GP Book Review: From Sun Tzu to Xbox

December 9, 2006 -
From Sun Tzu to Xbox by Ed Halter

-reviewed for GamePolitics by Jeff McHale

Ed Halter, frequent contributor to The Village Voice, explores the relationship between war and games - not just video games – in his 334 page tome, From Sun Tzu to Xbox. Although somewhat ponderous in style, the book fits squarely into the realm of game-related history texts and deserves a place on the politically-aware gamer's bookshelf.

Halter starts by researching ancient games, such as chess, the Chinese Go, the Egyptian Senet or the Greek Petteia.  Interestingly enough, skill at these games was held in high regard, much as professional athletes players are admired in today’s sports-oriented culture. And like sports, these ancient games were viewed as outlets for aggressive and competitive urges.  In a time when one-man rule was common, such pastimes provided an outlet for such emotions without sparking a real war.

By the time of Napoleon, medieval chess had in some ways begun to resemble the complexity of today's real-time strategy games. Complete with Warhammer-like figures, Napoleonic war games tried for realism by simulating actual troop movement rates, ballistics and terrain.  Some games required so many mathematical computations to randomize battle results that an early version of the modern game master was needed. This overseeing function is remarkably similar to the role played by CPU in today’s strategy games.

Those who follow the political hurly burly on GamePolitics may be surprised to learn that game controversies are nothing new. In every era, people worried that strategy games glamorized war by abstracting the real-life negative consequences. Some were concerned that military games and toys were harmful to children and would encourage violence. Others attacked games as childish, harmful or time wasters.  Halter finds these issues to be generational in nature, and eerily similar to the concerns echoed by modern critics.   

Such is the hidden brilliance of From Sun Tzu to Xbox.  By remaining historically accurate, Halter paints the current struggle against video games as a generational fight. Nor does the author make light of anti-game arguments posed by critics. Halter relates both sides of the issue and cites research supporting the opposing positions. This objectivity enhances the book’s credibility. Despite the author's background covering games, his work can’t be simply written off as a pro-video game propaganda piece.  

Halter also provides a subtle view of the history and relationship between real war and games simulating war.  He explains how some games grew out of the necessity to train soldiers.  Of particular interest to gamers, he notes that video games were first created on computers that were entirely funded the military.  It's clear that video games, the military, and war have more common roots than most gamers would suspect.  America’s Army, the U.S. military’s mainstream recruiting game, portrays this kinship in sharp relief. 

Halter spends some effort detailing the idea of a virtual war between Islam and the West.  This modern militaristic game play constitutes an odd dialogue of sorts between those who don’t speak the same language or share the same religion, and whose governments are either at odds, or trading lead. 

The bottom line? The plethora of facts, details, history and anecdotes from influential figures – both gamers and military – provide enough substance to make From Sun Tzu to Xbox worth a second look.  

Reviewing from the foxhole that only exists in my head, Jeff McHale a.k.a. ~the1jeffy
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Comments

Jeffy is correspondent? i've never seen him or the euro guy right a story...

Looks like this will be my xmas pressie then....

I think Go is japanese

Dan - Go is Chinese: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_%28board_game%29

Grahamr: Jeffy has done a couple of book reviews for us. The other one was Ian Bogost's Unit Operations a while back.

About time this review came. Sounds like a very interesting book, especially if it is true that people once considered games such as CHESS to be promoting violence.

@ Terminator44

Sorry 'bout that. This is a history book, and not really my strong genre. It wasn't a book that I could mow through, or as my brother and I have taken to terming it: "I can't just Harry-Potter my way through this one." Hopefully it was worth the wait!

I hope that some folks who have read it stop by to add their input, too.

~~All Knowledge is Worth Having~~

I read that book a few months ago. It was very interesting to read the similarities between the criticisms of war games from 100 years ago and today.

I actually am reading this right at the moment. Found it at random in Borders a few weeks ago. It really is a captivating read for anyone interested in video games. I would appreciate seeing more literature that deals with the on going debate of video games. Debate leads to action.

GamePolitics/Dizzies/VH1...

Gamepolitics has at long last posted their review of From Sun Tzu to Xbox. There's also some interesting input in the comments section from others who have read it. Elsewhere: championed by VH1 Game Break and shouted-out by formidable bookmeister...

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Andrew EisenMatthew - Yes, obviously developers will eventually move on from the PS3 and 360 but the phrase will continue to mean exactly what it means.04/23/2014 - 5:45pm
IanCAnd how does that equal his annoying phrase being meaningless?04/23/2014 - 5:09pm
Matthew Wilson@Andrew Eisen the phrase everything but wiiu will be meaningless afer this year becouse devs will drop 360/ps3 support.04/23/2014 - 4:43pm
Andrew EisenFor Everything But... 360? Huh, not many games can claim that title. Only three others that I know of.04/23/2014 - 3:45pm
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Matthew Wilsonhttp://arstechnica.com/gaming/2014/04/steam-gauge-do-strong-reviews-lead-to-stronger-sales-on-steam/?comments=1 Here is another data driven article using sales data from steam to figure out if reviews effect sales. It is stats heavy like the last one.04/23/2014 - 11:33am
Andrew EisenI love RPGs but I didn't much care for Tales of Symphonia. I didn't bother with its sequel.04/23/2014 - 11:21am
InfophileIt had great RPGs because MS wanted to use them to break into Japan. (Which had the side-effect of screwing NA PS3 owners out of Tales of Vesperia. No, I'm not bitter, why do you ask?)04/23/2014 - 10:52am
RedMageI'm still disappointed the 360 never broke into Japan either. It had a bevy of great RPGs in the late 2000s.04/23/2014 - 9:48am
TheSmokeyhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/22/call-of-duty-swatting-hoax_n_5195659.html?utm_hp_ref=canada&ir=Canada CoD loser calls SWAT on person who beat him04/23/2014 - 7:13am
MaskedPixelantehttp://www.joystiq.com/2014/04/23/xbox-one-reaches-japan-on-september-4/ Just give it up, Microsoft. You're NEVER going to be big in Japan, especially now that the notoriously clunky in Japan Kinect is MANDATORY.04/23/2014 - 7:10am
Cheater87Has this been posted yet? http://www.destructoid.com/blogs/Lord+Spencer/ssv-saudi-arabia-bans-bravely-default-because-it-promotes-pedophilia--272016.phtml04/22/2014 - 9:31pm
ZippyDSMleehttp://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/133898-Fatal-Frame-V-Coming-Exclusively-to-Wii-U04/22/2014 - 8:50pm
Matthew Wilsonit is a game worth playing if you have a pc/360/ps304/20/2014 - 9:34pm
MaskedPixelantehttps://twitter.com/IGLevine/status/457552538343325696 The Lutece Twins show up in some of the most unlikely of places.04/20/2014 - 2:44pm
Andrew EisenAs it happens, Chinatown Wars is the only GTA game I've played.04/19/2014 - 10:43am
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