Guy Debord’s Game of War. Image by Richard Barbrook

In last week’s installment of this essay, I detailed the history of some of the kinds of stories that have been told about war in the 20th century, specifically in American culture and as part of American warfare. This week I want to focus on simulation itself and a little of the place it’s had and has in contemporary warfare, as well how it sits in the context of larger trends in the way wars are fought and understood.

War games themselves are extremely old, with one of the earliest known being chess. In his book Wargame Design, James Dunnigan notes that in terms of its practical design, chess bears a close resemblance to how wars were actually fought at the time, on flat terrain in slow incremental movements with lower class and less powerful front line soldiers defending a king who is less powerful militarily but immensely powerful as a figurehead and symbol.

Dunnigan goes on to explain that most wargames were designed and played by civilians with little military experience, but that by the 19th century, wargame play and design began to shift into the realm of the military itself. An important point to note here is that wargames were not only used by members of the military as a hobby and pastime, but in training and battle-planning. This meant that the games themselves, which had suffered in terms of realism from the limitations in knowledge on the part of their civilian designers, now put a premium on being as realistic a simulation of warfare as possible. They required that their designers and players have a detailed understanding of strategy and tactics, as well as military organization and maneuvers.

Use of wargames on the part of the military began in Prussia and then spread to other European states once it was proven to be an effective technique. It was also made use of in the United States, but its use was generally confined to specific battles. After the end of WWII and as the Cold War began in earnest, this changed, with military wargames taking on a wider scope in both time and space, and a greater consideration of political structure.

At this point it’s important to note the technological context of war itself, and how it was changing during the mid-20th century. It’s a well-known idea within military history and sociology of war circles that WWII introduced a technological component to the fighting of wars that had hitherto been minimal or absent; the idea that wars in general and killing in particular could be refined to a science, calculated and controlled, increasingly mechanized, with a significant degree of physical and emotional distance between killers and killed. Zygmunt Bauman famously tied the existence of the Nazis’ factory-style genocide with major elements of modernity. Joanna Bourke has identified the significance of technological discourse in the ease of killing and the reduction of death in war to numbers and statistics. Emotional pain and guilt on the part of soldiers engaged in bombing missions can literally be measured in terms of altitude from the target, and the aerial bombing of civilian targets became an acceptable method of warfare during both World Wars.

Probably the most important element in the changing landscape of warfare was, as Jeremy Antley points out in his comment on my last post, the existence of nuclear weapons. The line between combatant and noncombatant was already blurry; the spectre of nuclear warfare essentially erased it. Moreover, of all the techniques and weapons of war developed up to that point, nuclear war was the most explicitly scientific in nature, the province of physicists as much as generals.

All of this is to say that as the Cold War kicked into high gear, war and technology – and particularly death and technology – were arguably more inextricably enmeshed than they ever were before. War and technology have always had a close relationship, and the development of new weapons and fighting techniques has always been primary, but now killing was made explicitly calculable – and, by extension, controllable. War was something that could be planned for and explored through gaming and simulation – a set of variables that could be altered to construct a vast range of different scenarios. As wargames shifted from the tabletop to the computer, the variables and scenarios increased in both number and complexity, and simulations could be run at high speeds. The Cold War itself was primarily about strategy, both in the short and long term, about anticipating the movements of the other player in the game.

This reached a significant apex during the first Gulf War, which was extensively planned beforehand with the use of wargaming, specifically a manual game called “Gulf Strike”. The first Gulf War was particular in the history of American warfare, not only in its prominent use of wargames, but in its reliance on and use of digital technology. As a military operation, it was designed to showcase the United States as possessing the technologically dominant military of the future, precise and calculated and efficient, with high results and low casualties. As I mentioned in my previous post, it was this new form of warfare – referred to by the military itself as “full spectrum dominance” – that led Jean Baudrillard to claim that what was presented to the American public was not a war at all but a simulation of the same, bloodless and clean, and also entirely asymmetrical. It was iconic war-as-game, and many of the soldiers who were part of the operation remarked on it as such, that it felt more like a video game more than what they had been taught to think of as war.

Most recently this trend has arguably continued with the increasing prevalence of drone “warfare” and unmanned aerial vehicles, where warriors are no longer even physically present on the battlefields where they “fight”. It could be argued that in many ways this kind of technological war actually brings the experience of fighting closer to the soldiers controlling the drones, but the point again is the degree to which the fighting of war is now augmented – war by physical and digital means now inseparable.

Computer simulation and wargaming continues to perform a major function in the US military’s preparation for war. DARPA developed a vehicle simulator called SIMNET as early as 1980, and in 1990 SIMNET was integrated into STOW, the armed forces’ “Synthetic Theater of War”, which provides a significant digital component for military exercises.

Wargames and simulations have not only been used by the military in training and strategic planning, but more recently in recruiting. “America’s Army”, a first-person shooter released in 2002, was funded and released by the Army itself, and was explicitly designed to present the modern US Army to civilian youth. The game was created for the specific purpose of depicting an officially sanctioned image of the Army to the public – a exercise in meaning-making in terms of the public’s understanding of the experience of being a member of the armed forces. The fact that the Army chose a video game as a medium is also important; essentially, “America’s Army” functions as a training simulator, not only conveying a particular understanding of the armed forces, but preparing potential recruits for the real-life training they might soon experience.

In my previous post, I noted the power of stories in meaning-making and the production and reproduction of cultural understandings. I also noted that games are usually driven, implicitly or explicitly, by narratives. At this point I want to go a step further and argue that games play a role not only in learned meanings but in learned behaviors, and in how we contextualize those behaviors. The fact that simulation is used as an integral part of military training (and psychotherapy) is a strong indicator that it can be an effective tool in terms of shaping behavior and understandings of behavior, as well as the context in which that behavior occurs.

In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, Simon Penny explains (parentheses mine):

When soldiers shoot at targets shaped like people, this trains them to shoot real people. When pilots work in flight simulators, the skills they develop transfer to the real world. When children play “first-person shooters”, they develop skills of marksmanship. So we must accept that there is something that qualitatively separates a work like the one discussed above (of an art installation where the viewer can physically abuse the projected image of a woman) from a static image of a misogynistic beating, or even a movie of the same subject. That something is the potential to build behaviors that can exist without or separate from, and possibly contrary to, rational argument or ideology.

This is not by any means to argue that playing wargames will always make someone want to fight wars, any more than it is to argue that playing a FPS will in and of itself make a teenager want to take a gun to school (I think we can all agree that’s a fairly tired argument at this point). It’s merely to point out that simulations have power –  power to shape meaning, our perceptions of ourselves and others, and our understandings of our own behaviors, as well as what behaviors are appropriate and reasonable in specific contexts.

So, to make a long post short: there is something particular going on in regards to simulations and wargames in the context of technological warfare in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and especially wargames and simulations that are digital in nature. This something has a tremendous amount to do with the construction of meaning, with behavior, and specifically with our understanding of what wars mean and what it means to fight them.

Next week I’ll be talking more about specific games and what I think they suggest about how we understand and conceive of war in the present, and how we imagine it in the future.