‘The code which governs war and play’: Computer games, sport and modern combat – Jeff Sparrow

In 1908, the head of Melbourne’s Wesley Grammar School, Dr Watkin, explained that “as [boys] strove on the football field or the river, so it might be that in the near future they would have to fight for their motherland, their King and the Commonwealth” (Crotty 2001, 87). A few years later, with Watkin’s grim future already at hand, the Old Wesleyian Alan Gross expressed a similar sentiment in ‘Young Chivalry’, a poem for the school magazine. It praised the experience accumulated in “many a bloodless field and fray” as an introduction to “the code which governs war and play” (Crotty 2001, 87). In 2005, Retired Marine Colonel Gary W. Anderson, a defense consultant and former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, enthused to the Washington Post about the importance of a different kind of play in preparing young men for battle. Computer gaming was, he said, transforming the youth into ‘new Spartans’: “Remember the days of the old Sparta when everything they did was towards war? In many ways, the soldiers of this video game generation have replicated that, and that’s something to think about” (Vargas 2006).

If the games described by Colonel Anderson looked quite different from those recommended by Watkin and Gross, so too was the relationship posited between play and war. At Wesley in the years before the Great War, sport mattered because it instilled character. For Anderson, games like Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie 2001) and Full Spectrum Warrior (Institute for Creative Technologies/Pandemic Studios 2004) were important, first and foremost, because they fostered particular skills likely to be useful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the similarity in the rhetoric is not purely accidental, since the US military’s growing relationship with computer gaming rests, in part, on the utility of military-themed games in reviving a distinctly Edwardian discourse of militarism.

In his Making the Australian Male, Martin Crotty describes how from the mid-nineteenth century Australian public schools, like their English counterparts, abandoned the promotion of godliness and scholarly achievement in favour of a new curriculum centred on sport. From the 1860s onwards, the ideal pupil was no longer a pious bookworm but a cricketer, a footballer or rower. Sporting heroes strode the grounds ‘like gods’ and games became compulsory as the masters aggressively promoted student athleticism (Crotty 2001, 87).

The new emphasis was, more or less explicitly, a reaction to a perceived degeneration brought by modernity. Educationalists fretted about a stunted and enfeebled generation, with the sturdy bushman of the colonial era allegedly giving way to the shallow-chested dyspeptic of the city. Australian schoolmasters occasionally blamed this deterioration upon the sickly influence of the southern climate but more often they identified the problem with modern life itself. Sport was a response, intended to make youth physically stronger, yet its promotion of good health was secondary to its spiritual and ethical mission. School games fostered valour, honour, loyalty and honesty—all traits threatened by the values of industrial civilisation.

Gross’ title ‘Young Chivalry’ exemplifies the common association of sport with idealised pre-industrial virtues. By the turn of the century, Australia had become one of the most urbanised countries in the world, and the hustle and bustle of its metropolis papered, many observers thought, over a spiritual emptiness, in which traditional authority and social norms had been eroded by commerce and prosperity. Where the commercial world knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, school games honoured the gentlemanly amateur. The sporting field reproduced an earlier, more organic order, with a place for everyone and everyone (of course) in their place. If Australia’s new prosperity turned men into indistinguishable cogs in an industrial machine, athleticism allowed for individual accomplishment even as it bonded the sportsman to the team and its supporters.

The sporting cult was consciously violent. The headmasters frowned on tennis and other ‘effeminate’ pastimes, and the rough-and-tumble encouraged on the field extended even to the spectators (Crotty 2001, 50; 87). In 1905, after, a school football game between Wesley College and Melbourne Grammar descended into an all-in brawl, Melbourne Punch explained: “The lad who can give and take blows in an hour of excitement and trial is likely to make a stronger man and a better one for the world’s work than the other who has been carefully nurtured on the lines beloved by old maiden aunts, and who shrieks in anguish from all contests involving hard knocks.” (Lemon 2004, 145).

Yet sporting violence was not, in and of itself, intended to cultivate martial skills. No headmaster suggested that techniques developed on the football field or the cricket pitch possessed a direct military application. Instead, the giving and taking of blows helped distinguish the playing field from the world around it. Precisely because everyday life was insipid and bloodless, the physical clashes of a manly sport mattered: these bloodless frays developed the character necessary for the ‘world’s work’.

The British poet Norman Gale put it like this:

See in bronzing sunshine
Thousands of good fellows,
Such as roll the world along,
Such as cricket mellows!
These shall keep the Motherland
Safe amid her quarrels;
Lucky lads, plucky lads,
Trained to snatch at laurels! (Mangan 1981, 192)

Though the sporting cult was officially championed in public schools, it was never simply imposed from above. On the contrary, schools without a robust games program saw their enrolments plummet, with the boys themselves often agitating for football or cricket teams (Crotty 2001, 87). Sport delivered something to its participants; its pleasures were real.

This is the context for the Edwardian understanding of war as a game. War, like sport, was violent but like sport it was ennobling.

The Australian W. H. Fitchett did as much as anyone to popularise Imperial patriotism amongst the boyhood of the commonwealth prior to the Great War. Fitchett’s 1897 book Deeds That Won the Empire sold an astonishing 100 000 copies, and his subsequent publications (Deeds that Won the Empire (1897), Fights for the Flag (1898); The Tale of the Great Mutiny (1899), Wellington’s Men (1900), Nelson and his Captains (1902) and the rest, circulated throughout the commonwealth in vast numbers (Zainu’ddin 1981, 512).

Fitchett enthused about war in the same way as the schoolmasters enthused about sport. In his introduction to Deeds that Won the Empire, he describes writing the book to ‘renew in popular memory the great traditions of the Imperial race to which we belong’. Like the public school masters, he sought to overcome contemporary degeneration—what he calls the ‘pallid, cold-blooded citizenship’ of the modern age. His books presented stirring tales of past battles in order to foreground the virtues under threat from modernity: the stories celebrate, he says, “the qualities by which the Empire, in a sterner time than ours, was won, and by which, in even these ease-loving days, it must be maintained”.

Fitchett does not pretend that war is not violent. It has, he says, “a side of pure brutality”. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—war inoculates youth against the decadence of the age. “What examples are to be found in the tales here retold”, he writes, “not merely of heroic daring, but of even finer qualities—of heroic fortitude; of loyalty to duty stronger than the love of life; of the temper which dreads dishonour more than it fears death; of the patriotism which makes love of the Fatherland a passion” (Fitchett 1897, 6).

Fitchett’s exultation of war’s transformative power was no individual idiosyncrasy. With the Great War was actually underway, Prime Minister Billy Hughes famously celebrated the conflict in very similar terms. War has, he explained: “saved us from moral, aye, and physical degeneration and decay, by which we were slipping down with increasing velocity into the very abyss of degeneration. [We] were becoming flabby, and were in danger of losing the ancient qualities which made the race. This war has purged us and is still purging us like the glorious beams of the sun” (Walker 1972, 105).

If sport and war served a similar function, it is not surprising that, in many respects, the training for one resembled the training for the other. Military drill had developed during the Napoleonic Wars initially to enable the firing of muzzle loading rifles in packed formation. By 1914, modern weaponry had rendered the practice obsolete. Yet if drill no longer helped men fire, it was regarded as crucial to shaping their characters: a way of transforming an atomised collection of enfeebled civilians into a regiment of warriors. (Holmes 1986, 36; Keegan and Holmes 1985, 43). In the British army during the Great War, each man accordingly spent an astonishing third of his training practicing drill. One soldier explained: “We sloped, ordered, presented, trailed, reversed, piled arms and did everything possible with them except fire them. With rifles we marched, counter-marched, wheeled right and left, inclined and formed squads and about turned until we were streaming sweat and weak in the knees with exhaustion” (Winter 1978, 39).

Obviously, recruits also learned to shoot, to bayonet and throw bombs but these specific proficiencies mattered less than the development of a martial spirit. Battle, it was thought, depended upon character. Just as sporting training did not develop any particular military skills, neither necessarily did military training. Indeed, in many respects, the two were similar. “Discipline, mental, moral, ethical… the voluntary submission to one master, the self-surrender to one aim, the conversion of self into part of a machine, devoid of free agency, the working and training for weeks and weeks, to uphold the honour of the school, college or university” (Crotty 2001, 64). The passage comes from an article written for St Peters about school rowing—but it might just as well have been by an army officer explaining the utility of drill.

That stress on character helps explain the tremendous literature of disenchantment that emerged from the war. In the trenches of France, sporting heroes dreaming of chivalry and cavalry charges confronted aeroplanes, tanks and chemical weapons: technological wonders that recreated the logic of the factory on the field of battle. Sport might have provided a space beyond the market; war patently did not. Rather than restoring the values of the past, the war massively accelerated the future: fighting in an artillery unit proved less like playing rugger and more like working at a foundry or a brickworks, except that productivity was measured in corpses.

Most obviously, the war did not allow individuals to express their inner heroism. The vast majority of casualties came from shell fire, against which ordinary soldiers could no nothing but hide. Famously, this was not a conflict in which men did things: it was one in which things were done to men (Dyer 1995, 47). Writing from Gallipoli, the Australian Captain Shepherd noted that “glorious charges, magnificent defences, heroic efforts in this or that direction all boil down to the one thing: the pitting of human beings against the most scientific machinery and the result can be seen in the papers” (Gammage 1974, 81).

Just as industrialised production at home had stripped labour of its traditional skills, industrial warfare rendered the warrior’s craft menial and meaningless. “Chivalry here took a final farewell”, wrote the German soldier Ernst Junger: “It had to yield to the heightened intensity of war, just as all fine and personal feeling has to yield when machinery gets the upper hand. The Europe of to-day appeared here for the first time on the field of battle.” (Junger 1975, 110). Ernst Toller explained:

Instead of escaping the soul-killing mechanism of modern technological society, they learned that the tyranny of technology ruled even more omnipotently in war than in peace time. The men who through daring chivalry had hoped to rescue their spiritual selves from the domination of material and technical forces discovered that in the modern war of material the triumph of the machine over the individual is carried to its most extreme form (Leed 1979, 30).

This was, in other words, a ‘work-war’—less about flags and drums, more about alienated labour—and so almost unrecognisable (Coker 2004, 5). As a Private Neaves wrote home from France to his brother in 1916, “it’s simply scientific murder, not war at all” (Gammage 1974, 182).

Colonel Anderson’s enthusiasm for video games reflects the very different attitude to military training developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Though an excessive reliance on drill proved remarkably persistent (Strachan 2006, 225), the American military theorist SLA Marshall prompted a shift in thinking when he claimed that a significant proportion—perhaps even the majority—of American soldiers did not actually fire in combat (Marshall 1947, 54). Debate about Marshall’s research ushered in a thoroughgoing revision of combat training in the USA and, eventually, the rest of the world (Grossman 2000, 18).

Today, modern militaries provide realistic simulations of actual battle, intended not to shape the recruit’s character but to induce in him a conditioned response. The modern soldier opens fire, not because his training has transformed him into a chivalric warrior, but because he has rehearsed the act of aiming and firing at a moving target until it becomes a reflex performed without conscious thought. The American writer David Grossman, who has both defended and developed Marshall’s theories into the modern era argues:

Men and women who served in the US military since the Vietnam era were universally taught to shoot at man-shaped silhouettes that popped up in their field of view, thus ingraining in them a conditioned response. The stimulus appeared and they had a split second to respond. Stimulus response, stimulus response, stimulus response. Hundreds of repetitions. When an enemy soldier popped up in front of our troops in Vietnam, the enemy was shot and killed, reflexively, without any conscious thought (Grossman 2004, 76).

Elsewhere, he writes:

Every aspect of killing on the battlefield is rehearsed, visualised, and conditioned. On special occasions even more realistic and complex targets are used. Balloon-filled uniforms moving across the kill-zone (pop the balloon and the target drops to the ground), red-paint-filled milk jugs, and many other ingenious devices are used. These make the training more interesting, the conditioning stimuli more realistic, and the conditioned response more assured under a variety of different circumstances (Grossman 1996, 254).

If the Edwardian saw combat (like sport) as counterposed to the stifling routines of industrial production, the training Grossman advocates seems self-consciously Fordist. In his memoir of the Iraq war, Generation Kill, Evan Wright explains: “Once the initial excitement wears off, invading a country becomes repetitive and stressful, like working on an old industrial assembly line: the task seldom varies, but if your attention wanders, you are liable to get injured or killed”. Under such conditions, conditioned responses prove tremendously effective. Wright reports the account given by one of the soldiers in his squad in the aftermath of an engagement: “It was just like training. I just loaded and fired my weapon from muscle memory. I wasn’t even aware what my hands were doing” (Wright 2004, 231).

Compare the description provided by Sergeant Sinque Swales of killing an Iraqi in Mosul:

It felt like I was in a big video game,’ he says. ’It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! The insurgents were firing from the other side of the bridge… We called in a helicopter for an airstrike… I couldn’t believe I was seeing this. It was like Halo. It didn’t even seem real, but it was real (Vargas 2006).

Swales appears in the Washington Post alongside Colonel Anderson with his testimony used as evidence that off-the-shelf video games like Halo: Combat Evolved are, in and of themselves, preparation for combat, a notion that Anderson and other quoted military officials seem happy to endorse. Elsewhere, Grossman makes the argument in even stronger terms, contending that the responses conditioned by first person shooting games provide a natural training for real firefights. “Violent media games”, he writes, “are murder simulators, except when police officers and soldiers use them for training, in which case they are combat simulators” (Grossman 2004, 76).

One does not have to accept such a straightforward equation between gaming and murder to recognise that, in a digital age, the kind of training previously provided by balloons and red-paint-filled milk jugs will, quite obviously, increasingly come from computerised simulations. If home video games are not themselves a preparation for combat, they are, in that sense, a preparation for combat preparation: a FPS might not train a gamer for Mosul but it bears an obvious relationship to the Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer, a simulation on which recruits practice firing M16 rifles against a computer screen (Vargas, 2006).

Yet a too narrow focus on the techniques of battle preparation obscures a more important argument about how a point-and-click understanding of combat blurs the distinction between training and recruitment. From the late 1990s, for instance, the army sponsored a research project called the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, which conducted research and hired game companies and movie studios. The best known outcome was Full Spectrum Warrior, originally created with millions of dollars of army money explicitly as a training module for urban warfare. The incredibly successful commercial version was a spin-off, in which a simple cheat-code changes the program into its military counterpart. Some military officials complained that Full Spectrum Warrior project was a failure, since the company involved produced a satisfying experience for gamers only by compromising on the requirements of a usable training program. Yet if the game did not deliver as a training simulation, it proved wildly successful in popularising the army brand amongst the crucial demographic of teenage males—and this was surely part of the original design brief, since the Full Spectrum Warrior website contained, in its first months, a direct link to the US army recruiting site (Halter 2006, 232) .

There is, of course, nothing new about the military working closely with the entertainment sector to promote recruiting. Ed Halter notes: “the first Hollywood film to win Best Picture, a sky romance called Wings, was made with the co-operation of the Army’s Air Corps. Top Gun, the 1986 Tom Cruise aerial vehicle—produced with the assistance of the Navy—reportedly increased enrolment by a ridiculous 400 percent; the Navy even set up recruiter tables at movie theatres once they knew what was happening” (Halter 2006: 232). Even the infinitely less glamorous Australian military makes its personnel and equipment available for television or movie productions that in its opinion will foster ‘army values’.

Yet the playability of games brings a quite new dimension to this process. Take America’s Army (U.S. Army 2002), the remarkable FPS developed and distributed free by the US military. One study showed that almost thirty percent of those who clicked on the America’s Army homepage (at which the game can be downloaded) also visited the real-life recruitment page, while nineteen percent of the soldiers joining the Military Academy in 2003 acknowledged playing the game. Since launching in 2002, the project has been extraordinarily effective as a recruiting tool, with “more success than any US military-recruitment campaign since the Uncle Sam I Want You ads in World War II , with nearly eight million people registered to play worldwide as of January 2007” (Power 2007). As David Nieborg points out: “For over four years the game has ranked high in the list of most played FPSs, attracting and retaining a considerable group of a couple of hundred thousand dedicated players. Every couple of months the game is significantly updated, with bug fixes and the addition of new maps, weapons and training elements” (Nieborg 2006).

From the point of view of recruitment, computer games like America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior possess a tremendous advantage over Hollywood productions because their game play so readily re-enchants those elements of war that so disillusioned a generation of Edwardian public school boys. The very title Full Spectrum Warrior illustrates the process. ‘Full-spectrum dominance’, of course, refers to the US military’s drive to command all aspects of the battlefield: ground, sea, air and sub-surface, as well as the electromagnetic spectrum and information space. By definition, this implies a level of social and technological sophistication incompatible with any traditional notion of warriordom. In any real sense, a soldier in a twenty-first century war possesses less individual control over the battle than at any other time in history, as (in theory at least) the conflict rages simultaneously in space, under the ocean and in cyberspace.

Yet gaming, like sport, relies upon individual agency. By gaming battle, the player in America’s Army or Full Spectrum Warrior reverses the logic of the Great War: war is once again experienced as the individual doing things, rather than having things done to him or her. Even when the simulation replicates the most fearsome components of twenty-first century warfare, these are presented merely as adjuncts to the player’s choices and decisions, rather than as the machinations of an industrial order entirely outside any individual control.

If the Great War was ‘not war at all’, ‘scientific murder’ functions entirely differently in the game format. After all, one of the compromises made by the designers of Full Spectrum Warrior involved increasing (rather than decreasing) the number of firefights, since war only seemed like war to gamers if they could mow down of entire armies of electronic foes.

Even the grittiest digital representations of war only foster its re-enchantment since, in a game, the touches of ‘realism’ provided by a skilfully rendered corpse or a bombed landscape make the play more rather than less meaningful. Ernst Junger famously complained that, in modern times, the soldier had “exchanged heroism’s iridescent mantle for the dirty smock of the day labourer” (Leed 1979, 30). Yet a realistic rendition of a soldier scrabbling in mud becomes, in a computer game, a signifier of authenticity rather than ennui. Even tedium, in other words, can be enchanted, as Nick Yee (2005) has noted. America’s Army famously simulates not only combat but enlistment and training (the 2005 console version is subtitled ‘The Rise of a Soldier’), transforming the notorious monotony of basic training into gameplay.

The playability of battle fosters a distinctly Edwardian sense of war as an experience that reintroduces chivalric virtues absent from a mundane suburban world. America’s Army is explicitly based around the transformation of civilians into soldiers, with successful players represented as the embodiment of archaic martial codes. “I am an American Soldier,” explains one screen. “I am a Warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.”

Much of the text might, in fact, have been written by Dr Watkin: “In the game, as in the Army, accomplishing missions requires a team effort and adherence to the seven Army Core Values. Through its emphasis on team play, the game demonstrates these values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage and makes them integral to success in America’s Army.” David Nieborg notes that the game developers have gone to extraordinary length to build these values into the fabric of the game, with various modifications prohibiting activities seen to be in conflict with them (Nieborg, 2006).

While America’s Army encourages individuals to play in teams over the internet, it also presents an array of what it calls ‘Real Heroes’—avatars based on authentic military officers. The ‘Real Heroes’ interact with the players in various ways, while giving details of their own adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather than the foul-mouthed, porn-watching, amphetamine-and-junk-food gobbling hip hoppers portrayed in Evans’s account, these ‘Real Heroes’ are honourable warriors who talk earnestly about the nobility of service. For instance, a certain Major Jason Amerine explains: “In Afghanistan, I commanded American and Afghan soldiers, each fighting for his own nation and his people, yet united in a common cause as they entrusted one another with their lives. There is no greater courage than for people to fight side-by-side against the terrible odds they faced with such impenetrable faith in one another”.

The game provides context for Amerine’s experiences by explaining that “the Taliban had also fallen in league with Al Qaeda, providing Osama Bin Laden a sanctuary from which he and his lieutenants could hatch new terrorist plots and within which they could recruit and train new generations of terrorist myrmidons”.

The recruits to the modern American military come from working class families. They are disproportionately black and Hispanic. They do not, one imagines, generally talk about terrorist myrmidons falling in league with each other. Rather than replicating the speech patterns of real recruits, the game employs the peculiar cod-feudal vocabulary that Paul Fussell (1981, 22) graphs from the early years of the Great War, in a diagram produced in part below.

A friend is a comrade
A horse is a steed, or charger
The enemy is the foe, or the host
Danger is peril
To conquer is to vanquish
To attack is to assail
To be earnestly brave is to be gallant
To be cheerfully brave is to be plucky
To be stolidly brave is to be staunch
Bravery considered after the fact is valor
The dead on the battlefield are the fallen

Such terms would seem risible in newspaper accounts of the catastrophic wars actually waging in Iraq and Afghanistan but within America’s Army the antiquated rhetoric seems fitting to the chivalric values the players live out. Indeed, within the game-world, it is words like ‘Abu Ghraib’ or ‘Haditha’ that possess no meaning whatsoever whereas the vocabulary of Edwardian militarism (‘I am a Warrior’) appears natural and appropriate.

In that respect, the pleasures of the game replicate those of public school sport. America’s Army provides a digital world of full of meaning and purpose, with easily comprehensible hierarchies and a set of values so clear that they can be summarised on the screen when the program starts up. The game is a space of atavistic utopia, where, in contrast to the outside world, the player can become an individual hero while remaining part of the larger community of the ‘army’.

Yet if America’s Army and similar program recreate war along the lines of Edwardian sport, they do so with an important difference—the experience exists only within the game world. Norman Gale’s ‘good fellows’ were socially validated for their cricket score, in a way that the skilled gamer is not, despite the army’s sponsorship of the ‘the Global Gaming League’. The player of America’s Army might live out ‘army values’ on their computer but no-one—not even game developers—suggest that video games foster character in the real world. On the contrary, insofar as ‘computer games’ and ‘character’ appear in the same context, the usual implication is that gaming is, in fact, degenerative: it is linked to childhood obesity, communication disorders, social isolation and so on.

This does not, however, impact of the value of the games to the real army. The militarists of the Great War genuinely believed that character mattered to battle—and, for that matter, that battle produced character. The modern military does not. It is happy for recruits to play games structured around dreams of young chivalry but, as has been discussed, it actually understands genuine combat as an almost autistic process, in which muscle memory matters more than heroism.

If playing America’s Army convinces a teenager that the secret space of meaning and purpose and value can only be understood by the military, the game has done its job. Wilfred Owen probably aimed at someone very much like W.H. Fitchett when he attacked those who repeated “the old lie” to “children ardent for some desperate glory” (Owen 1986, 99). But Owen’s words seem even more appropriate to Fitchett’s digital descendants.

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Author Bio

Jeff Sparrow is the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence, the editor of Overland and a Research Fellow at Victoria University.