By Jim Gourley
Best Defense all-star team
Sometimes we can stare at a problem until we lose perspective of its framework. In the contemporary debates over drone warfare and domestic surveillance, all our focus is drawn to tangential arguments such as confirmation of signatures and posse comitatus, distracting us from essential fundamental considerations. How do the values of our armed forces inform their relationship to technology? How does our sense of moral obligation to allies and enemies extend into the virtual world and the conduct of cyber warfare? Just how reliant is society on the military for its security, and how reliant is the military on society for its dominance in innovative capacity? When does the balance of those needs necessitate the military's influence on the direction of civilian society? These questions are somewhat esoteric, but they shape the underlying philosophy that guides our most important decisions.
They are also the ones that get shoved into the background of more immediate matters. That is what makes Corey Mead's War Play such a brilliantly refreshing work. Though its subject, the history of the military's use of video games, seems innocuous, Mead provides a revealing historical perspective that calls attention to its importance, benefits and consequences all at once. Like an actual video game, War Play gives the reader an opportunity to disconnect from "real world" concerns and enjoy viewing things in a lighter, more entertaining context. But also like its subject, War Play is much closer to the real thing than one might expect, and shows how the same dilemmas apply to both Stuxnet and "America's Army."
At a svelte 198 pages, this book wastes no time with extraneous commentary. From the beginning, Mead launches into the history of the military's and video game industry's influence on each other. Interestingly, this relationship begins with the military's long-running involvement in the American education system. He paints a picture of a large governmental agency that created numerous materials and programs for war that were repurposed into highly successful civilian applications. That agency in turn often uses those products as leverage to access potential service members, both for the purpose of recruitment and educational preparation. According to Mead, it began when George Washington initiated a literacy program in Valley Forge using the Bible as its textbook, and continues today as the military introduces video simulations of firing ranges and missile launchers to schools to help with physics-- and put military-themed materials in front of kids in schools that are otherwise hostile to recruiters.
Perhaps the most revelatory part of the book is the section Mead dedicates exclusively to the video game "America's Army." From the genesis of its concept, to the bitter arguments from military programmers that emphasizing Army values would make the game unappealing to kids and efforts by the Pentagon to defund it, to its achievement as the greatest recruiting tool in Army history and further commercial success, Mead uses the story of this single game as a microcosm of his entire narrative, and by proxy for the military's relationship with technology as it enters the 21st century.
The work is not without its flaws. At times Mead leaps to conclusions outside the concern of his primary theses and without substantiating evidence. He claims more than once that the modern video game industry would not be as sophisticated or large as it is were it not for the enormous amount of patronage it received from the military. It's a bit of a reach without any consideration of other forces in the game industry, like a certain Italian plumber from Japan. Likewise, Mead is given to singing the praises of the modern gamer-cum-soldier rather than scrutinizing him. He discusses the psychological advantages a gamer has in the modern dynamic battlefield environment -- multitasking, greater ability to think quickly and filter sensory input-- only in the context of actual hostilities. He does not question whether a gamer-warrior is more or less adept at the more common tasks associated with COIN.
But these are momentary lapses. In the grand scheme of the work, Mead never forgets that the important items are those that connect games to every other defense-related tech endeavor. He drives this message home when he pivots on a quotation from Orson Scott Card's masterpiece Ender's Game, acknowledging the dilemma that arises when we make games more like war, war more like games, and encourage children to play games all at once. Like many other technological enterprises within the Defense Department, the history of games' successes and failures is haphazard and demonstrates a lack of a cohesive strategy aimed at clear objectives, making the future vulnerable and the military its own worst enemy. This is War Play 's greatest achievemen t-- an examination of a process unblemished by debates attached to the product. In that regard, it may be as valuable to the present state of controversial technologies as it is prescient of future ones.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.