Review: Ed Halter’s From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.

Ed Halter, From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games
( New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2006 )

Ed Halter’s From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games is a somewhat disjointed but ultimately satisfying mixture of millennial history and contemporary reporting on the relation of gaming and war.

The first, too brief, part of the book goes into the back story of this historical connection, tracing it to ancient civilizations, such as that of Greece where, as legend has it, Ajax and Achilles became so immersed in the war board game petteia that they forgot “to join a real battle that was already under way.” The first people who didn’t just play such games but theorized about the linkage between them and battle techniques were the Chinese. For them, the board game weiqi (which the Japanese adapted as go) was a valuable teacher of military strategy. Probably the first theorists who saw the war game as a stimulant to pacifism were the 19th-century British. As Halter documents, an old Persian epic, Shahnama, had already presented chess as offering an alternative to battle. The poem saw chess originating with an Indian king’s advisors, who wanted to slake the boredom of a ruler who had already conquered everything in sight. It was H.G. Wells, though, who joined other pacifists in saying the war games then being played by wealthy Englishmen, which used toy soldiers and realistic, scaled-down battlefields on the lawns of country houses, would be utilized in the future as appropriate substitutes for actual soldiering.

Most of Halter’s book, which shifts to the present, shows how wrong Wells was. In the U.S., at least, what has happened is exactly the opposite. The American military has plunged wholeheartedly into the world of video gaming and, even more disturbing, commercial gaming has responded to the current global terrorist threat with a panoply of jingoist attack games.

As most informed people know, the Internet is an offshoot of experiments in linking computers that were sponsored by the government for national defense. While such byproduct developments have been common and largely accidental since World War II, as Halter stresses, this fortuitousness, in relation to games, has changed. In recent times, “what had been sporadic, even chance interactions between military research and popular videogaming would strengthen substantially in a conscious effort to bring these two very different realms together for mutual benefit.” Games, such as America’s Army, have now been created in two modes: one for avid gamesters, the other as a training device for the armed services. The military is funding such games because they make military education fun, and, one may imagine, since they remove any compunction recruits may feel about zapping fellow human beings. Halter draws attention to many of the corporate entertainment/military alliances that currently interlace the game world, noting, surprisingly, that it is often the military that demands the most cutting edge technological innovations.

Just as the military is financing new game developments, the commercial video game makers are more aggressively inserting themselves into global conflicts, depicting them, unsurprisingly, with a conservative American slant. Kumar/War, for instance, which issues a new game every month, uses the details of recent U.S. troop engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan as the backdrop for shooter play. The terrain and weaponry are realistic, but their portrayal in a good guys/bad guys framework makes the games morally undemanding and, hence, unrealistic at an ethical level.

Although Halter ends by highlighting some countertrends, such as the existence of games produced in the Middle East that have an explicit, anti-U.S. flavor, the bulk of the book offers the bleak outlook of the gaming world becoming a reflex of U.S. military propaganda – as soon as Bush began saber-rattling about the Axis of Evil, games targeting Iran and North Korea began appearing. If the trends continue, each young gamer will have a private indoctrination center on a video console so that he or she will feel comfortable entering the military. Why not, when the young volunteer (or draftee) has already gone through basic training on a monitor in his or her bedroom?

Halter doesn’t give us much to look forward to, but he is to be applauded for opening our eyes to this grim future in his sober and sobering account.