From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games
by Ed Halter, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2006, $16.95.
Ed Halter’s book observes the relationship between war and video games. Where video games are a relatively recent phenomenon, however, Halter shows how the intersection of war and gaming long predates their existence. He also notes how wars influence video game content and how user-made video games have in turn delivered messages about attitudes on war.
Halter observes that early games such as chess served both entertainment and simulation purposes. And like video games, early war games were subjects of much divided public opinion. Halter then pulls back the curtain in the 1960s to illustrate how the U.S. government and educational institutions had a hand in planting the seeds of video gaming. He escorts readers through the Cold War and the simultaneous escalation of military and computing technologies. Halter identifies recent training technology development funded by the government and highlights entertainment software developed with the cooperation of the military.
The book’s historical pieces are fascinating, and Halter largely maintains a neutral position in these middle chapters. Introductory and concluding chapters, however, clearly reveal the author’s political stance. He declares himself neither a friend nor a foe of video gaming, but he seems conflicted about the pairing of the military and games. He admits that he enjoys playing military games, but includes criticism of the current American administration and the war in Iraq, in contexts that have little to do with video gaming.
The book suffers from several typos and some inaccuracies, such as categorizing the real-time strategy games Age of Empires and Command and Conquer as turn-based. Halter also tends to be sensationalistic at times, such as when he writes about the multiplayer game Desert Combat, claiming that during play “an international debate on [American] foreign policy was being symbolically slogged out inside a virtual Iraq.” The truth is that Desert Combat’s digital battles have as much political relevance as a game of tic-tac-toe.
If the reader can get past such slips, the history of war-gaming itself is solid reading. Halter’s look at the social aspects of gaming and war is also fascinating. American games have an understandable nationalist bias, but Halter’s survey of user-made content from around the globe also reveals some games with Arab and Palestinian perspectives. It’s debatable how significant an effect these grassroots and world gaming products have on people, yet Halter is on to something.
Debates about whether video games are evil, a form of art or far too violent will continue infinitely, and Halter does well to avoid such traps. Still, his readers will see the undeniable reality that while video games typically emphasize arcade exercises over the conveyance of messages, they have significant potential as storytelling media.
Halter’s observations ultimately lead the reader to questions. For example, war and gaming share an ancient relationship that obviously continues to grow stronger in the video game age. As worldwide video game popularity rises and the power to make games becomes available to more people, how will societies perceive and address this relationship?
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.