Locked Down In The Complex

I came across this a few days ago and it kind of pushes all my buttons. I had to talk about it.

The book is about something that I've talked about before, the connection between video games and the military-industrial complex. The book's argument is that modern video games are not just products of this environment but actively reproduce it. Every game is engaged in a war on 'contingency' and has a techno-fascist obsession with control, prediction, logistics, technique, etc. that has to be excised from games before we can really use them as a tool for human liberation.

Bogost doesn't seem to sympathize with the book's left-wing stance which is lame but he does see the importance of a book that exposes the fact that a game like SpaceWar!, the progenitor of all games, was designed on a campus practically bought and paid for by the Defense Department, and by people who had dedicated their lives to making the US military a more effecient killing machine. So far so good.

What the book and the review miss is that all basic research (and electronics and computers and cybernetics were extremely 'basic' during the period the book covers) in the west, and particularly in the United States, was directly funded and overseen by military bureaucrats. Part of this has to do with wartime demands- the need to protect Britain from a novel threat, that of aerial blitz, kicked the development of radar into overdrive, and the need to make effecient use of artillery drove the development of the ENIAC. The excuse of there being a war on loosened the purse strings and put technicians, as long as they produced something relevant to the war effort, in control. The pace of technological discovery was so rapid and the benefits so great that the postwar academic situation in the hard sciences and engineering has never changed. Defense dictates all progress by controlling the purse strings and perpetuating the weird neo-feudal structure of university engineering and science departments, and those departments churn out innovations that make bombs burst better, sattelites communicate quicker, and so forth.

So this is pretty obvious. You could easily say "yeah, well that's his entire point. games are derived directly from military technology and retain its techno-fascism and obsession with control." But the things that Crogan (thats the dudes name) chooses to pick out that have influenced games actually don't have anything to do with militarism specifically, and his extremely limited survey of actual real games (always a red flag) reveal that he's not even aware that games can have militaristic themes, even make use of militaristic technology such as prediction and logistics, and still do things "orthogonal to miltarism," to borrow Bogost's pointlessly complex phrase.

Before I get to games (sorry!) we should take a short detour through cybernetics. As I said above, you couldn't do research in computers after the Second World War without getting money from the government. Does that mean that all research was intimately tied to militarism, and that no alternative tradition was nurtured or could have been nurtured in the belly of the beast? As an academic who, presumably, doesn't get along with the administrators of his college, Crogan is personally familiar on the level of his very own paycheck with the phenomenon of the radical trying to do something with resources appropriated from a non-radical source. Is it so hard to believe that technicians, scientists and engineers, driven by pure devotion to their subject or active hatred of militarism (see the letter the developers of the atom bomb wrote pleading that it never be used) managed to carve out a niche for themselves in an area dominated by something they disagreed with, perhaps by falsifying their research proposals (as everyone does), doing work independently or something else like that? Or, to take it one step further, can something as generic as 'prediction' or 'simulation' posisbly be reduced to militarism and only militarism in any meaningful sense?

One of the three pillars that Crogan's argument rests on is cybernetics. He, conveniently, chooses an Air Force anti-aircraft coordination system as a forerunner of the modern 'predictive,' anti-contingent fetish in computer games. The system was developed to make anti-aircraft guns more effective by estimating the future position of an enemy aircraft based on its last observed position and probable routes of attack. It involved complicated feedback routines, nationwide coordination of data gathering and so forth. Clearly, if this is the only cybernetic example we talk about, then his argument is airtight. Video games descended from Cold War megalomania.

I'd never even heard of this particular cybernetic system before reading about it in this review. A system I have heard of, though, completely contradicts everything Crogan alleges about the biased nature of cybernetics. It is, of course, Salvador Allende's internet, Cybersyn, the half-implemented attempt at using Bayesian filtering, levels of algedonic feedback (I looked that word up, I dont know what it means), and the oh-so-dreaded specter of prediction, modification and control to... implement socialism. When the Air Force uses cybernetics it creates a system that shoots doen enemy aircraft. When Stafford Beer used cybernetics he designed a way of devolving effective control of factories to workers and rapidly adjusting real production to human need. Certainly the CIA and the junta that overthrew Allende present a critique of Crogan in this respect.

The truth is that even if Cybersyn had never been invented, the idea of it is cleary implied in cybernetics. Any technology, however it is developed, can be turned to any use people can make up for it. The fact that innovation in computers was driven by the military industrial complex of a capitalist country means that things like Cybersyn don't get a fair shake or much funding, but without ENIAC, without the mad dash to higher clock speeds and miniaturization and improvements in long-range networked communication, Cybersyn would have been completely impossible.

Let's get back to games. Crogan (still his name, lmao) writes about something he calls "gameplay mode" which is the category above categories such as difficulty, the treatment of time, perspective etc. "Gameplay mode" is the idea that games have to be about controlling reality by blending it with simulation. Here's Bogost's summary of Grogan's thing:
Not surprisingly, Crogan’s not terribly thrilled with the gameplay mode that is his subject. He interprets the logistical model of reality as a deliberate if unacknowledged attempt to reduce or remove contingency. Just as military defense is meant to eliminate contingent outcomes in favor of ones knowable in advance, so “computer games play with the playing out of the war on contingency” (p.36). That is to say, left to their own devices, video games retain unassailable traces of the logic of military logistics in their form and function, even if particular games may not take up explicitly militaristic themes.
Elsewhere Bogost says that some readers will "rightly take issue" with Crogan's limited survey of actually existing video games, and here is probably where anyone who has played wargames or any other type of game with any frequency will take some serious issue. We can say that one trend from the beginning of computer wargames to the present has been the continuous addition of complicating detail and the continuous creep of the literal fog of war. The fog of war was actually among the earliest innovations that computer wargame designers implemented, and it was the first major advance that computer games offered that went decisively beyond what was possible with a boardgame. With a board you can always tell what your opponent is doing, generally. Even if his counters don't face you and you can't tell exactly what he has, you can make a guess. Try that in a game like Combat Mission where the only real given is the terrain (and even that might change, with the weather or with events like fires and building collapses) and even when you hear a tank engine, or see a vehicle, you're still never completely sure what the source exactly is. And try playing Eastern Front 1941 on one day and War In The East on the next, and tell me that computer games have shown a fetish for smothering complications and inconvenient possibilities. It is literally impossible to play War In The East without basically throwing your hands up at some point and trusting the AI, or trusting the weather, or trusting something you have zero control over. The trend since the beginning has been to thrust contingency more and more to the forefront to the point that one of the major lessons wargames can now be said to teach is that there is basically no unassailable defense or truly knowable enemy asset. As wargames become more complicated they become messier, more prone to testing the player's ability to see the unforseeable, better tools for educating strategists. And as cybernetics and computer science become more and more advanced their capacity to be used, either to make war or to make the things that people need to live, increses greatly.

No comments: