Corey Mead, War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 198 pp. Hardcover $25.00.
In War Play, Corey Mead examines the increasing integration of video games into the training and recruitment efforts of the US military. Based in part on interviews with game developers, project managers, and other key figures, he examines the intersection of education, the military, and video games; the development of the free-to-play video game (and recruitment tool) America’s Army; the use of VBS2 and other simulations in military training; and the use of video games to treat post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues. Attention is devoted to some of the institutions involved, notably the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, the MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School, and WILL Interactive. His account suggests that while video games seemed to be an appropriate response to the complex training challenges facing the American military in the post-9/11 world, the development of these has often been haphazard. By way of conclusion, he also raises some critical questions about whether the military has become too involved in civilian classrooms.
This book appears to be primarily directed at a popular audience—and that audience is likely to find it of some interest. War Play is highly readable, with much of Mead’s narrative provided through the words and perspective of his interviewees.
As specialist or technical analysis, War Play is more limited. The book isn’t really embedded within any of the relevant academic literatures, although the author is clearly aware of these. There is a bibliography and some reference notes, but the latter are really only used to distinguish the author’s interviews from those that have been previously published elsewhere.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the book developed a thorough argument, critique, or analysis—after all, it is intended for a general audience, and most people really don’t want pages of reference notes cluttering up their reading. However, the first seven chapters of the volume are a generally enthusiastic and uncritical sketch of serious games in the military. Despite some accounts of bureaucratic infighting and failure, these present a rather more positive account than the one I frequently hear from military wargamers, educators, and modelling and simulation experts. Then, suddenly, the concluding chapter shifts to a more critical tone. Most of this, as noted above, revolves around the possibly negative effects of the military in civilian education, asking whether military recruiters gone too far. Other interesting questions about the limits of educational and training game, the ethical implications of virtual warfighting, the role of defence contractors, the military-entertainment complex, and the cultural and political effects of all this are left largely unasked. Despite its subtitle, the book certainly doesn’t address “video games and the future of armed conflict” at all. Military games outside the US receive less than a page of coverage
If you are looking for a descriptive overview of some of the games used in the US military or for a gift for a video gamer who might enjoy reading about the more serious side of the business, War Play could be a good choice. If you are looking for a more detailed and penetrating account of the topic, however, you will need to do more research and analysis than this book provides.