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From Sun Tzu To Xbox: War And Video Games

By Mike Everleth ⋅ June 15, 2006

Book cover featuring a video game solider

Is it man’s basic human nature to shoot at his fellow man?

Thanks to a book I read a few years ago called Where Wizards Stay Up Late, I already knew that the Internet was originally created as a project by the Department of Defense, presumably so hidden bunkers of top U.S. government officials could talk to each other after a nuclear war. Therefore, both the “information superhighway” and the physical American highway system were both products of cold war defense building, all of which we can thank President Eisenhower for — who then famously warned us about the coming domination of the “military-industrial complex.” Thanks, dude.

What I didn’t know, though — until I read Ed Halter‘s fascinating From Sun Tzu to Xbox, that is — is that video games also grew out of the early days of DoD Internet research. The world’s first real video game, Spacewar!, wasn’t created for actual use by the military, but it was dreamed up by tech geeks looking for something fun to do when not working on creating the Internet for the Pentagon (called ARPANET back in the day for the DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).

Although Spacewar! was invented by computer geeks for other computer geeks and not for the military, the game’s basis and title is still heavily militarily themed. What one may assume from this is that there’s something inherently militaristic about video games period. Halter alludes to this, saying that there’s a primal understanding about video games that they must include an “us vs. them” play structure.

But Halter goes even deeper than that, beginning his book with a detailed history of war games in general (hence the title). Halter traces both the evolution of Chess and the Chinese game Go, as well as describing other obscure games such as the ancient Greeks’ Pettia. And Chess, a game of war itself, also evolved into a German invention called Kriegspeil, a complicated tabletop “game” of war maneuvers that military planners across the globe eventually used to plan and keep track of actual wars. You always see examples of that in old war movies with generals huddled over small tables pushing tanks and troops around with wooden prods.

So, before anyone starts complaining that video games these days are too “violent,” just remember that an intellectual exercise such as Chess is actually a form of war planning. It’s just that the pieces don’t erupt in bloody explosions when they are captured by the opposing player. Although something like that might make a cool video game.

And that leads into the next interesting point the book brings up: Does playing video games, especially today’s increasingly realistic ones, make players more violent? Halter’s introduction is about a game actually produced by the Army called, simply enough, America’s Army, which is a great recruiting tool for the armed forces. The game extends the Army’s brand and makes war look like great fun for American youth (I haven’t played or seen the game, but am just going by how Halter describes it — He does make it sound like fun.) So, is that just going to raise a generation, or at least part of one, that thinks killing folks in other countries is “cool”? That’s the obvious assumption.

However, as games become more sophisticated, and not just graphically, but with more complex artificial intelligence interaction, they could teach soldiers how to behave more humanely. Another military game created to train soldiers, called Full Spectrum Warrior, has levels of play that doesn’t include blowing away terrorists or insurgents or whomever, but are simply humanitarian assistance operations. Also, training a soldier on a video game may give him the much needed experience of when not to pull a gun in a complicated interaction with civilians who may or may not be enemy combatants.

Also, the ultimate fantasy is that games could possibly supplant actual war. Combatants could best each other in a virtual reality war and abide by the outcome in the real world. The only problem is that Halter proves through his research that that fantasy has been around as long as war gaming has been popular. As I posed in my introductory question: Is it man’s nature to shoot his fellow man? We’ve long had the ability to prove victors through gaming, but the ultimate game — war — shows no promise of going away any time soon. But, who knows.

As for myself, I’m not any great big video game lover, although I play occasionally and think they are fun. It’s such a huge industry these days, but you don’t have to be into them to love From Sun Tzu to Xbox, which is an extremely engaging, well researched and fascinating treatise bursting with intriguing ideas about war and gaming in general.

It is a scholarly book and Halter obviously knows his shit. But his writing is punctuated by just the right amount of irreverence, which you would expect from a guy who ran the New York Underground Film Festival for a decade, as Halter did. You can find out more about the author at his official website and still catch his film criticism in the Village Voice as well as read the blog he’s keeping in conjunction with the book.

Buy Sun Tzu to Xbox at Amazon.com!

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