- Playing War: Military Video Games after 9/11 by Matthew Payne
Matthew Payne's Playing War: Military Video Games after 9/11 offers an extensive, theoretically rich examination of how military videogames shape, and are shaped by, understandings of the War on Terror. The book strategically omits analyses of military-themed shooters broadly speaking-which may include series such as Halo and Gears of War–and instead focuses on games ostensibly set against the backdrop of the War on Terror. This emphasis on the War on Terror allows Payne to examine how videogames inform players' ideas about American exceptionalism, military heroism, and post-9/11 America itself. Blockbuster franchises such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six receive particular attention, but small, independent games such as Molleindustria's Unmanned are also discussed. Although this is not a novel area of inquiry, the book is nevertheless an important contribution to multiple disciplines, as I will detail below.
The book takes at its starting point that meaning is contingent on innumerable factors both within and outside of the text. In the context of gaming, meaning is produced in part by a game's images, sounds, and rules, but it is also produced by paratextual components and player subjectivity. For Payne, marketing materials, community forums, geopolitical events, and a player's personal experiences all figure prominently in how meaning is ultimately negotiated between game and player. Although Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (2006) and more directly, T.L. Taylor's 2009 article "The Assemblage of Play" have provided similar complex analytical frameworks in a general context, Payne demonstrates the usefulness of these frameworks in application. Indeed, Payne's focus on discursive complexity within the context of war gaming is the book's greatest contribution to game studies. In recognizing the role of extraludic semiosis on a given play experience's meaning, Payne offers an analytical framework that is complex but pragmatic. As the book argues throughout, players do not enter games as a blank slate; rather, [End Page 512] they come to games as pre-existing amalgams of knowledge, experience, and expectations that inform their play experience. Furthermore, Payne persuasively argues that this is a two-way street: just as real life informs play, play also informs real life. Games are an important cultural medium and thus have the potential to inform opinions and attitudes about how we understand the world around us.
The book is written for a broad academic audience. Its primary subject matter is war gaming and games culture, but it attempts to appeal to readers outside of game studies. In particular, scholars in fields such as military studies, media studies, and cultural studies will find something of value here. As is typically the case, however, this attempt to bridge multiple audiences is both a help and a hindrance to the book's readability. For audiences outside of game studies, the first 100 pages or so will be useful for bringing them up to speed on the core concepts, canonical jargon, and recurring debates within the field. The magic circle, narratology/ludology, and "here is why games matter" all make an appearance in the opening sections. This, of course, helps to foreground the discussion to follow, but it also means that scholars within game studies will retread some awfully familiar territory. Nevertheless, I would recommend against skipping or even skimming the opening sections as they contain important neologisms and definitions which are used throughout the book. The best example of this is "ludic soldier," a "playful subjectivity" that is defined as the culmination of "game design choices, advertising campaigns, and gameplay communities" (10). It would be difficult to fully appreciate Payne's analyses in later chapters without first becoming acquainted with his jargon.
Playing War contains six chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion, but it can be roughly divided into three main sections: introduction, textual analysis, and paratextual analysis. The first section consists of the introduction and first chapter, in which Payne carefully...