Want to attack war? Compare it to a video game—as in: war has become as mindless as a Playstation game. People divorced from the consequences of their actions push buttons on consoles in remote locations. isis fighters are zombie swarms, drone pilots play arcade games, and so forth. The verdict is usually uttered with contempt, as if it were disgraceful for something as honourable as war to have become comparable to a game. ‘Shame on you, war! How could you end up as a game? Man up and get serious, will you?’ It’s so much more wholesome and healthy to kill scores of people if there is no screen separating you from your target. Shoot the enemy face to face, in an intimate and heartfelt way. Remember the usaf officers who personally dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—there is nothing like an honest mass extinction.

But people who think so are making a big mistake. Many of them are in fact to be found in art or culture, and believe they are defending the gravitas or assumed criticality of their trade. For some ‘creative professionals’, computer games are an abomination, the pinnacle of a capitalist conspiracy to distort reality. Their reaction, however, is not only critically but morally wrong. In fact, for the vast majority of humanity it would be great if war were just a video game. In a game, players respawn. You get shot—no problem: you can start all over again. You can nuke Hiroshima without anyone in Japan even noticing. Whereas in real war, you die, and if you don’t you are either bored as hell or stressed out. If you need to pee, you can’t press a pause button. And often, in reality, no one wins, because a ubiquitous perma-war drags on and people keep dying, while all the credit miraculously accumulates in 1 per cent of bank accounts. In contrast, imagine if war actually was a video game: people would push buttons in Nevada or Moscow, and those in Afghanistan or Syria might fall over. But at the end of the round they would get up again, dust off their trousers and go on their way. It would be silly, perhaps, but better than what’s really happening. One would need to be an enemy of humanity not to wish that war might actually be a video game.

By contrast, there are some who perhaps overestimate the potential of play. The Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys drew on Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens for the drawings and maquettes of his utopian world, New Babylon. In a 1974 manifesto of the same name, Constant called for the liberation of the ‘playing man’ from the working, producing or otherwise utilitarian one: ‘The opposite of utilitarian society is ludic society, where the human being, freed by automation from productive work, is at least in a position to develop his creativity.’footnote1 This might be a slightly optimistic view, though:

‘For twelve hours a day, seven days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters’, said a 23-year-old gamer who works in a makeshift factory in Fuzhou in China and goes by the online codename, Wandering. ‘I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I’ve had. And I can play games all day.’footnote2

‘Wandering’ works in a games sweatshop, accumulating virtual assets—World of Warcraft gold, for example—for resale. It seems that automation didn’t necessarily free people from labour. Instead, it turned some workers into robots. This leads to some interesting problems: what’s the difference between a human and a robot? And how does this apply to games? And, on top of that, to art as well? All these can be condensed into one single question: ‘Can creatives think?’

Readers may recognize here a famous thought experiment. In 1950, Alan Turing posed the question, ‘Can machines think?’, and attempted to answer it with a test based on a party game, in which players try to guess whether someone behind a closed door is a man or a woman from their written answers, which may be deliberately ambiguous. For example, when the interrogator in the Imitation Game asks, ‘Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?’, X replies, ‘My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.’ Turing suggests replacing this player with a machine. If it is as successful as the human in confusing the interrogator, Turing considers it a thinking machine.footnote3 Interestingly, Turing and Walter Benjamin both independently choose imitation scenarios—in Benjamin’s case, the Chess Turk—to think through central questions of their times. In Turing’s case, the imitation aspect concerns gender; in Benjamin’s, national identity: a dwarf tries to pass as an Ottoman chess automaton. But both deal with the passage between humans and machines.

To focus on one rapid move in Turing’s argument: the initial question, ‘Can machines think?’, is very quickly replaced by a game—one that superficially resembles the sort used in mathematic and economic game theory, developed around the same time as the Turing Test, which focused on the problem of choice between different options. As John von Neumann and Oscar Morgenstern put it in their Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour: