Ed Halter is a writer for the Village Voice, and given the strong anti-war sentiments in that publication, I went into Mr. Halter’s new book, From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Videogames expecting a screed against war, wargaming, and the organizations involved in both.
Instead what I found was a richly detailed, fascinating history of war and gaming, filled with analysis for the pundits as well as tidbits that delight the military historian and videogamer both. Whether you want to know the origins of chess, understand Prussian developments in kriegspiel, or discover the lost Bradley Fighting Vehicle simulator based on Atari’s Battlezone, he covers it.
Of course, Halter is opinionated, no doubt about it, and in all the ways one would expect; but it shows up less in what he says, and more in how he says it. At one point he refers to first-person shooters as games about “killers”, for instance, rather than the more neutral “soldiers” “warriors” or even “shooters”. To his credit, Halter never allows his bias to become overpowering, and at times he is surprisingly sympathetic to the needs of the military to find new ways to recruit and train today’s soldiers. He is also, clearly, a gamer, an insider to our culture rather than an external observer.
Halter’s thesis in From Sun Tzu to XBox is that games and war have always had a close relationship, because games grew out of the intellectual side of combat (just as sports grew out of the physical side of combat.) The earliest games, in other words, were simulations of command, while the earliest sports were simulations of fighting skill.
After demonstrating the military origins of chess, go, and other ancient pastimes, Halter traces the continuing dialectic of war and gaming. We see how war shapes the way games are played, how games shape the way war is waged, and find ourselves watching as the intersection of the two evolves into a bizarre composte of scientists, soldiers, video game developers, and Hollywood specialists he calls the “military entertainment complex.”
Regrettably, From Sun Tzu ends with a ceasfire rather than a victory. After describing the commerical and military relationship that has created the military entertaintment complex, Halter simply leaves things open, with few words about what it all will mean in the coming years. Perhaps it would have been impossible for him to sustain his objectivity and so he chose to left his views unstated. In any event, Halter does not permit himself the luxury of prophecy. I found myself wishing he had.