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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IanCSo im guessing a bunch of edutainment games, which a lot of people elsewhere are going gaga over, dot count as classics? Okay. If you don't mind me, i have a sudden urge to play Putt Putt....04/19/2014 - 6:15am
MaskedPixelantehttp://www.joystiq.com/2014/04/18/playstation-99-cent-sale-discounts-tokyo-jungle-super-stardust/ Weekend long PSN flash sale. So much stuff is 99 cents for the rest of the weekend.04/18/2014 - 5:59pm
Adam802http://www.polygon.com/2014/4/18/5627928/newtown-video-game-addiction-forum04/18/2014 - 4:14pm
Matthew Wilsonit is a video talking about why certain games/products/consoles do well, and others do not. he back it up with solid research.04/18/2014 - 3:56pm
Andrew EisenI'm not keen on blind links. What is it?04/18/2014 - 3:45pm
Matthew Wilsonthis is worth a whatch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyXcr6sDRtw&list=PL35FE5C4B157509C904/18/2014 - 3:43pm
MaskedPixelanteNumber 3: Night Dive was brought to the attention of the public by a massive game recovery, and yet most of their released catalogue consists of games that other people did the hard work of getting re-released.04/17/2014 - 8:46pm
MaskedPixelanteNumber 2: If Humongous Entertainment wanted their stuff on Steam, why didn't they talk to their parent company, which does have a number of games published on Steam?04/17/2014 - 8:45pm
MaskedPixelanteNumber 1: When Night Dive spent the better part of a year teasing the return of true classics, having their big content dump be edutainment is kind of a kick in the stomach.04/17/2014 - 8:44pm
Matthew Wilsonhttp://www.giantbomb.com/articles/jeff-gerstmann-heads-to-new-york-takes-questions/1100-4900/ He talks about the future games press and the games industry. It is worth your time even though it is a bit long, and stay for the QA. There are some good QA04/17/2014 - 5:28pm
IanCErm so they shouldn't sell edutainment at all? Why?04/17/2014 - 4:42pm
MaskedPixelanteNot that linkable, go onto Steam and there's stuff like Pajama Sam on the front-page, courtesy of Night Dive.04/17/2014 - 4:13pm
Andrew EisenOkay, again, please, please, PLEASE get in a habit of linking to whatever you're talking about.04/17/2014 - 4:05pm
MaskedPixelanteAnother round of Night Dive teasing and promising turns out to be stupid edutainment games. Thanks for wasting all our time, guys. See you never.04/17/2014 - 3:44pm
Matthew WilsonAgain the consequences were not only foreseeable, but very likely. anyone who understood supply demand curvs knew that was going to happen. SF has been a econ/trade hub for the last hundred years.04/17/2014 - 2:45pm
Andrew EisenMixedPixelante - Would you like to expand on that?04/17/2014 - 2:43pm
MaskedPixelanteWell, I am officially done with Night Dive Studios. Unless they can bring something worthwhile back, I'm never buying another game from them.04/17/2014 - 2:29pm
PHX Corphttp://www.msnbc.com/ronan-farrow/watch/video-games-continue-to-break-the-mold-229561923638 Ronan Farrow Daily on Video games breaking the mold04/17/2014 - 2:13pm
 

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