Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Practical Telos of Games

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by Danny

This past week saw the release of one of the most anticipated video games of the year: Mass Effect 3 (ME3). In this game, players take control of Commander John/Jane Shepard, a sort of futuristic Navy SEAL. Shepard is charged with defending not only humanity, but all organic existence, from Reapers, “a highly advanced machine race of synthetic/organic starships” (think Cylons). The release of ME3 has been accompanied by the usual discussions about whether videogames are art. (Roger Ebert says no. Everyone under 30 says yes.)

I’d like to elide this discussion for now, mainly because—save for taking introduction to art history—I’m not very familiar with the history or theory of art. What struck me most about ME3 is its extensive focus on diplomacy. Unlike most action roleplaying games, ME3 allows players a significant amount of choice in whether or not they become a “paragon” (basically a good guy) or “renegade” (a devil-may-care good but rough guy). The game centers on building an alliance similar to NATO designed to combat the Reaper menace. Therefore, whether one becomes a paragon or renegade depends, essentially, on how the player conducts him or herself diplomatically. For example, if one attempts to win a given planet over to the alliance through threats or blackmail, one wins renegade points; the opposite is true of paragons. In either case, the game is at heart about diplomacy, a fact that had me questioning the relationship between gaming, history, and international relations.

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Jane Shepard

Although ME3 is just a video game, today a similar game is regularly played by students, professors, and even policymakers. In these modern political war games, players adopt the perspective/persona of a given nation. For instance, Player 1 will play as Barack Obama, while Player Two will become Vladimir Putin, each facing off against the other to address, say, an Iranian nuclear breakout. These games are designed with the purpose of teaching the players “to think like” policymakers. The idea is that practice, even fictional practice, enables one to either think about or prosecute diplomacy. Interestingly, although these games reached their apex in 1950s and 1960s America, their origins may be traced to Weimar Germany. Examining the history of war games not only sheds light on the transnational connections that shaped America’s Cold War foreign policy, but also illuminates important questions about the relationship between gaming, knowledge, and practice.

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An Iraq War Game

One of the game’s main developers was a man named Hans Speier, a forgotten, though important, German-American exile intellectual. Speier began his career as the first doctoral student of Karl Mannheim, the creator of the modern sociology of knowledge, at the University of Heidelberg (home of the famous Philosophenweg) After leaving Germany soon after the Machtergreifung, Speier became the youngest founding member of the New School for Social Research’s University in Exile (peruse that list for a who’s who of twentieth century intellectual history). Speier spent the war years working for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, the Office of War Information, and the Division for Occupied Areas, before helping found the RAND Corporation’s Social Science Division in 1948. Throughout the 1950s, he embodied a more general shift experienced by a generation of German exiles from socialist to Cold Warrior, routinely arguing for the United States to adopt an extremely hardline position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. (As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m writing my dissertation on Speier.)

While at RAND, Speier, along with another sociologist, Herbert Goldhamer, standardized the political war game described above. Through RAND connections, the game moved to MIT and then into the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Gaming Agency (see Chapter 6 of Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s The Worlds of Herman Kahn). A number of well-known figures, including Maxwell Taylor, McGeorge Bundy, and Bobby Kennedy, played the game before making important policy decisions (although the relative influence of the game on decision-making remains obscure). The game’s meta purpose was to teach players about the importance of historical context for international relations and was a reaction against the game theory that dominated RAND’s Economics Division. But the game’s origins remained distant from the Cold War context in which it reached fruition. In the late-1920s, Karl Mannheim developed a new pedagogy with the goal of harmonizing the incredibly contentious democratic politics of Weimar Germany. Mannheim argued that if Weimar democracy was to have a future, intellectuals needed to create a classroom environment where students adopted the personas of representatives of different political parties and political interest groups. By discussing and arguing with each other over the most pressing issues of the day, Mannheim maintained, students would learn to be democrats. Practice was the path to democracy.

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Otto Dix's destroyed painting, "Street Fight"

Speier adopted and adapted this idea in the Cold War. Political war games are now played throughout the world, and are an important part of many security studies curricula. Moreover, it is the basic notion of the political war game—that gaming diplomacy can make players more astute negotiators—that undergirds ME3’s appeal as an “intellectual” video game. Clearly, individuals interested in politics want to have some way to practice the art. The question, of course, is whether this is ever possible. Can a political war game recreate the Cuban Missile Crisis? Can ME3 teach people what its like to form and maintain an international (or intergalactic) alliance?

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RAND Thinkers Thinking

The question that underlies this entire post concerns what role knowledge, however acquired, can play in teaching diplomacy and improving outcomes, however defined. A basic assumption of Speier’s, Goldhamer’s, and postwar security studies (and countless model UN clubs) is that it could. But is this the case? Are games more than distractions? Happily, a number of academics have begun to address this and similar questions. Game studies is one of the newest fields in academia and potentially one of the most exciting. I for one very much look forward to seeing how this often-overlooked field develops in the coming years. Perhaps we will soon learn that certain games do indeed fulfill their intended, practical telos. Or perhaps we will learn that they don’t.

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Why not?

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Written by Danny Bessner

March 15, 2012 at 17:46

Posted in Uncategorized

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