Issue No.03 - July-Sept. (2012 vol.34)
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
Sean Lawson , University of Utah
Jon Agar , University College London
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MAHC.2012.45
This set of book reviews covers Patrick Crogan's &#x201C;Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture&#x201D; (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and &#x201C;How Societies Embrace Information Technology: Lessons for Management and the Rest of Us&#x201D; by James Cortada (John Wiley, 2009).
Patrick Crogan, Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 222 pp.
Videogames have become an increasingly prominent form of entertainment in Western nations, with profits from blockbuster videogames rivaling those from movies. But there has been no shortage of concern over the social, cultural, and even moral implications of videogames. In fact, an entire field of scholarly research—videogame studies—has developed to explore these issues. Gameplay Mode argues, however, that much of this scholarship has paid insufficient attention to the role of the military and war in the development and proliferation of computer-based games and simulation. According to author Patrick Crogan, much of the existing scholarship has missed that videogames represent and constitute a new orientation to both space and time. In the first instance, Crogan argues that effective distance has become a matter of attention more than geographical space. He concludes that online interaction is not an add-on to a preexisting condition of nontechnological human togetherness. It is the latest manifestation of human togetherness that has always already been technologically mediated in one way or another. Where time is concerned, he argues that videogames have changed our orientation to the past as well as the future.
Crogan argues that simulation is central to contemporary technoculture and that computers are simulation's primary technological medium. In turn, videogames are the primary manifestation of computer simulation in contemporary culture. Simulation is a "technics of anticipating what has not yet happened" that is about "experiment[ing] with … hypothetical futures." This encourages the "preemptive regulation of the future's emergence" (pp. xix–xx). Thus, the development and proliferation of computer games points to a societal shift from a quest for control toward a quest for preemption.
Paul Virilio's work on shifting meanings and practices of war in Western societies provides the primary theoretical foundation for Crogan's analysis. In particular, Crogan draws on Virilio's notions of "pure war" and the "logistical trajectory" of post-World War II society. This includes the observation that society has become a standing reserve that is always mobilized for war; this environment has become the rule rather than the exception. Crogan also deploys Heidegger's concepts of Dasein and "de-severing" to examine the nature of online engagement with others, in which effective distance is a matter of concern and attention more than geographical space.
Gameplay Mode focuses on particular types of computer games or the key issues related to them. It begins by providing historical background that includes a recounting of Norbert Wiener's cybernetics work during World War II, the US Air Force's development of the SAGE air defense system during the 1950s, and DARPA's development of SIMNET during the 1980s. Crogan argues that these developments mark the emergence of important societal "tendencies—the cybernetic, the virtualizing, and the converging of real and simulation" (pp. 17–18)—all of which remain dominant today.
Two chapters are devoted to analyzing the history and importance of flight simulators (Chapters 3 and 4), and another covers first-person shooters (Chapter 5). Crogan sees both as exemplary of logistical, cybernetic, and virtualizing tendencies. After examining the emergence of flight simulation, he argues that the logistical trajectory of a pure war society results in "the mutation of narrative" (p. 75). In videogames, as well as blockbuster special effects films, the inclusion of historical narrative is no longer the primary attraction and meant to provide an interpretation of historical events, but rather, it is secondary and meant to frame and provide context for an interactive experience in the case of games and for a series of spectacular, audio-visual effects in the case of film. Similarly, he argues that first-person shooters are exemplary of society's increasingly preemptive orientation to the future, which Crogan describes as "a powerful technocultural desire to encounter the future in the form of anticipated, controllable contingencies" (p. 106).
Other chapters address key issues such as the definition and value of studying videogames (Chapter 2), the possibilities and limitations of online communities (Chapter 6), and the critical potential of videogames and simulations (Chapter 7). Crogan argues that videogames "offer a privileged avenue" for understanding society's "war on contingency" and attempts to make the future "virtually accessible to preemption" (p. 36). He rejects the claim that online interactions are not "real" because they are not geographically colocated. Instead, he argues that online interaction is the latest manifestation of human togetherness that has always been technologically mediated. Finally, he argues that many theorists and designers who have argued for or enacted videogames and simulations as tools of critique have not thought deeply enough about their endeavors in relation to the technology's ongoing relation to war and military concerns.
Overall, Crogan achieves his purpose. Gameplay Mode provides an important corrective to accounts that are either overly optimistic or pessimistic with regard to the actual or potential impact of computer games, simulations, and virtual worlds. Nonetheless, the text's greatest weakness is that it leaves the reader wanting more discussion on the possibility that videogames could exceed their militaristic heritage. In its attempt to call attention to videogames' neglected heritage, that heritage at times seems to take on a deterministic quality in Gameplay Mode. Early in the book, Crogan argues convincingly that videogames can open a space not only for undermining society's logistical and preemptive tendencies but also to reshape the trajectory of videogames' own future. This possibility, he says, is evident in activist interventions into the worlds of game play and production, but also in player practices such as gold farming and "modding," which subvert the intentions of corporate producers. They are examples of gaming the game production system that open a space for realizing a different future for videogames. Nonetheless, this theme is largely dropped and only returns again at the end of the book. Crogan ends by cautioning that change is neither automatic nor inevitable, but he does not provide an in-depth discussion of how we might find the critical potential in games and simulation.
Although I would have liked to see more from Crogan on this issue, the thoughtful analysis that he provides in Gameplay Mode demonstrates that he is well positioned to explore the critical potential of videogames in greater detail in his future work. Anyone interested in understanding the past, present, and future potential of videogames from a critical perspective should read Gameplay Mode.
Sean Lawson is assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Cortada, How Societies Embrace Information Technology: Lessons for Management and the Rest of Us, John Wiley & IEEE CS Press, 2009, 272 pp.
James Cortada has carved out a useful role as a historian who reviews and offers comprehensive surveys of the literature dealing with computing and societies. His past work includes the Annotated Bibliography on the History of Data Processing (Greenwood Press, 1983), the similar A Bibliographic Guide to the History of Computing, Computers and the Information Processing Industry (Greenwood Press, 1990), the Archives of Data-Processing History: a Guide to Major Collections (Greenwood Press, 1990), and Best Practices in Information Technology (Prentice Hall, 1998). Cortada also has published numerous monographs, including Before the Computer (Princeton University Press, 1993) and The Digital Hand, three volumes published by Oxford University Press over the past decade on how computers changed American manufacturing.
This record of scholarship is continued in the present text, How Societies Embrace Information Technology, which examines the many reasons and contexts in which governments, companies, and other organizations have taken up computing. The focus is on today's world, but throughout, developments are placed in a historical perspective with valuable insights.
Cortada starts by painting a big picture of the "megatrends" that dominate the contexts of information technology use. These megatrends are not surprising and include globalization and the demographic movement toward older populations in some parts of the world but not others. He also describes the broad ways in which technologies in general are taken up and used in societies. There are, explains Cortada, "eight discernible patterns of diffusion" of information technologies (p. 20). The list (p. 32) is worth examining and considering.
The first is "government supported/private-sector driven." Much history of computing fits this model, including the development of mainframe computing in the US and the Silicon Valley phenomenon. The British case of Lyons & Co, the tea-shop that built the first LEO computers for commercial applications in the 1950s, also fits the pattern, as do examples from countries from the Netherlands and Germany in the 1970s to South Korea in the 1990s. The second pattern is that of "national champions." Cortada is thinking here primarily of French policies from Machines Bull to CII-HB. The third pattern is found in Asian countries such as South Korea (again), Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan, where government did not pick champions but rather encouraged and supported home industry to acquire know-how and international partnerships. The fourth model, the planned economy, is used to describe both the largely extinct practices of the Soviet Union and the current approach of China and some African countries. It is a large and perhaps blunt category.
The first four models therefore place government policy and whole sector matters at their heart. The final four are diffusion models that focus instead on how individual firms behave: industry-driven, corporate, application, and technology standards diffusion models. The industry-driven model is really more about the specific vendors and user groups that promote information technologies, and therefore could have been more sharply named. Corporate-driven diffusion places the agency away from the sellers toward instead the corporate buyers. Application diffusion is a variant of the corporate-driven model, but it emphasizes the importance of particular applications as "must haves"—examples include iPods and ATMs. Finally, the standards model covers cases where standardization has created the kinds of path dependency evident in the familiar cases of qwerty and Microsoft's DOS.
Crucially, Cortada relates these eight modes back to the megatrends and notes that the eight patterns of deployment can blur and lose their distinctiveness. In turn, the eight patterns of diffusion have helped support the integration of the global economy that is such an important aspect of globalization.
The other chapter of major interest to historians of computing comes toward the end of the book. Cortada asks, "Do we now live in the information age?" Cortada's answer is gently skeptical, especially toward notions that we live in a singular, uncontested, and easily identifiable Information Age. In fact, this is also the chapter that historians should encourage others to read because it is a plea for the essential usefulness of history to guide present policy and strategy.
The bulk of the book, however, is less historical—in nature—even though history clearly informs Cortada's lessons for management and the rest of us. There are surveys of patterns by which governments encourage development, an examination of the motivations of governments in setting policy for or using information technologies, and advice for public officials. In parallel, the book contains plenty of useful information for managers in the private sector, either by showing the variety of current practice or offering advice on how to use information technologies more effectively.
Jon Agar is a senior lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University College London. Contact him at email@example.com.