Playing At War


by Theophilus Kwek, 18 Feb 2018
photographs by Daniel Tan

It’s a battleground in here. The room tremors with the sound of weapons scything through the air, and heavy ordnance thuds close behind. Every minute or so, someone yells – in charged, if somewhat grandiose English – ‘an enemy has been slain’, and a whoop goes up from our side. The toughest fighting lasts only a few seconds, but feels like hours. It all adds up to the perfect combat scene, except that it was designed as such by Shanghai Moonton Technology Co.: the men are locked in fierce concentration over the latest mobile multiplayer craze, Mobile Legends. 

Several months have passed since I enlisted in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to serve out a mandatory two-year stint. With universal male conscription and a reservist fighting-force, Singapore supplies the unique ethnographic context for an institution which ostensibly guards the peace by remaining always at war. Constant training and re-training keeps regulars and enlistees alike up to scratch on the latest tactics and technologies. Supporting all of this is a military-industrial complex funded by one of the world’s most prosperous city-states – along with a set of myths and rituals that reinforce, and reproduce, the organisation’s sense of its own preparedness.    

Even with the best intentions, however, it’s hard to reproduce this hyper-readiness across the army’s vast bureaucracy. This is partly because Singapore has never waged war in its independent history, and the ironies of constant vigilance for an unlikely confrontation are not lost on the men. At the same time, a cocktail of multi-level games and organisational excesses have created stretches of what we might call ‘free time’: long gaps in the regimented temporality of each day that the servicemen must while away in the barracks. And, like 18-to-23-year olds everywhere in the developed world, many spend these dead hours on the trail of heroes, monsters, and other virtual adversaries.

Killing Time

In recent years, more and more scholarly attention has been devoted to the ‘meantime’, or what people do when not doing anything else. In our productivity-obsessed societies, we rarely choose to endure stretches of unfilled time, but it’s hard to avoid them, and often due to circumstances beyond our control. We might find ourselves waiting for several hours in airport lounges, for example, or waiting days for the outcome of a job interview: such situations force us (against our better instincts) to find ways to kill time. Where individuals’ routines are placed at the disposal of plans and policies beyond their choosing, stretches of ‘meantime’ are no longer the exception but the norm.

This is especially evident in the conscripts’ lives. For most, the work-day begins at six in the morning and ends at six in the evening, though occasional training sessions stretch late into the night. The time in between, though, is rarely filled with non-stop activity: more often than not, the men find themselves waiting – sometimes for hours – for the next instruction. In common parlance, this translates to ‘waiting to rush, rushing to wait’, a pithy expression that mocks the sense of urgency demanded by one’s superiors, usually with no discernible reason. Since the ban on camera- and internet-enabled mobile devices was lifted in most military facilities in 2012, these frustrating periods of ‘waiting’ now see the men turning to their phones for leisure and release.      

One afternoon, I enter the office after lunch to find my colleagues engaged in mock battle, their mobile phones synced across the multiplayer network. Three are perched on the fraying sofas, while another four have claimed the coveted swivel-chairs. It’s hard at first to tell where alliances lie, but these become clear as they coordinate attacks in a fluent mix of Malay, Chinese dialects, and English words purloined from the game’s vocabulary. Battle-lines fall equally, given the demographics present: both coalitions are evenly-matched in terms of ethnicity, educational background, and time spent in the service.   

I’m mildly surprised to see that our officer has joined in too. Seated backwards on one of the swivel-chairs, he’s just as engrossed in the game as the others, and takes instructions from Zul, an old hand. In the army, relations between the men and their junior officers, who are fellow conscripts and often younger than those under their command, can sometimes be strained. But official rank carries little weight in the multiplayer universe, and work-related hostilities dissolve easily in the meantime: it’s almost as if the men now inhabit a different social world, with other values – gaming proficiency, tactical confidence, and linguistic flexibility – in play. As an older recruit tells me afterwards, ‘it’s good to see [our officers] joining in lor. No need to always pull rank, what.’  

Why Play?

What difference does play make, compared with other pastimes the men might enjoy? Until the late 1960s, many scholars simply treated play as the flip-side of work: in contrast to the production of material value, play was seen – in Roger Caillois’ memorable words – as ‘an occasion of pure waste’. In his influential 1972 text Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight, the leading cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz challenged these assumptions, suggesting that play could manifest the non-material (but equally salient) values underpinning any cultural context. Instead of ‘pure’ fun, in other words, each element of play could serve to distil or restructure a community’s relationships of dignity and status, thus making and re-making cultural meaning in the process.  

It’s not hard to see this in the playground, where societal hierarchies of class, race and gender might be reproduced and reinforced even by children in the games they invent. Within an institutional context, however, and especially one as rigidly hierarchical as the army, ‘unplanned’ occasions of play can open up spaces where one set of non-material values (rank, physical agility, seniority) is exchanged for another. Of course, play is not inherently subversive: on other occasions, war games might be used to strengthen the authority of those who are formally or informally designated as leaders. But what is crucial here is that play relies on, and functions as, a representation of any community’s relationships. Even if we don’t always think of it as such, play creates the conditions for power play.

But treating play as representational also has its shortcomings. It overlooks what lends any game a huge part of its appeal: the unpredictable path of play, how we simply cannot know in advance if each next step will affirm or undo our entrenched social meanings. It also neglects the fact that play is about far more than games. We can be playful, or just playing around, even if not engaged in what we know as ‘play’; what better name to give the instinct that might prompt us to tease a friend, or lift a laughing child into the air? Beyond simply providing a way to kill time, play – that impulse that best characterizes our radiant, irrational, and fun-loving selves – can also be a way of being.

Would we really be human if we didn’t play? To David Graeber, perhaps best known as an anthropologist of the Occupy movement, we might be barking up the wrong tree altogether by asking what play is for. Better to see play as an expression of a ‘principle of freedom’, or as he puts it, the idea that ‘the free exercise of [our] most complex powers’ may well be considered ‘an end in itself’. After all, we don’t ask why someone might enjoy a good meal, or hang out with friends; these are often taken as expressions of being fully human. In the same vein, play might be understood as a part of what it means to be alive, an expression of our humanity and personhood. It might also be how we, who indulge in play, know we are alive, especially when we find ourselves in deadening circumstances.    

Stayin’ Alive

Released early from our morning run one Monday, I sit with Jason by the track as we watch a convoy of military vehicles roll past. Like me, he’s a recent arrival in the camp, but has already joined the gaming contingent to fill the long mid-afternoons. ‘I don’t really care about the storyline’, he tells me, or, for that matter, the game’s graphics or intricate designs. What he enjoys, at least for the brief duration of each skirmish, is feeling like he is of use, an effective member of his team. More importantly, though, it’s all about being in the heat of things, taking on the thrills of his character’s battles, and the sense of chance, urgency and reward that this brings. ‘Like being out there,’ he says. ‘Like real [life]’.

Well-accustomed to boredom, the young conscripts’ predisposition to play might be read as a strategy of reasserting their humanity against the otherwise static temporality of the camp. Much the same dynamic has been observed in rural Egypt, where an entire generation was thrust into protracted uncertainty in the wake of the January 25 uprising. Samuli Schielke has documented the pastimes of these young people who turn not only to romance and religion for meaning, but also more mundane pastimes of ‘hanging around, watching television, meeting people, sitting in cafes, or playing soccer’. Trapped in boredom, he writes, they ‘do what they can to realize a life of dignity’.

The conscripts’ lives, likewise, are structured in such a way that ‘the only thing that is available [to them] in excess is time’. There is, however, a crucial difference. While the young Egyptians have been thrust into ‘limbo’ by the forces of revolution, the stagnation that their counterparts in the SAF experience is the direct result of state policy, from the imposition of mandatory conscription to the rules that govern life within the camp. And their daily attempts to find meaning – even and perhaps especially through play – amidst routines patterned by state power, suggest that arguments about the state’s perpetual vulnerability and vigilance are less persuasive than they seem.



I type these last paragraphs on my phone at 3 a.m., in a pitch-dark parking lot where we’ve set up a water-point for troops taking part in a simulation run later today. The exercise won’t begin for another three hours – its participants still sound asleep in their bunks – but for reasons that no-one can quite explain, we’re already on standby with our plastic cups, trash bags and ice-boxes. I yawn and grab another packet of Milo from our dwindling personal supplies. Khairul’s on Spotify, while in the absence of any fellow Mobile Legends enthusiasts, Mingze is playing Candy Crush.

This morning’s mock-competitive run is set up as a game in itself, with awards for each battalion’s fastest individuals and an overall prize for the division’s fittest battalion. Mining internal rivalries to mimic an external aggressor is, of course, the oldest trick in any army’s toolkit. From mock skirmishes on Singapore’s offshore islands to joint drills further afield with our allies, it’s no secret that such ‘games’ are central to the SAF’s repertoire. They serve a double function: to let servicemen practice their manoeuvres, but also to flex military muscle in the direction of our presumptive rivals. Even contests like this one, that carry no operational weight, are useful in signalling battle-readiness.  

It would be anathema to suggest that these exercises are designed with anything besides strict strategic priorities in mind. Yet as rituals that all young Singaporean men go through, it’s worth considering how such war games (especially the more lavish and dangerous kind) play into our collective psyche. On the surface, they seem to share vocabularies of violence and reward with the games we play in our free hours. And in this way, they blur the lines between play and practice: such war games are deadly serious, sometimes even deadly. But there the similarities end. As products (and extensions) of the army’s top-down structures and priorities, these games are hardly expressions of Graeber’s principle; a far cry from the virtual battles we wage on a daily basis to reassert our individual lives against dead time, to fill the spaces created when thousands of bodies and minds are recruited to a singular purpose.  

Just past the gates, the morning’s first east-west train rumbles by, reminding us of a different city waking up beyond the camp’s confines. There’s still at least an hour till the games begin: we meet each other’s eyes, and turn back to our screens.