Games and Warfare

Goethe-Institut New York
30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

Warfare is a near constant trope of games. Likewise, games are a near constant apparatus for warfare. As Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century Prussian general and preeminent modern theorist of war and strategy, wrote in his classic treatise On War (1832), “not only its objective but also its subjective nature makes war a game.” Thinking alongside both Kant and Hegel, Clausewitz described the “objective” condition of war as “a matter of assembling probabilities,” and also as one of “chance.” In the terms of the French sociologist of play, Roger Caillois, war is a game of both agon (strategic competition) and alea (chance) – in a word, it is a “gamble.” For Clausewitz, war in its subjective expression is even more game-like, weaving competition, strategy, and chance to become a total logical process, a “tapestry” of experience, feelings, virtues, and luck. “In the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.”

In this class we will explore both sides of this dialectic. How—from the grid of the Go board to the coordinate plane of the strategy role-playing game—is war as a means to control territory and resources played through games? In what ways, from mathematical game theory to the shifting battlefields of the 21st century, is strategic thinking grounded in the logical processes of games? And how are these processes translated into material terms by way of economics, politics, society, and even biology? Students will address a deeply interdisciplinary set of writings from theorists like Clausewitz, Caillois, Deleuze and Guattari, Benjamin, and von Neumann, as well as articles on game theory in economics, the heuristic role of games in biology, and recent work on the theory and design of video games. This class will also be a lab and workshop. Over the course of the month, we will play the tabletop games Go (China, circa 5th century BCE) and Diplomacy (USA, 1954) alongside several contemporary narrative videogames, and collectively produce a series of short writings applying and interrogating the course’s theoretical and analytical material vis-à-vis our collective and individual gameplay. In the process, students will be encouraged to question not only how warfare is thought through games, but also how games might be a medium for critical reflection on warfare.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm
January 25 — February 15, 2016
4 weeks