A Call to Arms

A Review of Playing War by Matthew Thomas Payne

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. Continue Reading

Make a Better Me of Me

System Shock 2 and the Military Fantasy

As cliché as it may sound, the first moments of a video game tend to be among the most important. They’re when the game foreshadows the journey to come, or when they give you a small taste of the ideas that later parts of the story are going to develop. System Shock 2 stands apart from this: while its early moments achieve their goal of setting up the themes the game is going to explore, they also fully develop their own ideas within that brief span of time. More specifically, the opening to System Shock 2 engages with and deflates the sort of fantasies we expect from first person shooters. Where its peers use military themes to make the player feel powerful and reinforce ideas of self-betterment, System Shock 2 denies both by remaining true to the mundane realities of military life. Continue Reading