Games People Play: Metafiction, Defense Strategy, and the Cultures of Simulation

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This essay situates the American metafiction produced in the 1960s in relation to contemporary defense strategy and war-gaming. As critics have noted, metafiction about games and gaming is a particularly rich site for thinking about metafiction more generally, and I argue that these metafictional texts reveal a profound skepticism about the value and efficacy of simulation. This skepticism should be understood, I argue, in relation to the problems of defense strategy in the thermonuclear age.

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... 75 This insistence on a relation between bare but nonetheless essential narrativity and the narrow expertise of the defense intellectual is all the more pronounced given the general sense that real experience and history itself were of little value when it came to thinking about and planning for a nuclear war: ''It wasn't,'' writes Dan Grausam, ''simply that history would offer no guide to the future, but that thinking guided by experience, history, or the fact of having seen combat close-up could be downright dangerous, since it would imagine the bomb on a continuum with previous weapons.'' 76 As a result, and as both critics and proponents of the RAND style saw, modern military theory differed from the work of Thucydides, Carl von Clausewitz, B. H. Liddell Hart, or Hans Morgenthau because it denied the value of historical precedent. 77 ''Thus,'' argues Brodie, ''where the great strategic writers and teachers of the past . . . ...
“RAND Narratology” looks at the unlikely historical and aesthetic overlap between narrative theory and strategic defense thinking in the middle part of the twentieth century. Looking at the many writings and frankly odd intellectual styles of nuclear war planners working at the RAND Corporation, the essay examines the unexpected play between the material facts of intellectual history, the obscure but nonetheless real force of narrative desire, and the unthinkable costs of nuclear war.
Calculated sexual games play out across contemporary American popular media, from self-help books and advice columns to dating apps and reality television. This article argues that economic game theory subtends the saturation of popular culture with lay theories of sex as a “numbers game.” Game theorists contribute to the invisible ubiquity of this phenomenon by using sexual examples to demonstrate the range of their discipline’s models while downplaying the significance of exemplification. Lydia Davis’s short fiction—by taking for granted the economization of intimate relationships without disavowing, naturalizing, or objecting to it—registers the cultural footprint and vernacular intellectual history of the game theory of sex, and elaborates its key modes of fictionality, antinarrativity, and self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, the game theory of sex offers a prehistory of sexual gamification that extends beyond its most immediate digital substrate.
In or about 1966, modernity changed. In the spirit of recent reflections on “the year as period,” the present article undertakes a thought experiment: What if we dated the beginning of postmodernism to 1966 instead of, say, 1972–73, the date preferred by Charles Jencks, Fredric Jameson, and Andreas Killen, among others? What might such a thought experiment tell us about postmodernism, and about periodization in general? Even more decisively than in 1973, culture in 1966 is characterized by a series of “breakdowns”—of developments that get ahead of themselves, that stall out and recoil on themselves. Traceable across a variety of cultural practices, this pattern is especially evident in rock music, which achieves aesthetic “escape velocity” in 1966 in such works as the Beatles' Revolver and Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde but then stalls out. The pattern of stall and recoil is only one of a number of topological signatures of cultural practices and products also datable to 1966, among them the rediscovery of meta (self-reflection, recursiveness, strange loops) and the opening of paraworld spaces. These topological signatures constitute the building blocks of a postmodernist poetics.
This essay explores what the author terms the “game theory narrative,” a cultural narrative that gained prominence in American culture in the early years of the Cold War. For many Americans in the late 1940s and early 1950s, game theory was a way for scientists, in collusion with the US government, to prevent nuclear exchange by conceptualizing the Cold War as a game, and by playing this game according to specific rational strategies. The first part of the essay describes how the game theory narrative popularized the idea that the rationality of pure mathematics could be applied to manage some major threats of the Cold War—the menace of an unknown enemy and the specter of an accidental nuclear exchange. The following sections explore how this narrative was both exemplified and criticized by a variety of creative works and other artifacts of Cold War culture.