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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Playing War

Jairus Grove playing video game

Jairus Grove believes our "culture of entertainment," including violent video games, could impact the way real warfare plays out.

Photos: Mike Ciesielski


In homes across the country, adolescents can be found playing popular "shooter" video games, many with military themes. In the online game "America's Army," for instance, players act like U.S. soldiers and run through the streets of a nameless Middle Eastern city, shooting and killing the Arab-like characters crossing their paths. The pace is frenetic, the scenes are violent. Bodies fall. Poof. They disappear.

Such games can be seen as child's play, pure entertainment. Jairus Grove sees more to them than that. He believes violent video games and other media are linked to our changing perceptions of warfare and to the globalization of violence. Engaging in these games, he says, could be training players how to fight in actual wars. "America's Army," for instance, was specifically launched as a recruiting tool by the U.S. Army; more than 8 million people played it before funding cuts prompted its cancellation last summer.

"People say, 'Oh, video games, it's no different than kids playing war, out in the street with sticks as guns.' There's some truth to that," says Grove, a fourth-year PhD candidate in political science. "But I believe that there's a difference in the relationship with this kind of play. Playing at war and being at war might not be so far from one another. As a result, you might want to think about what video games teach us."

Grove argues that players experience video games on a physical level that's right on the edge between voluntary and involuntary. "It's not just visual. It's not just receptive. It's using your hands and understanding yourself as being part of a particular environment. It trains the whole body."

The video game portion of Grove's dissertation is part of a broader look at how perceptions of warfare change to make other kinds of warfare possible. He is drawing on military history, political theory, philosophy, theories of international relations, and current military discourse for his research. "There's a more complex process in deciding and making judgments about warfare than simply the debates that occur in Congress or the decisions that happen in the Department of Defense," he says. "There's a culture of entertainment and thinking and imagination that goes into understanding how a war can be fought in the first place."

For example, he says, much of today's video combat takes place within cities—not the jungles, fields, or mountains of past American engagements. "All of these new video games give a sense that you can win a war fought in a city," Grove says. "If you're skilled enough, if you remember to look up and not just forward, to climb buildings and use sniper weapons, if you use explosive devices that don't destroy buildings but destroy everything inside of them, you can win."

Examining the role of the state in warfare is a standard topic in political science, but Grove's research stands out, says faculty advisor Jane Bennett, chair of the Political Science Department. "Jairus is a big thinker, a free thinker," Bennett says. "He doesn't take the terms of analysis as given. He knows the international relations literature but also wants to look at the issues from the perspective of geography, media studies, music, philosophy, and rhetoric."

Grove isn't saying that violent video games lead to violent warfare, and he's not interested in censoring media. His focus is on the give-and-take between warfare and culture. "The point of my dissertation is to show that it's not a one-way street," says Grove, who is giving a Dean's Teaching Fellowship course this fall that shares the title of his dissertation, "How War Exceeds the State: Terrorism, Insurgency, and the Globalization of Violence."

"There's this constant communication among science fiction, entertainment, film, and warfare, and vice versa, so that there are war games now that in order to be realistic and seem like war are using the new technologies the Army actually developed—that were once the stuff of video games. So it comes full circle."






Jairus Grove



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Department of Political Science