University Library Shines a Light on the Intersections of War and Gaming

War games, headshots, and drone intimacy framed a compelling exploration of militarization and video games at the “Games Without Frontiers” symposium on April 16th.

Organized by the Librarians Association of the University of California, Davis, the University Library turned its attention to the “Military-Entertainment Complex” with a curated exhibit and afternoon symposium exploring the intersections of war and gaming.

Roberto C. Delgadillo, Research Support Service Librarian at Peter J. Shields Library, curated an exhibit in the entrance foyer of Shields Library which explores a range of issues surrounding the Military-Entertainment Complex and the increasingly digitized nature of warfare – described expertly in an introductory essay, “The Games of War” by scholar Chris Hables Gray. Delgadillo also prepared a 75-plus-page online bibliography, which Gray called both “inspiring and horrifying” in its coverage.

The symposium featured talks by Chris Hables Gray, lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, Amanda Phillips iMMERSe postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis, and Caren Kaplan, professor of American Studies at UC Davis, whose presentations left the audience with several important lessons to take away:

  1. pay attention to the military-entertainment complex,
  2. complicate the assumption that video game violence produces physical world violence, and
  3. while the plight of the drone operator can help the public think about these issues differently, we must be careful not to ignore the experiences of people affected directly by drones.

Gray’s presentation “The Games of War” described both the fundamental difference and intimate nature between war and play across ancient, modern, and postmodern cultures. Gray emphasized that the “decisive and total” experience of war was not possible until the advent of modern technologies like guns, bombs, and tanks, but was brought to the very edge of possibility with the atom bomb, which ensured that the postmodern experience of war could not be “total” without ending the world completely.

Gray argued that video games, a “symbol of postmodernity and U.S. technophilia,” operate as objects of war through their play in order to “capture the hearts and minds” of the American public.

“For those of you making games, think of yourself as artists creating the imaginary of the present and future – you have a great responsibility not to get sucked into telling simplistic, militaristic stories that may be the death of us all,” Gray concluded.

In “Shooting to Kill: Headshots, Twitch Reflexes, and the Mechropolitics of Video Games,” Phillips examined the “textual and technological history of the headshot,” developed through a theory of “mechropolitics: a way of thinking about political death worlds as they operate in the mechanics of video games and digital simulations,” drawn from theorist Achille Mbembe’s articulation of necropolitics as the subjugation of life to the power of death – itself an expansion on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower.

Phillips traced cinematic, simulated, and physical world representations of headshots, and  focused particularly on its treasured place in gamer culture. In response to common worries that video games make people more violent, Phillips noted that the point is “not to worry about the affective training of soldiers and police to take the headshot (because that isn’t part of training protocol) – we should worry about a public that comes to see the headshot as a reasonable response,” particularly in light of the recent murders of black men by police officers who justified gun shots to the head.

Locating the drone in the history of aerial surveillance, Kaplan critiqued the view of distance warfare as necessarily asymmetrical, alienated, and virtual in her talk, “Remote Sensing, Distance, and the Imaging of War.” Particularly, Kaplan disavowed the notion that proximity makes the difference between a “virtuous, honest war” and a “deceptive, disembodied war.” Kaplan located the drone as an extension of colonial and militarized technologies used in decidedly unvirtuous wars.

Kaplan challenged the myth that drone warfare is only possible through alienated relations between killer and target; drawing from the words of drone operator Brandon Bryant, Kaplan argued that the visual killing via drone is intensely intimate. It requires the operator to engage in extended surveillance of a town or person, fire their weapon, and watch until they can confirm death. Drone operators, she said, “are seeing more and being closer” than the rhetoric of “electronic killing” suggests.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies