Playing in the End Times: Wargames, Resilience, and the Art of Failure

Kevin McSorley, Univ. of Portsmouth

Videogames are often considered to be a signature medium of late modernity. Much critical commentary on video wargames in particular reads their specific importance in terms of being the latest progeny of a military-industrial-entertainment complex, the slicker and more sophisticated modern cousins of traditional propaganda, whose ultimate significance lies in the seductive and immersive cultural conscription, or even pre-training, they offer to various contemporary youth corps in line with their bellicose patrilineage. As such, analysis of video wargames has often focussed on exploring how specific understandings, discourses and practices of e.g. violence, masculinity, militarism, enmity and orientalism may be reproduced and inculcated through the representations, narratives, procedural logics, paratexts and attendant cultures of such games. The ultimate underlying target of such critique is that, explicitly or implicitly, video wargaming legitimates, glorifies and perpetuates war, that it often renders an aestheticized, simplified and depoliticised ur-myth of conflict, that it sanitizes or omits the brutal embodied realities and the vast expanse of war’s ordinary, that it is part of a wider virtual/virtuous-isation of war that serves to culturally contain the bloody mess of real battlegrounds through the selective simulation of particular playgrounds.

And yet this reflex critique of the field can also be complicated on numerous particular grounds, for example by the abilities of heterogeneous gamesplayers to invest their activities with alternative meanings and to discriminate between levels of reality and play, by the fact that war is itself a continuously mutating social institution whose contemporary logics of intervention and practice may increasingly bear complex relations to war’s on-screen renderings, by the fact that certain contemporary wargames may themselves undercut the generic Manichean imaginaries, identifications and moral certitudes and calculuses typical of traditional wargaming as part of their increasingly complex and intricate gameplay, etc.

This paper attempts to partly bracket such debates in order to try and explore some other ways that we might productively conceptualise wargames as a broad cultural force, that we might retool the problematisation of wargames and rethink the critical questions that we typically ask of them. To this end, I will draw upon scholarship that engages more specifically with affective design and the broad embodied phenomenology of gameplay, as well as contemporary debates around the increasing political significance of discourses of resilience and failure, to argue that the cultural significance and resonance of contemporary video wargaming may increasingly lie not simply in the varieties of militarism that it may support, but additionally in being a particular late modern medium through which the development and embodiment of a form of resilience may occur through permanent exposure to failure. Wargaming may here be understood as a particularly resonant way of affectively playing through and ultimately bearing the disaster of living in the end times.

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