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Book review: <i>From Sun Tzu To Xbox – War and Video Games</i> by Ed Halter

If this was a videogame, it would be something like Rainbow Six: Vegas—great attention to detail, confidence in its audience, not funded by the Pentagon, but a bit too dry for my tastes (sorry to be so literal, but I know not everybody’s used to using first-person shooter metaphors in their day to day lives, hard as it is to believe).


A lazy Photoshop effort that blends a Japanese statue (perhaps of Sun Tzu) with a screenshot from some Xbox military sim (probably America’s Army).

The plot

Halter chronicles the history of war games, employed as simulation and entertainment and everything in between. He winds up deep in our digital era of military-funded entertainments and entertainment-built military systems.

The good

As far as I can tell, Halter has done quality research into virgin terrain, which alone is something to be proud of. You can add or subtract a few points from my ratings depending on how interesting you find the concept, but you must admit it’s not clichéd. There’s fascinating stuff in here, from the beginnings of wargaming in board games like chess and go, through the “table top” evolution used by French royalty to teach soldiering to their children, armies marching with games in their packs designed to stimulate the strategic instincts during moments of leisure, and toy soldiers painted in the colours of the conflicts of the day possibly firing the martial enthusiasms of the generation facing the Great War—in Britain conscription wasn’t even necessary until after several hundred thousand had joined of their own free will. Japanese emperors, German princes, American high society, British schoolboys, ex-generals of every stripe; all had being using war games as playthings, training exercises and simulators for hundreds of years. You know those WWII movies where you see the roomful of people pushing coloured triangles across a giant map on the top of a table? Started out as kreigspiel, the German strategic training game. Kind of makes those shops full of pubescent boys in Slipknot T-shirts gathered round some orc-based diorama look a bit different, doesn’t it? Hmm? It doesn’t? Oh, sorry.

With all this in mind, you can probably imagine what happens as soon as we stagger into the age of computers, which, as you probably know, were first developed by and for the military. We get taxpayer-funded American Army simulators sold as Xbox games, videogames about blowing Satan’s hordes to pieces with a plasma cannon turned into squad-based training tools. We get Spike Jonze and David Fincher recruited post-9/11 by synergistic Hollywood media companies hired by the Pentagon to visualise potential terrorist-takeover scenarios. We get calls from the military to digital funfair contractors saying “You know the Holodeck in Star Trek? Build that for us.” Suddenly Matthew Broderick playing noughts and crosses against a giant talking army computer starts to seem... um... no, that still sounds kind of gay. But perhaps LESS gay.

What I found the most interesting aspect of this era, and one which Halter reveals regularly, is that the realm of the videogame-friendly and the armed forces is rarely the straightforward meld a parent might assume, having just watched their little angel deftly turn an umpteenth polygonal person into one more reddish smear. From the very beginning, while Rolling Stone opened a window onto long haired programmers playing inter-city SpaceWar on Pentagon time, the two camps have found each other vital and even inspiring, but one definitely senses from Halter’s many interviews an abyss of worldview separation which no amount of back-scratching can bridge. A perfect example is the Military Simulation & Training Expo (I forget the acronymical subtleties, forgive me) where E3-style digital dazzle meets the delicate touch for which the US armed forces are famed in a starburst of helicopters, blank ammunition and big-boobed barkers in camo.

Enough, OK, I hear you. This is demonstrative of this book’s best qualities, however, in that Halter widely sidesteps hyperbole like mine and lets the facts, fascinating as they usually are, tell the story. This is good journalism, is what it is, and Halter knows how to put his prose in the back seat without sounding underwhelmed, uninterested, or, and I can’t stress this heavily enough, ANYTHING AT ALL LIKE CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS. In the best way possible, Halter sets up the reader to pass such judgements as he or she feels necessary.

The bad

The paragraph above includes most of it. If you don’t find the material interesting, even a tiny bit, then you probably won’t like this because it contains no real opinion or ‘angle’ (Don’t judge from the blurb alone, though, or, heaven forbid, this review—the topic is too unusual to summarise, honestly). This is mature and professionally subjective. It’s nice, in fact, to read something written by a younger writer who has such a controlled, straightforward, well-adjusted style. At no point does Halter start grabbing lapels and demanding our attention, because he has confidence in his research and the quality of the story. On the other hand, I’ve read so many books recently which attempt to mine humour from the flimsiest of pretexts that this did not escape me as a potential goldmine, and I couldn’t help pondering an injection of gonzo personality; I’d dearly love to discover what John Birmingham could do with this material—“cheeseburger gothic,” indeed.

Oh, like the cover design, the editing is a little sketchy. There are flat spots and one or two basic things like word repetition and typos that, fixed, would have made for a tighter package.

What I learnt

People were burning company time on video games as far back as the early seventies.

This was originally seen as an encouraging sign as to the state of our youth.

There are some really, REALLY expensive toys out there left over from the days before the best graphical simulators in the world weren’t found in every teenager’s bedroom.

H.G. Wells wrote two guides, including complex rules, to rucking up some blankets on the floor and playing toy soldiers.

In short

Title: From Sun Tzu To Xbox—War and Video Games
Author: Ed Halter
Publisher: Thunder's Mouth Press
ISBN: 1560256818
Year published: 2006
Pages: 400
Genre(s): Non-fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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