online “missions” that gamers can recreate through the perspective of a participating soldier. Other games that Halter mention, like one of the many Flash-based computer animations featuring the torturing and killing of a digitized Osama bin Laden, simply “satisfy the urge to deal symbolic harm by defacing someone’s image,” and are marketed as a type of war-time therapy. As more war themed titles choose to depict combat through a specific socio-historical context—not just 9-11, but the Great War, the Gulf War and even the Vietnam War—an interesting paradox is revealed: although technology has advanced greatly since the emergence of the first videogames and current titles are more realistic than ever before, the actual ‘game’ of war remains unchanged, and continues to feed society’s desire to ‘play’ from a safe distance. “War is hell,” Halter writes as an encapsulation of software companies’ ideology, “but in videogame form, it’s also fun as hell.”
Although Halter’s occasional references to cinema studies scholars and art films can be somewhat jarring (cinema, no doubt, is another interest of his), no passage is tangential and many are eloquently written. As a historical text, From Sun Tzu to Xbox succeeds as a thoroughly researched yet accessible account of the relationship between the military and software developers, the warmakers and the gamemakers. But Halter aims higher than simply a straightforward description of these events; through the book’s socio-political and cultural commentary, war itself is seen as a game, a game that has been played symbolically for centuries, and continues to exist today in the advanced simulations being carried out in millions of homes. As videogames continue to grow in popularity, and become increasingly advanced and equally ambitious in scope, three conflicts are destined to continue: the war raging in living rooms, the war between the game developers for consumer dollars, and the “real” war—be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere—that drives them all.
Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on January 28th, 2009 :: Book Reviews :: Tags : History, Review, War