John Sanders is a PhD student in English at Syracuse University with a focus in Film and Screen studies. His research interests include theories of adaptation, new media narratives, and examinations of player agency in digital and analog games.
Despite its growing cultural legitimation, for some, gaming still begins and ends with a man-child screaming into a headset while he fires round after virtual round into digital insurgents in vaguely Middle-Eastern locales. The spectacular and seemingly escapist nature of many military themed first-person shooters make them less tempting for critique, especially in a field full of unexamined experiments in critical and self-reflexive play. Perhaps this is why scholarship on the subject has been somewhat lacking, finding niches in game studies anthologies or as minor parts of larger projects on Empire despite the genre’s extreme popularity and gaming’s already troubling connection to contemporary technologies of war. Luckily, Matthew Thomas Payne’s Playing War: Military Video Games after 9/11 provides an excellently researched (and long overdue) book-length examination of the military video game and its relationship to cultural mythologies surrounding the ongoing War on Terror. Perhaps more importantly, Payne’s accessible methodology and emphasis on the political stakes of gaming make his project one worth emulating.
Although Payne approaches military video games solidly from the position of a gamer-scholar in that he takes the idea that “gameplay matters” as “an article of faith” (4), a stated goal of his manuscript is to make his findings relevant to those outside of the gaming space as well. To this end, Payne positions the games he examines – predominantly commercially successful first-person shooters, not imperial-minded strategy games or government-backed ludic propaganda – within a tradition of post-9/11 “militainment” media. For Payne, games are unique among other militainment not because their content seeks to give meaning to the ambiguity of postmodern warfare, but because their interactive nature allows gamers to “find political satisfaction in taking up virtual arms against the enemies of the state” by engaging directly in cultural myths of warfare (208). In order to illustrate this claim, Payne complements a wide range of game scholarship with a strong grasp of theories of military ideology and contemporary visual culture, resulting in a truly impressive bibliography. Although this theory-heavy approach necessitates reviewing the literature and synthesizing key terms for the first two sections, Payne’s deliberate writing style effectively manages to keep all of these theoretical voices in harmonious conversation, making his chapters simultaneously thorough and accessible for scholars of all backgrounds.
As the introduction makes clear, Playing War focuses on the concept of “ludic war,” which Payne defines as “the pleasurable experience of playing military-themed video games alone or with others” (11). Drawing on the work of game scholars Stephen Kline and Nick Dyer-Witheford, Payne claims that ludic war is situated within three “circuits” of cultural practice: the military shooter genre itself (the text), the marketing surrounding these texts (paratext), and the social conditions in which these texts are played (context). This emphasis on the social constructions surrounding military games rather than merely the textual artifacts themselves is one of the book’s stated contributions to the sphere of game studies. By applying this multi-faceted methodology to a genre which props up a cultural mythology surrounding warfare, Payne hopes that his work can “embolden scholars to emphasize the political stakes of their [own] play-based research” in other genres and gaming communities (16). As will be seen, Payne’s method of critical gameplay analysis involves deep dives into the games themselves as he explores how the design and narrative of military video games contribute to the pleasures of ludic war.
Within the first chapter, Payne is quick to clarify that his project is not invested in affect theory or phenomenology (a wise move for a book with an already wide-ranging theoretical base). Instead, Payne relies on the concept of modality – that is, the perceived connection between a text and reality, both in realistic representation and emotional effectiveness – to explore how military shooters operate on textual, paratextual, and contextual levels. The often overtly realistic and immersive elements of military war games, according to Payne, are precisely what makes them ripe for controversy in an era of postmodern warfare. By placing the player in the boots of a “ludic soldier” within the gritty and affective world of a first-person shooter, Payne claims that the subjective perspective and performative demands of video games have the potential to make ludic war more “real” than actual postmodern warfare, a war which has itself been mediated through the first-person cameras of smart bombs and computerized vehicles since the first Persian Gulf War. Payne illustrates the usefulness of modality within war games with a comparison of the classic Cold War arcade game Missile Command (1980) with the visceral and immersive Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) at the end of the chapter, showing how each utilizes design principles to render particular visions of ludic war: the former becomes an allegory of the futility of nuclear conflict fitting for the 80s, and the latter is a “hauntingly and graphically specific” representation of a post-9/11 soldiery (67).
The next three chapters continue in this textualist vein, exploring and comparing specific games in an attempt to reveal how a military video game’s modality interacts with and supports the pleasures of gameplay. Chapter two explores the Modern Warfare trilogy and how its narrative and sense of immersion shape cultural mythologies around post-9/11 wars of counterinsurgency via visceral, emotional impact rather than merely expository narrative. Payne’s apt summary of the Modern Warfare series’ complex storyline reveals that it perpetuates the Cold War mythology of evenly matched nations at war while simultaneously focusing on the small-scale urban engagements of contemporary conflicts; a scenario that allows the ludic war presented here to be conventionally epic without sacrificing modality. While the game’s narrative seems to lend meaning to the confusing aspects of a postmodern War on Terror, this sense-making feature is complicated by levels in which the player is put in control of unarmed characters doomed to die at the end of each gameplay sequence. Payne compellingly argues that these moments of uncontrollable sacrifice promote a sense of “sacrificial citizenship” which underscores much of post-9/11 political ideology and resonates with the helplessness and paralysis felt by many Americans in the wake of the September 11th attacks, a structure of feeling (Payne draws this term from Raymond Williams) that resonates with the immersive properties of video game militainment.
Playing War’s third chapter counterbalances these disempowering affects of war games by examining a series of games invested in empowering the player with high tech counter-terrorist tools and tactics: the Tom Clancy-branded Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series (2006-2008). Payne connects these titles to Clancy’s brand of American exceptionalism and the Bush administration’s One Percent doctrine, both of which promote pre-emptive responses to terrorist attacks wherever they may be (including US soil). By placing players in the role of technologically enhanced warriors fighting larger forces in black-ops style missions on a realistically rendered homefront, Payne argues these games allow players to enact cultural fantasies of “protecting the state’s democratic rule of law by acting autocratically beyond the law” (115). As a result, Payne successfully illustrates how these games allow players to take pleasure in the same myth of American exceptionalism that underlies political engagements such as the successful SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden.
The fourth chapter of Playing War takes a detour from the hegemonic pleasures of first person shooters and takes aim at the ludic war version of “the preeminent symbol of American military might in the early twenty-first century:” the unmanned drone (123). After an overview of contemporary theorizations of drones as disruptive technologies, Payne examines a trio of games featuring drones, all of which provide substantially more subversive comments on postmodern war than the previous titles he mentions. Though relatively short, Payne’s readings of these subversive moments – the alternatingly terrifying and empowering presence of user-controlled drones gone rogue in Call of Duty: Black Ops II (2012), the gruesome aftermath of a player’s drone strike in Spec Ops: The Line (2012), and the disturbing banality of a drone pilot’s private life in Unmanned (2012) – are some of the most thought-provoking subjects in the book, supported as they are by theoretical materials as well as developer commentary attesting to the power of gameplay as an affective mode of engagement.
Returning to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as a case study, the final two chapters of Playing War step away from textual gameplay analysis and examine the cultural and social contexts in which military video games are situated, a move consistent with the tripartite model described in the introduction. In chapter five, Payne engages with the paratext around Modern Warfare, including game developer interviews, press reviews, and a viral marketing campaign of spoof YouTube gaming videos featuring leaders such as Fidel Castro or Vladimir Putin giving their thoughts on the game. In each of these paratextual elements, Payne finds that the “realism” that is being foregrounded is more about technical fidelity and the positive framing of military personnel than social realism or understanding of the horrors of war – horrors that, as Payne showed earlier, are not absent from the game itself. The YouTube marketing campaign in particular gives gamers “license to disregard potentially uncomfortable complexities of representation,” staving off fears of “simulation fever” while at the same time promoting the game’s fidelity towards (and perhaps above) the reality of postmodern conflict (169).
Chapter six brings the examination of gameplay modality into the context of play through an ethnographic look at a commercial gaming center known as LANopolis. His fieldwork with regular Call of Duty players seems to mainly confirm the unfortunate stereotypes associated with gaming spaces: LANopolis tends to be dominated by young, middle-class, white men playing high-intensity first-person shooters who value skill in the game and have a troubling penchant for homophobia and misogyny in their ribbing of other players. While this may seem like well-trod ground to game scholars, Payne provides useful new frameworks in his breakdown of acceptable transgressions (trash talk) versus unacceptable transgressions (unsportsmanlike “griefing” ) and his distinction between “hardcore” gamers and fan practices (187). As Payne’s interviews with the community reveal, the practice of ludic war can help forge an (often masculinist) comradery between so-called ludic soldiers based upon honor and skill, a practice that polices and marginalizes other gaming practices and privileges realism in representation rather than the heavy-hitting social realities of war.
Although the critique could well be leveled that Playing War’s structure is a bit lopsided by Payne’s own standards – he devotes three chapters to the textual circuit of his tripartite model while only one each to the other elements, and Playing War is two chapters away from being almost exclusively about the Modern Warfare series – each well-researched section is packed with enough interesting insights and useful frameworks to stand on its own. The last chapter especially, while it may seem second-nature to many game scholars or somewhat dissonant with the rest of the book’s approach and style, would be a superb assigned reading for a video games unit in a popular culture or gender studies class. What is most pressing for this reviewer, though, is the sense of purpose that extends through this work. Payne’s conviction that gameplay matters – and that it should matter to everyone, not just those in game studies – is well supported by his analysis of gaming’s part in a war in which the US is still very much embroiled. This point hits home especially strongly in his conclusion, which describes the proliferation of gamified simulations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. As he chillingly puts it, “the United States’s longest war will live on through the military’s clandestine drone strikes, and it will endure virtually in the culture industries’ post-post-9/11 ludic wars” (211). Payne’s examination of gaming culture’s integration in widescale cultural mythologies and socio-political turmoil helps legitimize the field of game studies not just to scholars, but perhaps to those who do not yet understand the medium. In many ways, Playing War is a call to arms, a well-researched and methodically written text that ought to inspire other game scholars to be bold in their articulation of the political stakes of gaming.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360). Developer: Infinity Ward, Publisher: Activision,
Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Xbox 360). Developer Treyarch, Publisher: Activision, 2012.
Missile Command (Arcade Cabinet). Developer: Atari, Publisher: Atari, 1980.
Payne, Matthew Thomas. Playing War: Military Video Games after 9/11. NYU Press, 2016.
Spec Ops: The Line (Xbox 360). Developer: Yager Development. Publisher: 2K Games, 2012.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (PC). Developer: Red Storm Entertainment, Publisher: Red Storm
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (Xbox 360). Developer: Ubisoft Paris,
Publisher: Ubisoft, 2006.
Unmanned (PC). Developer: Molleindustria, Publisher: Molleindustria, 2012.