On playing at War.

I was reading the excellent blog Lefty Parent yesterday–it has many interesting posts, so be sure to check it out–and I read one post about how boys tend to play with soldiers and girls tend to play with dolls. It’s an issue I’ve wondered about in the past, so here are some of my thoughts about why boys and young men like to play at war so much.

Unlike Lefty Parent, I personally suspect that boys preference for playing with guns and girls with dolls is innate, not learned. I can certainly understand his arguments for the other position, however. It’s sort of a “chicken or egg” question, but I approach it like this: although a boy may like playing soldier because he sees soldiers in books, on television or whatnot, there is also the question of why the people who write books and make television programs depict males as soldiers.

The way I come to the idea that this interest in warfare is innate in men is that, if you give a man the tools to make some work of fiction, chances are it will involve war or violence in some way. There is an instinct for war in most men that it is not really learned, though it appears to be taught. It only appears to be taught, however, because war is of interest to most men, and when they create works of fiction, they gravitate toward this subject more or less as a matter of instinct.

At about this time of year for the last several years, Activision releases the latest installment of its Call of Duty series of video games. Each one seems to take from its predecessor the title of “bestselling game ever”.

For those who have not played Call of Duty, let me explain what it is: it is a game where you run around shooting enemies. These are either A.I. controlled “bots” or else other avatars controlled by other players. You are armed with very detailed digital replicas of real-life weapons. This is necessary, because while you are controlling an avatar that looks like a human soldier, you almost never see him. The player’s experience is much more like controlling a flying gun which moves about the world shooting stuff.

Needless to say, though I firmly believe some games are great Art, CoD is not, in my view, one of them. But ignoring its merits and deficiencies as a game, consider what it is. It’s a way for people–primarily, let’s admit, young men–to pretend to be soldiers. To paraphrase Warren Zevon‘s hyper-masculine war song Jungle Work: “Many young men/Many who dare/To battle online”.

Presumably, if you’re buying $60 games, you either have money or you have access to someone who has money and is willing to share it. You also must have some leisure time to play the game. So, why is it that young men with money and time for leisure choose to employ it by pretending to be soldiers in massive, imaginary wars instead of playing at something else.

Now, so far, I haven’t proven anything. Activision spent millions marketing this game. Maybe those guys buying it are all the victims of Bernaysian propaganda techniques to persuade them to buy this. Maybe if Nintendo spent millions hyping Animal Crossing–a delightful game with no violence–young men would all buy it.

I can’t prove that it’s not all conditioning. But I suspect that it is the case that most (not all) men instinctively both produce and consume fictional materials related to war. That doesn’t mean all men are just hanging out waiting for a war to start, but it is a subject to which they are drawn. Even men who oppose war are often interested in it as a subject for Art and Literature.

As a final note, it should be noted that I am speaking of people in the aggregate. Not only are there some males who don’t care about war and fighting, there are also women who are interested in it. I’m sure there are girls who play soldier. I am speaking of general behaviors [no pun intended], and there are exceptions to such rules.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?