On Crogan’s Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture

Patrick Crogan is concerned with the future. First and foremost, he is concerned with how the future is created, and more importantly, he is concerned about the myriad ways that high tech society has developed to control the future. Gameplay Mode is a tracing of the genealogy of computer games to their roots in the post-WWII Cold War technologies that deployed simulation as a way of understanding the possible conflicts of the future. Additionally, Crogan argues that this isn’t merely a history, but a present as well; simulation technology in video games informs ways of making war just as war continues to inform the construction of video games (I think about the Black Ops 2 advertising campaign).

Crogan latches onto Paul Virilio early and deploys his thought and concepts often in Gameplay Mode, often to brilliant effect, most particularly when Crogan analyzes the logistical mode that simulation often works in. Logistics, in its root sense, is concerned with organization and war. This organization is not limited to troops and strategy, but also food trucks, medical supplies, and mail systems of support. The art of logistics is the art of a complete management of all possible parts of an assemblage that makes up a conflict.

Simulations, in broad form, serve the purpose of logistics. They create populations who are deep in conflict before the conflict begins; they generate data for mapping an unmappable future; they create predictive models for decisions to be based on. Simulations are necessary for neoliberalism to exist in that they can continually produce a space to be colonized; a population can be mapped as anything the simulator wants–free markets are made not out of empirics, but out of possible, simulated futures.

While the book is ostensibly about video games, games are really only a touchstone for understanding the broader critical project that Crogan is embarking on, which is a reading of Bernard Stiegler combined with Virilio in order to understand the concept of “the future.” It is brilliant writing, and if you care about the ideological and material conditions from which video games sprung from, it is necessary reading. There are too few books on the subject. This one is masterfully researched and written. That said, it is hard to read, and I really had to buckle down and struggle through some of the chapters–Crogan selectively provides background to terms and concepts. Sometimes there will be ten pages of literature review on a concept; sometimes you get nothing.

That said, I want to write a little about some of the motivations for simulation. Crogan outlines that training and mapping are reasons for the development of simulation–fighter pilots had to be trained quickly; the battlefield had to be understood broadly so strategists could understand the conditions of victory in any given battle.

What I want to touch on, for just a moment, is secrecy, a concept that is never really discussed in Gameplay Mode. 

Secrecy seems like it would be a critical point of creation for simulations. Simulations, like experiments, are a mapping of the world–experiments tell us about actual conditions where simulations tell us about possible conditions that are accurate insomuch as the programmer of the simulation has included all possible scenarios of the “possible.” An experiment on the level of the kinds of things that we simulate–war, mostly–is impossible in secrecy. In the Cold War, an era that began with spies and moles and ended with rockets and satellite imagery, the only way to keep the modeling of a war secret would be to simulate it. And keeping this model secret it important–it is a nation’s specific view of the future; if an enemy had access to your planned future, they could nullify it.

The purpose of simulation is to keep something small, secret, and safe (just like Gandalf would.)

Gameplay Mode is a good book. Buy it and read it.

Addendum: after I wrote this post, it came to my attention that the USS Iowa is going to be used as a space for gameplay. Deep in the belly of a battleship you will be able to simulate playing a game. Polygon explains:

The ship’s below-deck digital theater will drop museum-goers into a virtual video experience from the bridge, recreating the ship’s role in supporting the American landings at Okinawa in 1945. The virtual recreation, which will include the turrets and 16-inch guns tracking and firing at targets, was created by Wargaming America, the U.S. arm of Wargaming.net. The developer is responsible for World of Tanks and the upcoming World of Warplanes and World of Battleships. Perhaps more interesting is the game room that Wargaming created on board the ship. The 15 gaming stations will be running a special version of World of Warplanes, letting visitors fly Grumman F6F Hellcats as they defend the USS IOWA from attacking Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zeros.

For Crogan, this is the logical end of the technoculture and the technology of war; these things, which were never far from one another, interact and combine in odd ways these days.

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1 Response to On Crogan’s Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture

  1. I’m about half way through the book. I keep having to put it down for one reason or another, then having to start over; it’s not a book that you can just jump back into. Crogan’s writing style is a little awkward, to the point of obtuse at times, but you’re right in assessing his value to the subject. I can’t think of anything I’ve read that has the same depth in investigating the whole “military-entertainment-industry complex.”

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