Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

Edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

MIT, 2016. ISBN: 9780262033992

Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Zones of Control (2016) is the first book in MIT’s ‘Game Histories’ series edited by Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins whose own volume in the series, Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon, was published in June 2016.

While the book inaugurates Lowood and Guins’ new series, Zones of Control is the fourth of Harrigan’s collection on games and gaming to be published by MIT (following in the footsteps of First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (2004), Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (2007), and Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (2009), all edited with Noah Wardrip-Fruin). While the latest volume sees Harrigan joined by a new co-editor the general scope and ambition of the collection will feel familiar to readers of the ‘Person’ trilogy. Zones of Control is a large and impressive volume that brings together a wide range of contributors from diverse backgrounds, writing on a topic that is itself wide ranging and diverse – namely wargaming – both tabletop and digital.

The volume’s contributors include academics, industry figures, creative practitioners, military advisors and personnel, game players and games designers. And it’s notable that many of the authors straddle seveal of these categories. The authors then, are diverse bunch, though not in some ways that diverse. As the editors note, ‘Zones of Control is majority male in its authorship’ (xxii) and is notably light on ‘non-Anglo-American perspectives’ (xxiii). Harrigan and Kirschenbaum recognize these limitations and proffer the hope that the volume’s absences and omissions will themselves prompt and stimulate debate. It’s a laudable hope and only time will tell if the hoped for work will materialize.

As the number and range of contributors might suggest, the book’s definition of wargaming is itself fairly expansive. In fact, exactly what might constitute a wargame, or the activity of wargaming, is something that is rather left to the reader to decide. As the editors tell us in the introduction,

‘Wargaming, by definition, traffics in martial subject matter. Perceived in its full historical and material diversity, however, it is not inherently militaristic. Such at least is our governing belief – readers should use what follows to arrive at their own determination.’ (xvii)

Even this seems to sidestep the issue a little – the question of whether or not wargames are militaristic doesn’t get us far in identifying the book’s subject matter. Thus the reader variously encounters essays on boardgames, tabletop wargames, AAA video games and military simulations (as might be expected) alongside essays on photography, art installations, reenactments, fiction and film.

Zones of Control is a large volume – 59 essays spread across 806 pages – and it is beyond the scope of this review to comment on the overall argument. In fact, to do so would be to misrepresent a book whose subtitle, ‘Perspectives on Wargaming,’ makes clear that there is no single argument to critique. Instead, I’ll offer a summary of the book’s overall structure, which reveals something of its organizing principles. The book is divided into nine ‘parts’, each of which opens with a longer essay that establishes the overall theme and which provides a context for the five or six shorter pieces that follow. As the editors suggest in their introduction, these ‘parts’ might be regarded as being grouped into three sections.

The book’s first three parts establish the historical and theoretical background of the study of wargaming: ‘Paper Wars’ (on tabletop wargames); ‘War Engines’ (on universal war simulators); ‘Operations’ (on the theoretical/mathematical underpinnings of wargames).

The next section tackles more obviously ethical questions. The essays presented under the heading ‘The Bleeding Edge’ exploring the connections of wargaming and the military (Luke Caldwell and Tim Lenoir’s essay is particularly thought provoking in its investigation of the relation between AAA games and the use of gaming in the US military; ‘Systems and Situations,’ my favorite part of the book, explores the use of wargames in countercultural contexts (Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s opening essay is excellent here, as are the explorations of wargaming and art offered by photographer David Levinthal and artist Brian Conley); while ‘The War Room,’ the final part of the book’s central sections, and one likely to prove popular given current interests in games as they relate to history, explores the connection of wargames and military history.

The closing third of the book takes contemporary, if not a slightly-futuristic turn. ‘Irregularities’ expands the category of wargames to include what Rex Brynen describes as ‘nonkinetic’ action – those aspects of war that contrast with ‘“kinetic” efforts to destroy an enemy the employment of weapons’ (485) including political, economic, and social measures (counterinsurgency, games involving non-combatants and NGOs feature in this section); ‘Other Theatres’ turns to literature, film, and historical reenactment (The response of Third Reich designer Jon Prados to Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously-published novel The Third Reich is particularly satisfying); ‘Fight the Future,’ the book’s final section, offers a consideration of the future of wargaming design (and its marketplace) as it moves to simulate contemporary conflicts.

At this point in this review it feels necessary to say two things. First, that the scope of the book, which functions through the accumulation of diverse voices rather than the pursuit of a single monolithic argument, renders the summary of its contents a seemingly-impossible task. Second, in the absence of a detailed response to the specifics of the arguments advanced, I will offer a preliminary judgement, and that is that this is an excellent volume whose strengths are drawn from its carefully selected diversity. The editors’ decision to avoid a prescriptive definition of wargames in favour of recognizing the potential diversity of the subject is something to be welcomed – it is through the sometimes startling juxtaposition of these various topics and critical perspectives that the volume is at its most thought provoking.

 

Paul Wake