On the Uses of Videogames for American Studies Curriculums

by Aaron Pedinotti

Dedicated to all of my students in Gaming in American Society and Culture, whose conversation provided much inspiration for this article.

Among the many academic fields to which videogames recommend themselves as teaching tools and objects of critical scrutiny, American studies comprises an exemplary case. The reasons for this stem from both contemporary and historical factors. In recent scholarship, critical attention has been brought to bear on representations of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other social categories in American games.1 Given the many intersections of videogames with other forms of entertainment media, research on these topics has clear relevance to the wider study of social representation in American popular culture. Another related factor concerns the explosive growth and increasing cultural influence of the multi-billion-dollar American games industry, as a result of which videogames have begun to rival the social and economic significance of Hollywood films.2 In a more directly pedagogical vein, there is the burgeoning recognition that videogames can model and provide unique insights into complex phenomena. This capacity, which derives from the interactivity of the medium, is clearly applicable to the gamic simulation and study of American social issues (Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer 2010; Squire 2011).

Beyond these contemporary relevancies lies a weightier set of historical factors.3 Videogames are closely connected to major developments in the American history of technology throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and to the relationship between those developments and pivotal events in broader national and world history. Among the most significant is the role played by the United States’ military-industrial complex throughout the world wars and Cold War in pioneering the advanced computing, simulation, and networked communication technologies that directly facilitated the emergence of videogames. Equally significant is the widespread commercial deployment and adoption of personal computers, gaming consoles, and the internet from the 1980s and 1990s to today. Laying the groundwork for gaming in its current form, the latter processes were closely tied up with the shift over recent decades from the military-industrial development of digital technologies to their capitalist appropriation by the private sector. As such, they also played pivotal roles in the increasing entanglement of the US economy with economic globalization. Thus, the emergence and development of videogames straddle and refract the tendencies of historical phases that stretch from the heights of the United States’ military and economic power in the twentieth century to its ambivalently interdependent and constrained roles in the current world order. In a manner that overlaps with the progression of those phases, videogame history also exemplifies two opposed tendencies of the US economy in recent times: heavily interventionist forms of state-sponsored military Keynesianism, on the one hand, and the free-market extremes of neoliberal theory and praxis on the other. In all of these ways, the history and current state of videogames refract pressing questions about the nature and extent of American power in the twenty-first century. At a theoretical level, these issues relate to longstanding debates about sociohistorical determinants, particularly to tensions between state-focused accounts of sociohistorical causation and their Marxian (i.e., economistic) and poststructuralist alternatives. Obviously, these are debates for which the United States stands as a looming contemporary focal point.4

Throughout the remainder of this paper, I detail my efforts to address these topics in a course entitled Gaming in American Society and Culture, which I designed and have taught three times for the Department of American Studies and the Media and Film Studies Program at Skidmore College, most recently in the spring semester of 2019. Below, I provide a brief overview of the course, followed by a detailed breakdown of two core units that deal with the historical, economic, and theoretical issues introduced above. I close with a brief reflection on student responses to the questions raised by these units.

A Brief Overview of the Course

The course is made up of five units covering multiple topics in the fields of game studies and American studies. The first unit provides an introduction to core motifs and controversies of games scholarship, including “the magic circle” (Huizinga 1949; Bogost 2006), the narratology/ludology debate (Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan 2004), and the history of controversies over videogame violence (Jenkins 2006). The second examines the connection of videogames to the US military-industrial complex and to militaristic tendencies of American society, both historically and in the present (Crogan 2011; Stahl 2010; Huntemann and Payne 2010). The third explores the many intersections of videogames with American and global capitalism, using domestic and international case studies drawn from the work of Nick Dyer-Witheford and Grieg de Peuter (2009) as examples. The fourth covers representations of social categories and phenomena including race (Brock 2011; Daniels and LaLone 2012; Sze-Fai Shiu 2006), gender (Braithwaite 2016; Todd 2015; Vermeulen, Vanden Abeele, and Van Bauwe 2016), sexual orientation (Vitali 2010), immigration (Pearce 2009), and addiction (Nardi 2010) in American games. The fifth focuses on the analysis and design of serious games (Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer 2010; Squire 2011).

Altogether, these units provide an overview of the issues addressed by recent scholarship on videogames and illustrate how those issues relate to topics in American studies. The bulk of this paper focuses primarily on the second and third units. My closing reflections on student responses also address the unit on social representation.

Unit Two: The US Military-Industrial Complex and Videogames

Units two and three are designed to facilitate gradual, progressive reflection on the core topics and thematic contrasts around which they are structured through writings by historians of technology, critical theorists, and (most prominently) videogame scholars. In doing so, they encourage students to come to their own conclusions about several empirical and theoretical questions. The first question concerns the (debatable) extent to which the state, warfare, and/or capitalist forces have impacted the history and current state of videogames. The second concerns the relevance of these influences to academic controversies about the underlying forces at play in processes of sociohistorical determination.5 The third concerns the stakes of these issues for evaluations of US power in relation to the global economic and geopolitical forces in the past and current centuries.

Unit two skews toward the American state, particularly in its war-making capacity, as a major influence on videogames throughout their history and involves a two-phased approach: a historical account of the military-industrial effect on the emergence of videogames followed by a focus on the continued relationships between contemporary videogames and militarized state priorities. For the former, I use the first two chapters of Scott Malcomson’s Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web (2016) and chapter one of Patrick Crogan’s Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture (2011). Together, these readings provide concise, informative accounts of the federal government–sponsored technologies that made videogames possible. Such technologies were directly connected to American military objectives throughout the twentieth century, including the waging of both world wars, the pursuit of nuclear preparedness during the Cold War, and the increased need for simulation technologies from the 1990s onward.6 Between them, Malcomson and Crogan cover advances in cybernetic theory, computing, networked communication, and combat simulation, without which videogames could not have existed.

During the lecture on these readings, I explain a number of terms and concepts to connect videogames to broader features of state-incentivized technological development and their economic and political effects. Military-industrial complex is conventionally defined as the web of mutually supportive and dependent relationships between government, the military, and heavy industry, with subsidiary beneficiaries in the technologies sector and the world of finance, that typifies the economies of many modern nations, but particularly that of the United States (Johnson 2004, 39-67).7 Military Keynesianism refers to government intervention in the economy through defense spending.8 After defining these terms, I discuss historic and contemporary expressions of concern over the influence of the military-industrial complex on American democracy, including Eisenhower’s farewell address of 1960 and the worries of recent academic commentators.

The second phase of the unit explores the contemporary interrelationship between videogames and military-industrial influences, highlighting cultural dynamics and their political implications. I unpack Crogan’s diagnostic claim that since the end of the Cold War videogames have contributed to a “crisis of the political in American civil society” (2011, xv), a major feature of which is the mutation of the US military-industrial complex  into a “military-industrial-entertainment complex” entailing convergences of “technics and practices” (17) between the players in this triad.9 I explain to students Crogan’s account of increasingly close ties between game companies and the Pentagon. He portrays this situation as a double-edged sword, involving the military’s use of modified commercial games as combat training simulators, on one side, and the widespread deployment of militarized logics into the wider culture via videogames and other cybernetic technologies on the other (16-17).10

The unit closes with a recent article from The Intercept, written by journalist Nick Turse (2017), which describes a Pentagon war game played by students at elite US war colleges in 2016. The game simulates a near-future scenario in which a terrorist attack on the Lincoln Tunnel results in a US invasion of West Africa that quickly devolves into an interminable, bloody quagmire resembling the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.11 This premise ties together the past, present, and projected near future to drive home the profound extent to which the military-industrial priorities of the American federal government have influenced the history, development, and current cultural effects of videogames. Students are meant to leave this unit with a strong understanding of how militarily-motivated state intervention in technological development and the economy, carried out from the early twentieth century to the present, have impacted a medium that has formatively influenced many of them.

Unit Three: Empire Theory and Videogames

Unlike its predecessor, unit three derives its readings from one source: Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s Games of Empire (2009), which uses Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s concept of “Empire” to analyze the current relationship between videogames and global capitalism. To acquaint students with the underlying theoretical framework, I assign short readings from Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) and Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s introduction (the section entitled “Empire Theory”). My lecture on these readings unpacks Hardt and Negri’s portrayal of global capitalism, or Empire, as “a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule” that, having eroded the sovereignty of the nation state, “progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” (2000, xxii-xiii). I explain that these claims derive from post-Marxist and poststructuralist social theories that tend to focus more on flexible and decentered modalities of power, such as capitalist markets and biopower, than did the state-focused readings of unit two.12 Building on these points, I explain why Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter characterize videogames as “paradigmatic media of Empire” (2009, xv): games are produced via “immaterial” and intellectual forms of labor; game industries are complicit with principles of intellectual property and practices of capitalist exploitation; games are expensive consumer commodities; and games exemplify the aforementioned post-Marxist and poststructuralist social concepts (xxix-xxx, and throughout).

Once these basic points have been established, we focus on other chapters of Dyer-Withford and de Peuter’s book. The first reading (chapter 6, “Imperial City,” 153-82), for example, uses Empire theory to critique the cynical manner in which a trio of games in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series depicts the social problems of three American cities over recent decades. The authors argue that these games reinforce racialized and classist codifications of urban space in ways that elide and obscure the systemic roots of the urban problems they depict and, thus, accord with the tenets of neoliberal ideology. Their critical analyses prove pedagogically useful in several ways. First, by facilitating the introduction of neoliberalism as a general topic of class discussion, they provide an important contrast to the state-sponsored military Keynesianism discussed in the previous unit. Second, the chapter encourages self-reflexivity among students about how GTA—still an iconic game among current college undergraduates—has influenced their worldviews.13 Third, because the authors break down the ways that the portrait of each city contrasts with its real world counterpart, this reading provides opportunities to reflect on ideology’s ability to invert the truth of social conditions. Lastly, the authors discuss neoliberalism’s global implementation, which illuminates the relationships between American social conditions and supranational economic dynamics irreducible to state-sponsored military industrialism.

The global scope of these dynamics are further illustrated by the next chapter, “Biopower Play” (123-52), which discusses the intersection of virtual and material forms of exploitation among Chinese “gold farmers” in the World of Warcraft.14 The authors utilize Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower—modern, administrative power over populations involving the organization of life at micro and macro scales (1990)—applying it both to the game and to the authoritarian imposition of capitalism in the People’s Republic of China from the 1970s to today. This two-sided analysis breaks down the virtual and “real-world” factors at play in the plight of former rural workers, displaced by the industrialization of the Chinese countryside, who have taken up employment as gold farmers in urban sweatshops. The victimization they experience results from globally networked forms of exploitation that are pervaded and structured by capitalist (or Imperial) logics. Consequently, the author›s analysis of this situation helps me drive home the massive scope and interconnectedness of the global economic dynamics that have driven gold farmers into penury and virtual toil. Combined with the previous lesson’s focus on neoliberalism, this serves a broader goal of the unit, which is to explore the ways that contemporary videogames have been shaped by the operations of flexible and distributed factors, such as flows of global capital and virtual biopower, that are both irreducible to state influences on technology and the economy. It also serves the larger comparative agendas of both units. The authors’ vivid economic portrait of China’s rise, when situated alongside self-governance in the virtual domain, raises questions about the limits of US state power in the current century. More broadly, when global capitalism is thrown into relief alongside military-industrial influences on videogames, the question arises as to which, if either, is a more fundamental determinant.

Student Reactions and Subsequent Resonances

In each iteration of this course, students have been required to take a stand on the core thematic contrasts mentioned above, either in an assigned paper or through mandatory responses in class discussion. (Again, these contrasts concern the relative weight that should be given to state-derived military-industrial policies and nonstate factors [such as capitalist markets] in the evaluation of videogames’ emergence and subsequent development, as well as the bearing of that evaluation on larger theories of social and historical determination and the scope of US power in the past and current century.) Based on the responses I received in each version of the course, I can make a few definitive assertions. First, it was clear that students emerged from these units with an understanding of the terms and stakes of the overarching themes. To me, this suggests that the sustained use of specific mediums as vehicles for the consideration of broader historical and theoretical questions can be an effective pedagogical technique, especially when the technologies in question are familiar and personally significant to students. Second, I can report that the majority of students took stances that favored capitalism over military industrialism, and hence economic forms over state power, in their analysis of the influences on videogames. To support their arguments, students typically appealed to contemporary factors, citing the massive impact of global capitalist markets on the current state of gaming as evidence for their views. A smaller group argued for a middle ground between the two explanatory frameworks. Their arguments tended to follow a temporal path. They maintained that the military-industrial complex was the main influence during the emergence of videogames but that capitalism had subsequently become the primary factor shaping their development. Some in the middle ground also argued that the overlapping influences of the state, military industrialism, and capitalism on videogames are so intertwined that it does not make sense to draw a clean analytical distinction between them. In both camps, contemporary US power, as refracted through videogame production, was held to be significantly constrained and mitigated by global factors.

Later in the course, however, the military-industrial themes of unit two resonated to a greater extent than the Empire-focused lessons of unit three. This was most noticeable when we addressed the intersections of gaming, gender, and when the problems of toxicity and privilege in gaming subcultures, which have been historically dominated by white males, came sharply into view.15 Several of the readings that I assigned on these topics critically analyze the role of mastery-oriented attitudes and mindsets in fomenting the sexism, racism, and homophobia that sadly continue to pervade contemporary gaming (Braithwaite 2016; Cote and Mejeur 2017; Vermeulen, Vanden Abeele, and Van Bauwe 2016). When I asked students to account for the pervasiveness of this orientation among gamers, several harkened back to the lessons of unit two for probable factors. Their explanations, that is, appealed to the deep connections between gaming and war—both historically and at the visceral level of gameplay—as significant contributors to the dominating attitude in gaming culture and its attendant toxicity.16 This indicates to me that the military-industrial unit had a stronger impact on their evaluations of videogames than they tended to acknowledge in their explicit responses to it. In future versions of the course, I intend to bring the import of this reaction more explicitly to the forefront of class discussion.

1 For sources on these topics, see the second and final sections of the paper, “A Brief Overview of the Course” and “Student Reactions and Subsequent Resonances.”

2 For an informative discussion of the growth of the games industry, see Dyer-Witheford and de Peteur (2009, xv-xix). The authors provide usefully skeptical context for the claim that videogames are “bigger than Hollywood” (xiv).

3 For sources on the topics discussed throughout this paragraph, see the third and fourth sections of the paper, “Unit Two: The US Military-Industrial Complex and Videogames,” and “Unit Three: Empire Theory and Videogames.”

4 This tension has existed since the origins of sociological theory, most famously, Karl Marx’s claim that economic forms condition social forms and their attendant ideologies. The contemporary modification of this tension that is addressed in the course hinges more on the contrast between conceptions of the state as a military-industrial driver of technological change and less concentrated forms of power modeled in post-Marxist and poststructuralist social theory.

5 The approach to the state and warfare as determining influences is not associated with a specific school of thought. It is more properly described as a tendency among some contemporary historians, critical theorists, and sociologists to ascribe power to the state, particularly in its war-making capacities, as a driving factor of modern politics, economics, and technological innovation, as well as the sociocultural effects that flow from them. This tendency is exhibited to varying degrees by writers as politically and intellectually diverse as Paul Kennedy (1987), Gabriel Kolko (1994), Chalmers Johnson (2004), Paul Virilio (1989 and 2008), and Manuel Castells (2010). I should add that there is a salient ambiguity in the works of some of these scholars—particularly Kennedy and Virilio—as to whether the war-making capability of the state or war itself is the fundamental driving force.

6 In Crogan’s account, the shift to simulation was the Clinton administration’s solution to the massive military expenditures of the Reagan years.

7 As this implies, the military-industrial complex is not a formal or official arm of the state but a set of informal arrangements whereby the state exerts control over the coordination and allocation of resources, sets the agenda for technological development, and intervenes in the state of the economy.

8 On the relationship between the military-industrial complex and military Keynesianism, see, for example, Foster, Holleman, and McChesney (2008).

9 For this part of the unit I draw from Roger Stahl’s book Militainment, Inc. (2010) and earlier documentary (2007) on “militainment” in post–9/11 US culture, as well as articles by David Nieborg (2010) and Nina Huntemann (2010) in the book Joystick Soldiers.

10 Crogan argues that there is an “anticipatory impulse” (2011, 5) in cybernetics, or a tendency to model the future as a threat that requires high-technological forms of preparation, which has been deployed throughout contemporary society via the pervasive civilian adoption of cybernetic technologies, including videogames. In his account, this tendency is most noticeable in future-oriented military simulations of potential conflicts that flirt hazardously with a quality of self-fulfilling prophecy, potentially “determin[ing] in advance the terrain of the future through the virtualization of that terrain” (16). Not only are other approaches to futurity thereby foreclosed, but an instrumental, logistical attitude toward the past threatens to undermine hermeneutical and critical approaches to history.

11 I connect the game’s scenario to Crogan’s (2011) point that the military-cybernetic conception of the future-as-threat runs the risk of actualizing the very scenarios for which it prepares (see endnote 10). Students then discuss their opinions as to why the US military’s future strategists are being prepared for seemingly endless conflicts that they know they can’t win.

12 Although Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter cleave more closely to Hardt and Negri’s supranational, capitalism-focused arguments than to state-centered forms of analysis, they position themselves against an extreme formulation of Hardt and Negri’s hypothesis to allow for a greater influence from governments. Their book devotes a chapter to the influence of the US military-industrial complex on videogames, particularly in relation to the war on terror (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009, 97-122).

13 One memory that stands out in this regard is a student’s criticism that the GTA franchise normalizes derogatory attitudes toward women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged.

14 The status of gold farming in Warcraft has changed since the publication of Games of Empire. I acknowledge this in class but point out that it is recent history and, as such, still very relevant to the analysis of games and global capitalism.

15 Anxious and resistant responses of young white males (for whom the label of “gamer” has become a gendered and racially-inflected social identity) to recent diversifying tends in the demographics of gaming have in large part incited the toxic behaviors associated with the gamergate controversy. See Braithwaite (2016) and Vermeulen, Vanden Abeele, and Van Bauwel (2016).

16 In pointing this out, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing in capitalism that encourages attitudes of mastery. Rather, my purpose is only to show that the militaristic connection tends to suggest itself immediately to students, perhaps for intuitive reasons.

Works Cited

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Bogost, Ian, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer. 2010. Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Braithwaite, Andrea. 2016. “It’s about Ethics in Games Journalism? Gamergaters and Geek Masculinity.” Social Media and Society 2, no. 4 (October): 1-10

Brock, André. 2011. “‘When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong’: Resident Evil 5, Racial Representation, and Gamers.” Games and Culture 6, no. 5 (July): 429-52.

Castells, Manuel. 2010. The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age; Economy, Society and Culture, Volume 1. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cote, Amanda C., and Cody Mejeur. 2017. “Gamers, Gender, and Cruel Optimism: The Limits of Social Identity Constructs in The Guild.” Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 6 (September): 963-78.

Crogan, Patrick. 2011. Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoclture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Daniels, Jesse, and Nick LaLone. 2012. “Racism in Video Gaming: Connecting Extremist and Mainstream Expressions of White Supremacy.” In Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play: New Research in Digital Media and Technology, edited by David G. Embrick, J. Talmadge Wright, and Andras Lukacs, 85-99. New York: Lexington.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig de Peuter. 2009. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foster, John Bellamy, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney. 2008. “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending.” Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October): 1-19.

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Huntemann, Nina B., and Matthew Thomas Payne. 2010. Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. New York: Routledge.

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Todd, Cherie. 2015. “GamerGate and Resistance to the Diversification of Gaming Culture.” Women’s Studies Journal 29, no. 1 (August): 64-67.

Turse, Nick. 2017.  “The U.S. Will Invade West Africa in 2023 after an Attack in New York—According to Pentagon War Game.” The Intercept, October 22.

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Aaron Pedinotti is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of American Studies and the Media and Film Studies Program at Skidmore College. He earned his PhD from New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. His work has been published in the journal Communications + 1 and in the edited volume Global Manga: “Japanese” Comics without Japan? He is currently researching a book on the relationship between virtual reality and the history of Gothic aesthetics.