“War Game” was originally published in Galaxy in December 1959. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 157–171.
Leon Wiesman is working at the Terran Import Bureau of Standards, investigating the safety of important commodities from Ganymede. With growing tension between Terra and the Moons, additional attention has been placed on ensuring that imports are safe.
Wiseman goes to see one of his employees, Pinario, about a certain toy from Ganymede, a toy solider game that simulates the storming of a citadel. Pinario has been studying the toy. It is a clever toy. The soldiers can utilize other toys in a child’s playroom into their strategy of taking the citadel. The assault fails most of the time, but the difficulty setting can be changed.
Two days later, Wiseman is challenged by his boss, Fowler for testing to extensively. Money is being lost the longer the toys stay in the warehouse. Wiseman explains that the problem is the storming-citadel toy soldier game. Pinario shows Fowler that one of the soldiers has disappeared, apparently consumed by the game, since the weight of the game has remained the same. Fowler thinks that the intention of this is to see the set slowly get smaller, while the child is blamed for losing pieces. Over a week, four soldiers were absorbed by the citadel.
Another toy to be studied was a cowboy costume. When you put it on, it creates a believable virtual reality, with incredible detail. Fowler believes it is a dangerous toy that will corrupt a child’s view of reality. Wiseman, who tested the costume, confirms that the simulation is seductive. Another toy is a board game the looks much like Monopoly called Syndrome. While they test that game, the citadel is continuing to operate. Pinario believes that it is working its way up to becoming an atomic bomb, a process that will be completed when the last piece is absorbed. Fowler seems unimpressed with the board game, seeing it as just a copy of Monopoly.
A bomb expert comes to study the citadel-storming game. He works to prevent the bomb from going off. When the game finished its cycle and absorbed the last toy soldier, the game declared them a winner, giving encouraging life lessons about how important it is to preserve against difficulties. In fact, the citadel game is harmless and is merely a therapeutic toy. After the cycle, the twelve soldiers remerge and being the assault anew. Wiesman is still suspicious about the complicated device. He approves only the board game for release on Earth.
Joe Hauck brings a copy of the new game Syndrome to his children. He stole it from his store’s warehouse. The children reveal that the adults (including the testers at the Bureau of Import Standards) played the game wrong. The goal of the game is to not end up with the most stock. Hauck does not understand why anyone would want to play such a game, but the children seem to like it. The game teaches them to surrender their holdings and that winning requires giving up their possessions.
One thing I like about “War Game” is that is shows petty bureaucrats at work, and having a bit of fun while doing that. I imagine that many of us would find a job where they can test out all the neat stuff that has been imported quite interesting, especially if those things are toys. Yet, they assume that everything that Ganymede wants to import is insidious in some way. They cannot really enjoy these games because they are on a vigilant look out for the underhanded danger posed by the toys. The assumption that every new toy has an ideological or corrupting property is not so foreign to us. Many parents indeed worry about the lessons taught by a toy or a television show their children watch. Perhaps there are even people out there, play testing games to identify their ideological assumptions. The best example of this is the paranoia about the impact of Barbie dolls of beauty standards among young women. My initial response to all of this is that we should relax and take it easy.
A great device in this story is that the game Syndrome, which is the main story—the real “war game”—is marginal. Most of our attention is focused on the citadel-storming game. It is more exciting and seemingly more dangerous. Perhaps its role was to distract the regulators from the real dangerous toy, Syndrome. All the adults, immediately play the game wrong because none of them read the directions. They assume that the game is played as a reflection of capitalism. Like all other games, and like real life, the goal is assumed to be to acquire all of the money. It is the most innocent children who actually read how the game is played and point out that its goal is to lose money more quickly than the others. It is Monopoly in reverse. The Ganymedeans are playing the long game, trying to use toys to reeducate children into a disposition toward surrender.
As I see it, all three of the toys were threats. Syndrome because it teaches that surrender leads to victory. The citadel-storming game teaches that even if you lose all of your soldiers is a fruitless assault on an enemy position you are still a winner at the end. Indeed, you win the game when you lose all of your soldiers. Meanwhile it tries to build up the child’s self-esteem. The cowboy costume is dangerous because it creates a world more convincing and attractive than the real one. This would also have the effect of making the younger generations less willing to fight for this world. In a way, it leads the child to surrender their claim to objective reality. Therefore, all three toys had the goal of teaching the next generation of Terran children that surrender and defeat are good. Had the regulators realized the real reason the citadel-game was a threat, they may not have let the game through so easily.
Wikipedia page for “War Game.”