Museum of Childhood Closed from 18 March 2020 Menu

By Sean Carter, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Exeter

When I hear the term ‘War Games’ I am initially reminded of the 1983 movie of the same name, starring Matthew Broderick. There is now an established academic literature that argues that much of our understanding about international politics comes via reference to popular culture, and I suppose this is but one example. But the film War Games is a useful place to start thinking about the relationship between war, games, and the particular historical period referred to as the ‘Cold War’. In this film Broderick plays the character of a young computer hacker, who inadvertently comes across a protected computer system which has a file of ‘games’: classic strategy games such as chess, backgammon and checkers, but also games with titles like ‘global thermonuclear war’. Intrigued, he eventually hacks his way into the system and starts a game of ‘global thermonuclear war’, playing as the Soviet Union. What his character doesn’t know is that he has hacked into a US military supercomputer, and that by starting the game he puts into process a chain of events that will lead to automatic retaliation by the computer, against the Soviet Union, in the form of an actual nuclear strike.

War Games was released three years into the first term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and four years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Under Reagan, the US adopted a much more belligerent stance towards the Soviet Union. War Games thus tapped into renewed fears in the early 1980s about the prospect of a global nuclear war. Because of the increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, this period is often referred to as the ‘Second Cold War’. The dating of the Cold War itself is subject to much debate amongst historians, but it is commonly understood as that period of time between the end of World War Two and the collapse of the Soviet Union’s ’empire’ in Eastern Europe, for which the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is the most iconic moment. The intervening fifty years had been characterized by a tense struggle for supremacy between two global superpowers with competing ideologies; the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union.

War comic, Published by Atlas Comics, USA, 1954 © Victoria & Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many historians and analysts often describe the Cold War as being ‘like a game’. Indeed, many key policy advisers in the US security community during the Cold War drew explicitly on this notion to describe the tactics and strategies of the United States and the Soviet Union during this time. The delicate pursuit of ‘balance-of-power’ global politics was often likened to a game of global chess, in particular. For defence research institutes like the RAND Corporation, however, ‘gaming’ was more than just a metaphor – it was through the development and playing out of sophisticated ‘war games’ that they hoped to be able to develop strategies that might enable a positive outcome to any conflict that might arise with the Soviet Union or its allies. The RAND corporation had been established in 1948, as an independent think tank, staffed by civilians, often from scientific or academic backgrounds. Throughout the Cold War the corporation received contracts from the US government to develop new thinking on security and defence issues, especially in relation to the ‘nuclear world’ that had been ushered in by the use of atomic weapons against Japan at the end of World War two. RAND employees worked in a very different way to military strategists – indeed, they often argued that since no military personnel had experience of nuclear warfare, they were not well suited to thinking about its unique nature. Moreover, the RAND corporation argued that since “nuclear wars could not be field-tested, war-planning necessarily employed a variety of simulations”.1

Central to their work then, was the notion of ‘war games’, and starting in 1954 they began to run a series of such games. These normally took the form of advanced ‘role playing’ games involving various government and defence agencies playing assigned roles, including those of the enemy. These games were overseen by a referee who would ensure that pre-established rules were adhered to. One of the criticisms of these war games was that they were too costly in terms of staff time – one of the reasons that RAND (and others) also began to develop games in the forms of computer simulations. Nevertheless, RAND’s own evaluation of the value of ‘war games’ shows that they found something valuable happened as a result of the playing experience. Writing in 1957, Robert D. Specht argued “as a teaching device a war game has unparalled effectiveness, for the player teaches himself and persuades himself in a manner more convincing than any lecture can be. That is, a war game teaches both intellectually and emotionally – it is an experience that one lives through”.2

Whilst those working for RAND saw the benefits of ‘play’ to developing strategic thinking, it is also clear that there were tensions within US government and military circles. Military elites did not like the influence that civilian ‘gamers’ were thought to be gaining with political elites, and some in the political elite were concerned with what the public response would be to hearing that “military experts were enacting the next war with miniatures and markers, stage sets and role playing dramas”.3 There was a sense of embarrassment, at the thought of grown-up men (and they were nearly all men), playing games.

Little Wars by HG Wells, 1931,  Published by JM Dent & Sons Ltd, England © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although war gaming found particular expression in places like the RAND Corporation during this period of military and strategic history, it was not a new idea. A formalized set of rules for Kriegspiel (German for ‘war-game’) was established in 1812, for example, and became a standard part of officer training in the Prussian army. The Prussian army version of Kriegspiel was a tabletop game divided into grids, complete with topographical features, gaming pieces that represented military resources, and complex sets of rules that governed the moves that could be made in each turn. Such games began to spread among other military forces throughout the nineteenth century, and also, with time, gained some popularity as a leisure pastime. In 1913, for example, H. G. Wells published a small book entitled Little Wars. This contained a set of rules and guidelines for a war-based ‘floor game’ that he and his friends had devised. The short appendix makes it clear that he was fully aware of its relationship to Kriegspiel, and that he thought his version might add something to the rather dull versions currently used by the British Army. The book thus concludes with some advice to the British military on how they might enliven their own ‘war games’ in order to ‘wake up the imagination’.

Prototype sample of the board game Risk, 1980, Parker Brothers, France, 1980 © Victoria & Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Just as the Kriegspiel of the nineteenth century found popular expression through publications such as Little Wars, the strategic and tactical games being played out in places like the RAND Corporation during the Cold War found popular expression too. Throughout the height of the Cold War, numerous strategic and tactical board games were developed and released. Some, admittedly rather obscure in nature, made direct reference to the Cold War, such as Victory over Communism, released in 1964 (‘America’s first anti-communist game for children and adults’ according to the box). Others can be seen as reflective of the times; Risk (1957), Stratego (released in the US in 1961), and Supremo (1984). What these games shared with the kind of war gaming taking place within security circles at the time was a sense of scale – these were games played out at the global level. Whereas Kriegspiel, in either its formal military sense, or in the ‘floor games’ devised by H. G. Wells was concerned with a small-scale conflict located within a constructed landscape, the war gaming of the Cold War era, both in formal and popular variants, was played out across the globe as a whole. They involved devising global strategic thinking, rather than localized battle strategies.

In his discussion of the latest incarnation of Kriegspiel, the computer-based strategy game genre, Rolf Nohr argues that such games help to ‘naturalise’ certain ways of thinking about global politics. In addition to the idea of global strategic thinking that I have discussed above, we might also consider some other ways of thinking that are naturalized in global strategy games, be they board games or computer games. Nohr offers two ideas in particular; first, that such games suggest that conflict is the natural state of the world; and secondly, that with their emphasis on occupying space (a key component of many board games in particular), these games suggest that the direct control of resources is key to ‘winning’.5

There is much to be said, I think for this kind of analysis in understanding the broader politics of ‘war games’. But perhaps we also need to think about other possibilities and other outcomes of playing ‘war games’. The first point is to recognize that the players of such games are often aware of the ways in which such games operate, and thus somewhat resistant to the ‘naturalisation’ effects that they may contain. Second, not all board games that are about ‘war’ naturalise conflict and control of resources in the same way. The recent War on Terror board game, for example, explicitly seeks to undermine the global strategies developed by the United States over the last decade or so. The possibilities of ‘war gaming’ to serve more peaceful and pacific ends were not lost on H. G. Wells either. Indeed, in the paragraphs in Little Wars that immediately precede the advice he gives the British military, he pleads that war mongerers take up ‘little wars’ in preference for the real thing; “let us put this prancing monarch and that silly scare-monger, and these excitable ‘patriots’ and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers, and let them lead their own lives there away from us. My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size”.6

And finally, to return to Matthew Broderick in War Games, the movie. The climax of the film takes place in an underground control bunker, the main characters watching on giant displays as the defence super-computer begins its nuclear missile launch procedures. All attempts to interrupt the launch have failed. Broderick’s character, the computer hacker, is present to watch the unfolding events. In a final attempt to divert the computer from its launch programme, he enters a command for the computer to play tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses) against itself. The computer does so, slowly at first, and then speeding up, playing game after game and discovering that this is a game that cannot be won – there can be no victor. The computer, having learnt that with some games the best strategy is not to play at all, shuts down the missile launch programme, and instead asks ‘how about a nice game of chess’?

Sean Carter is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Exeter. He researches and writes on the connections between popular culture and geopolitics. He is co-author (with Klaus Dodds) of the forthcoming Film and International Politics, to be published by Wallflower Press in early 2014.


1  S. Ghamari-Tabrizi. 2000. ‘Simulating the unthinkable: gaming future war in the 1950s and 1960s’ Social Studies of Science 30(2), 163-223, p163

2  R. D. Specht. 1957.   War Games . RAND Corporation, Santa Monica. p12

3  Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2000, p189)

5 R. F. Nohr. 2010. ‘Strategy computer games and discourses of geopolitical order’ Eludamos, Journal for Computer Game Culture 4(2), 181-195

6 H. G. Wells. 1913. Little Wars. Frank Palmer, London.

V&A Museum of Childhood
Bethnal Green

The museum is currently closed

Visit us

Exhibition - Jan von Holleben – Picture This!

Jan von Holleben – Picture This!

17 January until 10 May 2020

View the exhibition

Activity - Daily activities (term-time)

daily acitivites

Details of free drop-in activities taking place during term time, including arts and crafts, tours, trails and storytelling.

Find out about activities

V&A Museum of Childhood collections

Discover the national collection of Childhood related objects, from ideas to design, toys to schoolbooks. All Museum of Childhood Objects

V&A Museum of Childhood is closed today

Close this window to explore our website.

More information about the closure