National Guard November 2012 : Page 24
Killing Time By Andrew Waldman Many Guardsmen in Afghanistan and other hostile areas overseas often use video wargames when taking a break from the real thing HROUGHOUT THE COURSE of the critically acclaimed documentary Restrepo , a platoon of sol-diers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team endures the tedium and brutality of war while defending a tactically important position in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. In between maintaining the sand-bag outpost and ﬁghting off insur-gents, the soldiers spend downtime doing what soldiers do—reading magazines, smoking cigarettes and simply gooﬁng around. They also played video games. Speciﬁcally, soldiers are seen play-ing ﬁrst-person shooters, which are T 24 | Na tional Guard
Many Guardsmen in Afghanistan and other hostile areas overseas often use video wargames when taking a break from the real thing
THROUGHOUT THE COURSE of the critically acclaimed documentary Restrepo, a platoon of soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team endures the tedium and brutality of war while defending a tactically important position in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
In between maintaining the sandbag outpost and fighting off insurgents, the soldiers spend downtime doing what soldiers do—reading magazines, smoking cigarettes and simply goofing around.
They also played video games.
Specifically, soldiers are seen playing first-person shooters, which are Games featuring a protagonist that is viewed from a first-person perspective while fighting its way past obstacles and enemies in a 3D environment.
First-person shooters are intended to mimic the lives of soldiers. But for the real soldiers in Restrepo, they were a way to unwind from a stressful day.
That is how many National Guardsmen at home and deployed see video gaming. It’s a popular way to link up with friends, share stories and have fun while off duty.
“While I was deployed … we all had Xboxes,” says Staff Sgt. Richard Wirfs, a member of the Oregon Army Guard. “It was nice to be able to kick back.”
And the vast improvement in network speeds and gaming technology over the years has created ways that video games can be used not only as a means of escape, but also as a way to connect service members who share common experiences.
Video game consoles have become as common as rifles at forward operating bases (FOBs). Where there is electricity and downtime, someone is gaming.
While the idea of playing video games in the midst of a warzone might sound odd to an older generation of soldier, most people under the age of 45 have been exposed to video games for most of their lives.
The first arcade video games, like Pong and Computer Space, hit the market in the early 1970s. For a decade, video games were relegated to smoky arcades, attracting mostly teenage boys.
The era of video game ubiquity started in 1977 with the launch of the Atari 2600, the first widely successful home video gaming system. The console, which was easily hooked to a television and featured multiplayer titles, was popular with hobbyists and families.
Thirty years later, home consoles Are still a huge market for game developers. But they now are much more technologically advanced. Today’s consoles, such as Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, are network compatible, fast and feature sharp, realistic graphics.
Gaming is now so popular that video game studios employ hundreds of employees to work on single game titles and spend millions on development and marketing.
Take Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, one of the best-selling games of all time. The Los Angeles Times reported that the game cost $40 million to develop and had a $200 million pre-launch advertising campaign. It grossed about $550 million in its first week in 2010.
Like other forms of entertainment media, games are now just another offering among a sea of options.
Just as the general population has embraced gaming, service members also find it to be a popular past time.
Mark Christianson of OffDuty Gamers.com says interests range from military-centric games to mobile games on the iPhone to multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft.
“They are everywhere. I think the stat that’s out there is that 90 percent of the military are casual gamers,” he says.
Wirfs’ favorite game is EverQuest, a fantasy-themed, massively multiplayer, online role-playing game. Players form “guilds” and compete against other players also engaged online.
But he likes other games, too. The Xbox he took on his deployment was used to play many first-person shooters with friends at the FOB.
He and his pals focused on multiplayer games they could enjoy as a group. Gaming, he says, is a great way to engage with people because it forms an instant connection through a familiar pastime.
“It’s amazing when you start talking about online gaming,” says Wirfs. “By being a gamer, you can talk to other gamers. It opens doors, especially to start conversation.”
Gaming has become easier than ever to do on the go. Wirfs said he spent many hours on his PlayStation Portable while traveling to and from his deployment.
Other products, like the GAEMS G155 “personal gaming environment,” make it possible to pack up an entire home console video game system, complete with controllers and LED screen, and take it wherever you want.
In-person gaming is one way that Guard gamers connect. But large, online communities have formed that cater specifically to the interests of military members.
One such group is Military Gamers (www.militarygamers.com), which includes about 1,700 members. More Than 90 percent of the site’s membership has military experience.
The site, which was founded by Lucas Wilson in 2007, provides a forum for like-minded gamers to meet up, maintains gaming servers and serves as a place to play team games online. Wilson, a former Marine, says he created the site in 2007 because he saw a need to serve military gamers in a way that other gaming communities did not.
The politics of online gaming can be fickle. Many team-oriented online gaming communities require time commitments in order to retain membership. Fall below a certain number of hours played or miss a game time and you might be off the team.
Wilson said he couldn’t abide by such strict guidelines as a gamer with a military career and a family. That’s why he founded Military Gamers.
Community members have no minimum requirements for game play. They come and go as they please.
“A lot of people are looking for that niche,” he says.
He says the community is made of people who “really understand what [other military gamers] have done, where they have been.”
Just like a sports team, video gaming communities often plant the seeds of long-lasting friendships. Pfc. Jason Denson, a member of the Texas Army Guard, says Military Gamers has become a place for military members to help each other out when they are experiencing the effects of combat stress or family strife.
The community’s members span all ages, ranks and services, and can provide a huge knowledge base on both gaming and how to navigate the many difficult parts of military and Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy.
“When you have so many military people, you get a lot of accumulated knowledge,” says Denson. “They know what to tell people in order to help.”
Wilson says he’s often talked on voice chat long into a night with community members having trouble coping with the stress of military life. The support structure that has organically formed on Military Gamers is so strong, he says, that the community will soon launch a nonprofit organization that will address post-traumatic stress disorder in the military gaming community.
“One of things we have found is that when you can relate to people, you can open up and talk about things,” he says.
There are other areas where military gamers are using their unique knowledge. Military gamers are bringing real-world experience to bear on the commercial gaming industry as consultants.
Christianson’s OffDutyGamers is a media site that offers video game/ equipment reviews, industry news and other related content. It is also involved in a number of efforts to make military-like video games more authentic.
In fact, the site’s creation was inspired by an event Christianson organized for the Electronic Arts development team for Medal of Honor: Airborne in 2007 at Ft. Bragg N.C. He brought members of the team to the installation to give them a tour and encourage them to make militarybased video games more realistic.
Christianson says that many military video games lack the physics of real combat. OffDutyGamers aims to provide consultation to video game developers to help them eliminate those inconsistencies.
His veteran consultants have worked on another Electronic Arts title, Battlefield 3. They provided input on several aspects of game play, including the proper animation of an M4 weapon reloading sequence.
“We went through and found all the little things that most people don’t notice, but drive military people crazy,” he says.
Christianson says that the developers he’s worked with are very responsive to input from OffDutyGamers.
But while the additional realism may make military members cringe a bit less, it doesn’t necessarily level the playing field against other gamers. Christianson says that extra realism does not tip the scales in favor of military gamers playing military-based games.
“One of the toughest things about being a military gamer is that people expect you to own everybody,” he says. “I have to dispel this rumor all the time.”
Not every military gamer can be a master of the first-person shooter. But the games do provide an outlet, says Denson.
“I have a lot of fun with it. It definitely helps me get away,” he says. “When I’m stressed, I like to fire up a shooter and blow things up.”
Andrew Waldman can be contacted at 202-408-5892 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When I’m stressed, I like to fire up a shooter [video game] and blow things up.” —Pfc. Jason Denson Texas Army National Guard
DoD: Video Games Help Bolster Focus, Hand-Eye Coordination
It’s tempting to believe that immensely popular military shooter video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 might help develop a person’s ability to operate in a combat environment.
After all, the graphics are stunning and the gameplay seems intuitive. The weapons look real and the landscapes are familiar to many soldiers.
But while these games are popular with the troops, they are not standins for their military counterparts, like Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2), the battlefield simulator used throughout the Army.
In fact, says Kristy Murray, the director of the Defense Department’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, military battlefield simulators are only superficially similar to civilian video games.
Murray’s ADL initiative seeks to find and leverage learning technologies like VBS2 in the military.
Commercial games, while visually similar to VBS2, are not “real models” for the serious games used by the military. That’s because simulators exist to reinforce lessons learned in field training. Off-the-shelf games are not a replacement for that training.
“A learner can train on a game and practice as much as they need to for proficiency,” she says.
Games like VBS2 are strategic in nature. They are meant to train a group of soldiers to follow prescribed procedures in the battlefield and maintain communication.
That’s not to say that some effects of commercial video gaming aren’t felt in the military. Murray says that service members who are gamers are adaptable, have better hand-eye coordination and are more focused.
Their familiarity with gaming helps them quickly adapt to using military simulators.
“They set it up right there, and people got on the game who had never used it before,” says Murray of a VBS2 training session she watched in New York recently. “They gave them a little time to get used to the game and how it worked ... By the time the day was over, they were communicating and talking. It was unbelievable what the improvement was over that time.” —Andrew Waldman
GAMING IN AFGHANISTAN Members of the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry, play video games during down time at a base in Afghanistan last year. Alyssa Schukar / The World-Herald
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