In this feature, we hand over the soapbox to members of the armed forces, who share their thoughts on the exploration of war in video games.
Jef Palframan // Lieutenant, Canadian Army // Sergeant, US Army
I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008-9. I participated in some engagements and experienced rocket attacks. I have seen the costs of war and our current conflicts. I have had two friends killed in combat and have had the privilege of serving with heroes who have done much more than I. Upon returning to school after the military, I founded a veteran support group at my university that seeks to raise awareness about veterans' issues. I am discovering that there are many challenges (mostly unknown) that soldiers face when returning to civilian life.
I think a lot of military games depict soldiers as mindless killing machines who possess some magical power to regenerate their health and kill hundreds of people. We have enough problems with getting soldiers to recognize the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder that we don’t need some unrealistic expectation of what a soldier can and cannot endure. Also, the last time I checked, my veteran friends and I were not homicidal killers bent on racking up the biggest body count. Most soldiers avoid speaking about engagements where they were forced to take a life. This is not something that needs to be celebrated. War is a disgusting human behavior, if not the most disgusting. As a soldier I accept that it is part of the sacrifice I am willing to make in losing my innocence by taking another human's life. We are willing to do this on our nation's behalf. Anyone who wants to join the military so that they can kill other human beings has no business in uniform.
My main problem with military shooters is that they seem to be less about celebrating the soldier and more about celebrating killing. I have to admit that I used to play these games as well, but I have seen enough to know that they are fantasy. I don't think that the average gamer realizes what they are seeing. They are given an augmented reality that rewards them for killing, not for serving, and they think that that is reality. Being in the infantry is 99 percent boredom and sacrifice and 1 percent what you see in games. And even then what you see in the game is not what it is like at all. I do believe these games trivialize war: they make it something fun and adventurous.
I think the fact that a soldier can use these games as an escape is telling. A soldier can recognize that they are not real, but the gaming public, the industry's target audience, does not. On more than one occasion I have had civilians ask me if war is really like it is in Call of Duty. My typical answer is to tell them that these guns look real, and that place looks like Afghanistan, but that is not what happens in real life. Then there is an awkward moment where I realize that they are not hearing what they want to hear. They want some kind of affirmation about the $65 they just spent.
I have since stopped playing these games. Military service has given me some of the best years of my life, and I would not trade them for anything, but there were some really horrible memories that I would not wish on anyone. It kind of makes me sick when I see promos like the most recent one for Call of Duty: Black Ops II where the promotion line was something like "There is a soldier in all of us," and the last scene in one of the trailers is some dude casually dropping a nuke on a city. If games are going to be culturally relevant, then they will need to start feeding something other than a base inhuman urge to kill.