Q&A: <i>From Sun Tzu to Xbox</i> author Ed Halter

Halter's book chronicles the entwined history of games and conflict; but what does he think it all means?

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Ever since MIT grad student Steve Russell developed Spacewar in 1962 for play on his lab's supercomputer, armed conflict and games have been inexorably linked. Even today the two are entwined.

From Sun Tzu to Xbox
From Sun Tzu to Xbox

The US Army has developed its own free PC game, America's Army, as a potential recruitment tool, and other games (Full Spectrum Warrior, US Navy SEALs, PRISM: Threat Level Red) are made with varying degrees of military cooperation. But as the various armed forces get involved in the industry, games are coming under sustained fire from critics for their violent content. Indeed, the very qualities the military might look for in games (desensitizing soldiers to the horrors of war, training them to kill enemies) are the same things some activists and parent watchdog organizations oppose in games.

In Ed Halter's recently published From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games, the Village Voice critic and media curator-at-large examines the origins of the connection, dating back thousands of years to the earliest intersections of war and games. Halter has been making appearances and giving lectures around the country to support his book, but he recently took some time to answer GameSpot's questions about the game industry's military complex.

Halter will be giving multimedia lectures and signing copies of his book October 17 at the Pacifica Film Archive in Berkeley, California, and October 21 at the OtherCinema experimental film series in San Francisco. For more information, check out the book's Web site.

GameSpot: So why is it that games and war are so tied together?

Ed Halter: Well, that was my question going into the book. That's what I wanted to look into and I found that there's lots of different ways. I mean, one is on a purely historical level. The development of games came out of a time when pretty much all computer research was a subset of military research. In the '50s and '60s, when the first kind of ancestors of the video game emerged, they all emerged within the realm of programmers and contractors who were in one way or another funded by the Department of the Defense in the US.

That kind of fascinated me, how this creative subculture of hackers that created the first games would have emerged from what seems like a completely antithetical situation. But what's interesting is since then there's always been these kind of attempts over the decades for the military to kind of go back to this field and try to work with it again. And I detail those attempts as well, like the abortive project in the early '80s to make a trainer out of Atari's Battlezone.

GS: Have you found that war games are any more or less popular when there's an actual war going on?

EH: Yeah. That's interesting, too. As you've probably read in the book, I did look back and see how in the 19th century, there were instances where war toys became more popular when wars happened. But you've got a different situation now post-Vietnam, where you've got a generation of parents who lived through Vietnam and don't have a favorable view of war in general. Regardless of what the cause of the war is, they just don't like war, period. And they don't like the idea of their kids going to war. In general, this is very different from a hundred years ago.

GS: Why is it that World War II games are so prevalent while other wars are oftentimes not addressed, or only get one or two games?

EH: It has to do with the fact that, culturally, Americans still haven't digested the idea of war. What is America's role in war post-Vietnam? Our country is still completely in debate about this. And I think that World War II is morally safe. It's easy to make a game about World War II. It's distant now. Nobody playing the game is going to have an actual memory of the war to conflict with the fantasy of the war that you're being presented.

And I think it's easier to create a narrative that's based around an individual hero maybe in World War II than in a contemporary war, or at least realistically so. I wonder about that sometimes because...the way wars are fought now with lots of air strikes and kind of urban combat and things like that, it seems like games designers are still trying to figure out how to make that playable.

Then you get weird things like how do you make a Vietnam game? How do you make this game that is really going to be this huge downer in terms of national identity, or Black Hawk Down? How do you make a game out of that? So when those games came out, some people seemed to think the very idea of making games out of those wars was inappropriate. For example, [Black Hawk Down author] Mark Bowden would not lend his name to the Black Hawk Down game because he felt it was inappropriate to make a game out of that event.

It's all very new and we're still trying to figure out in our culture what's appropriate to make games out of, and if so, how to do them. So a lot of the Vietnam games, as I note in the book, end up being about survival rather than victory. That might not be as thrilling as World War II. It's not as heroic as a World War II narrative.

GS: With so many World War II first-person shooters, why do few of them, if any, really, address the Holocaust in a meaningful way? Why is storming the beach at Normandy in an interactive version of the Saving Private Ryan opening scene any more acceptable, fun, or rewarding than storming a concentration camp?

EH: Yeah. That's a good point. Obviously, there's the whole taboo on visually representing it in a game... I primarily write about film. But [discussions about games] parallel a lot of the discussions that people had about pornography and horror films in the '60s and '70s. That was a time when a lot of taboos were being broken visually in the films in terms of violence and sex. And we look back on those discussions today and we're like, "What the heck were they debating about?" They're worrying about a Hammer horror film for being too violent or A Clockwork Orange, or a porn film. But today those discussions seem really quaint to us. But they shouldn't, because we're having them again now with games.

It was easier probably in the old days when games were two-dimensional and kind of abstract. Now with like the new games systems they're becoming so increasingly photorealistic, it's not so easy to shoot that bad guy any more when it's almost cinematic and you can actually see the person in this really detailed way. You can really sense that there's a negotiation in terms of the game design of how to play that violence in a way that still makes you feel okay and not too icky about it.

At the same time, there is obviously something that no one talks about enough with games, which is what I call the sick factor. Obviously, anybody that plays games knows part of the thrill of it is to do things that are forbidden, that you can do without consequence in a game and without any kind of moral repercussion. So you can kill JFK [in the assassination sim JFK Reloaded]. You can kill your fellow soldier if you feel like it, just to see what happens in the game. You can do all these things that in real life, obviously, you wouldn't do. But part of the thrill of these games is doing wrong, which I think is something that obviously the Grand Theft Auto series hit on really well.

GS: In your book, you mentioned that people would come to the defense of Grand Theft Auto in the mainstream media but not of JFK Reloaded. Where do you think our culture draws the line on gaming violence? And do you think that line is changing?

EH: My issue is I think that that line is totally in debate now. Look at what [Slate critic] Clive Thompson wrote [about JFK Reloaded]. He's a very, very intelligent critic, one of the best. But that game appeared to have drawn a line for him. And I think it's really getting back to some very, very old primitive feelings in us, the kind of voodoo-doll feeling. Like, if I shoot this [depiction of a] real person, it's somehow an actual [im]moral act.

So it's all in debate now, and what's interesting is that the role of America is in debate and the role of warfare in modern society is in debate. So, all these things are getting mixed up together when you talk about representation of war in games. And it's pretty difficult to extricate them out when you have these discussions because it's all this big knot of moral dilemmas.

GS: Now, there have been a number of critics that have labelled games like Grand Theft Auto and Doom as "murder simulators." How appropriate do you think that characterization of these games is?

EH: I do wonder. If you look back at World War II and World War I, writers who wrote about their experience of going to war for the first time often, in those days, described it as cinematic. They would say, "I went on the battlefield and all of a sudden it felt like I was in a movie, and it wasn't real." So, that's obviously a psychological effect of facing a traumatic experience--you distance yourself from it and you imagine it to be unreal.

What's interesting about games is it appears to me that, whether or not this is a conscious effect of training with games, they do help. Now, when the guys are at war, when they kill their first enemy in Iraq, they'll say, "God, it was like I was playing a video game." And that's just a modern update of that distancing effect.

GS: You mentioned your experience as a film critic, and it seems that in films most war movies kind of boil down to two and a half hours of "War is hell." I'm wondering what message--if there is one--do you think war games send?

EH: Yeah. I've thought a lot about that. If you play an Iraq game, a Vietnam game, a World War II game, what's interesting is that they're so similar. The weapons are a little different. Obviously, the uniform is a little different. The terrain is a little different. But the essential genre is the same. So, I think that they do have this flattening effect historically. It feels like each war is simply the same scenario in a different location. And almost all these games, except for the true old-school-style strategy games, focus on one soldier or one small squad of soldiers that you play as a protagonist. And of course, that's a very different view of warfare than you might get in a movie because you're only getting one point of view and you're only getting this underdog narrative. "We're this one group and we're going to do this mission. We win the day," you know?

Obviously, real wars are not about individual heroes like that. They're about massive movements of soldiers and artillery and different kinds of weapons systems. So it gives this romantic idea of war as being this lone individual fighting against impossible odds, which in a sense is cinematic. The difference is that movies, as I mentioned in the book, are able to convey interior experiences in a way that games--so far, I feel--cannot. You don't play a character in a game. You play an agent. You're an agent of movement and shooting and actions. You're like a bundle of actions in a body, but you're not a person. You have your own emotions as a player, but your character does not have internal emotions about the war. Neither do the characters you're fighting against. In a movie, those things can be explored, and often are explored in really subtle ways. Those things don't happen in games the way they're made right now. Whether or not they even can happen in games the way we have them right now, I'm not even sure. I think that games would have to become something very different in order to incorporate those subtleties that cinema has developed.

GS: Why do so many modern military games take place in fictitious countries, even if they're clearly supposed to be Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea?

EH: It's a funny thing. I mean, only a really cheesy movie would do that, right? But in a game, it's a totally acceptable convention. I'm not sure. It might be partly the taboo, but it also might be partly like they might not want their games to date so quickly. A lot of these games were being produced while we were starting to go to war with Iraq and Afghanistan. So, if you make a game about Afghanistan, and suddenly the war changes or something really huge happens in the war, suddenly your game might seem kind of naïve. I don't really know.

GS: Do you think war games are more effective as a recruitment tool or a propaganda tool?

EH: Well, the trouble is there is what the definition of propaganda is. I mean, what one person calls propaganda, another person simply calls marketing, and I don't think the line between the two is so easy when you're dealing with something like the military, which is part of the government. So, if you want to try to look from a marketing perspective, getting out the brand name of the army and tying it to something cool and cutting-edge in a sense when it came out, America's Army has been wildly successful. Millions and millions of people have downloaded America's Army and it's gotten tons of press and it makes the army look kind of "with it." That they're smart enough to even take this tack makes them look good in a way, right? That said, how much that brand awareness of the army can translate into people actually wanting to sign up is something I don't know. But in terms of purely getting the brand name out there, of course, it's been absolutely successful.

Another interesting aspect of America's Army that I think doesn't get mentioned a lot is that one of the things the army has anxiety about is what they call "influencers," which often mean parents and teachers and other people that basically can influence a teenager's decision in life. And they're concerned about this because obviously people who are parents nowadays with people who are of age to sign up lived through Vietnam. And like I said before, they tend to not be so supportive of that choice. America's Army, whether by design or not, certainly gets around parents, because I think a lot of parents don't understand gaming or what it means. So, they might not know at all that their kid is engaged in logging 40 hours a week or something playing America's Army. Or if they see it, they might have no idea that it's something produced by the army. So, in a way it does effectively get around parents.

GS: Thanks a lot.

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