Battle Dress

MW3 knife kill

The late fall of 2000 found me at a gas station in rural Missouri. Out of the convenience store toddled an elderly man in flannel and suspenders on the arm of a young blonde woman. She was speaking gently to him, taking him gingerly through the gravel lot towards a red Dodge pickup. I caught him out of the corner of my eye as he pulled against her arm and guided her instead towards the back of my fraternity brother’s Audi where I was sitting. As he came closer he extended his hand through the window. Shocked, I raised my own and he shook it, more firmly than I expected.

“Where are you stationed, son?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Where do you serve?”

I looked down at the Battle Dress Uniform shirt I was wearing, at the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment patch that I had carefully sewn to my left shoulder. Looking up I saw he wore the same emblem on his VFW hat, right next to a miniature Bronze Star. He was greeting me as a brother in arms, wordlessly sharing his strength with a comrade through our clasped hands.

“I-uh… I don’t… I-- It’s just a shirt I picked up. We’re headen’ to play paintball.”

He didn’t hear me. “Thank you for your service.” Perhaps the blood was building in his own ears, perhaps the emotion now bursting silently from his crisp blue eyes was clouding his other senses. Perhaps he was deaf in his old age.

I blushed. “Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.” I felt like a child, not the 20-year-old man I was. I looked around at my fraternity brothers as he shuffled away towards his rusting truck. They were silent, and mostly ignored the incident as we packed up our drinks and jerky and headed towards the paintball fields.

When I had put that getup together, even when paired with tattered jeans and filthy boots, I took on part of the mantle worn by men and women who fought and died for our country. It came as some surprise when someone who had served mistook me for one of his fellows. I was suddenly sickened at my own ignorance. Who was I to wear that uniform, even in part? As we drove, I surreptitiously removed the sergeant’s chevrons I had salvaged from a consignment shop some months before and dropped them into my breast pocket.

I still own and even celebrate the shirt and what it represents, but I will never again disgrace it by putting those chevrons on and walking around in public like an imposter. I was recently reminded of that day in Missouri the first, and only, time I stabbed someone to death in Battlefield 3.

I’m not a prude. Making the match-ending kill in a shooter is satisfying to me in the same way that sinking a straight-on corner shot is in pool. Flanking and routing the enemy in a simulation or a grand strategy game gives me the same rush that closing a big sale does at work. Digging into Inigo Mantoya with my lancer, sawing him in half, and then dragging his ragdolling entrails across the ground as I skid into cover, all under fire from across the map … Sorry, I need a moment to recover from that beauty.

For me the gore and physical transgressions I explore in games is a dirty pleasure. But if Inigo were skinned to look like that Missouri veteran instead of Dizzy Wallin, it would tear me up inside. The same way it tore me up when, in Modern Warfare 2, my own character’s body was tossed into a pit alive and burned alongside his comrade, Ghost. For me the damage done in that scene affects me more than the civilian deaths caused in "No Russian". And it’s not because I have served my country — it is because I haven’t. Some might call that guilt. I would like to think of it as the different level of respect that I grant to those who have taken a path that could lead them to die for their country.

The decorated veteran I met in Missouri took that path, and I did not. Wearing the uniform, playing at war on those paintball fields that day, dressed as I was, made me feel a special kind of guilt. It felt, perhaps, more like a betrayal.

So when I snuck up behind that Marine in Battlefield 3, prone against a guard rail along an imaginary Iranian highway, when I reached out to him, flipped him over, plunged my knife into his chest and watched him die inches from my face, it affected me unlike any kill I had made in a game before. Having died many times the same way, on that same map, I know that the last thing he saw was my nose sticking out of my flame-proof cowl as I tore off his dog tags. The last thing he saw was truth immutable that his family would never know how he died, or perhaps that he had died at all. And in that instant, as I flickered psychically between the reality and the simulation, I was repulsed. It became too real for me, had too much weight for my conscience. Suffice to say that my k/d ratio suffered for the rest of the round.

I still play Battlefield 3, I relish the rare time I’m able to get inside tanks in Red Orchestra 2, and I cannot wait to finish my assault on Swamp Yankee’s farmhouse in Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy, but I play these games with a different perspective then do the young people who are, at this very instant, calling each other f*gs and cursing a blue streak on XBOX live. I have a different set of opinions of what I’m doing when I reload my SCAR in Modern Warfare 3 than, I think, do the marketers behind the ads we see for that game.

I'm scrounging for the phrases to explain how I feel, because I don't want to be the one who puts words in the mouths of past or present warfighters. Let me instead draw upon another example from my own experience to provide a complementary point.

When our junior high school’s librarian announced that our class would have an entire day with over 20 World War II veterans, I was awestruck. These vets I was to have the privilege of meeting were like superheroes to me. A few days after learning about their visit, I hatched a plan to bring my computer, my monitor, and my flight set to the library in order to engage what few pilots there were in reliving their memories. I would give them the platform to show rather than tell. When I brought it up to the librarian, she was thrilled. She invited me to set it up, but warned me that I should not expect them to want to play, should not be pushy, and should not pry if they said they were not interested in reliving those times.

I thought long and hard about it. I asked myself for a solid week: Do I want to be the kid that hauls in his entire system, who sits and waits patiently for his heroes to pass him by, bemused but uninterested? Do I want to be the kid that drags a war hero before a poor imitation of what must have been one of the most traumatic and exhilarating experiences of his life, a caricature of something that he is both proud of and terrified of at the same time? When I heard that one of the men would be a POW, a man who bailed out of his flaming B-17 and spent two years in a Stalag Luft, I withered. There was no way. I would not bring Battlehawks 1942 to school.

I enjoy gaming. I love the challenge of it and the comradeship I’m able to gain from it among my friends and in this community. But when I put on the uniform, even just to play a highly sophisticated version of cowboys and Indians in my digital backyard, I want to be able to play games in a way that helps me communicate my respect to those who fought for me. Or, at the very least, not disrespect them.

Tell me this: 50 years from now, would you want a veteran of Afghanistan to share with you while you steal the dog tags off the corpse of someone who looks an awful lot like they did when they were young?

Comments

Deep and thought provoking. Thank you.

Well written, Wandy.

Sobering article, very well done. That was an uncanny meeting with the veteran.

I love the Battlefield series like hell, but my desire to get BF3 really waned up to release. I still haven't played it or worked up any real enthusiasm to. At this point I'd rather read Joystick Soldiers and sort out my thoughts about military shooters and my role in them.

Well written.

Every time I steal someones dog tags in Battlefield 3 (and vice versa), I feel creepy about it, almost like I've just shared a personal experience with the other person, but not in a good way. Your not the first I've seen express a similar sentiment. Given the amount of violence in video games, I'm not sure why this one event is such a visceral experience but it is.

I'm in the middle of re-playing Metal Gear Solid: 2, and there's an optional achievement/cool bit of loot earned by taking dog tags off the grunts. I always felt queasy about it, but this really crystallized it for me.

Copingsaw wrote:
Every time I steal someones dog tags in Battlefield 3 (and vice versa), I feel creepy about it, almost like I've just shared a personal experience with the other person, but not in a good way. Your not the first I've seen express a similar sentiment. Given the amount of violence in video games, I'm not sure why this one event is such a visceral experience but it is.

I think it's a good thing when a game is able to get that reaction, that killing someone should be creepy. The only other game that I think does it well is Red Orchestra, when you can hear your opponent who is just another grunt under a different flag, crying in agony until they pass.

This is one of the reasons I wish tabloid journalism would stop doing the 'games are sadistic torture simulations' rubbish. There's occasions where the visceral recreation of war isn't just adding a buzzword for marketing, but should be preferable to just having a mute toy shoulder flop to the ground.

momgamer wrote:
I'm in the middle of re-playing Metal Gear Solid: 2, and there's an optional achievement/cool bit of loot earned by taking dog tags off the grunts. I always felt queasy about it, but this really crystallized it for me.

There was a sobering moment in Mass Effect 2 where you went down to the Normandy Crash Site and collected dog tags. Admittedly it was a scavenger hunt, but the flashbacks and utter silence as you performed your task was very powerful.

Said this already to mister Hall, but well done, sir. Powerful article.

Thanks. Your self-awareness means more than anything.

Great piece of writing, Wanderer. I don't play military shooters, but I enjoyed this article for its message.

In the typical FPS game the game designers strip the villages and towns you're fighting in of civilians, even though you see all the physical evidence of them in game: garbage, furniture, parked cars. They do this because they don't want players to experience the sight of walking into a store and finding mangled dead bodies. I mean, I blow up buildings with my tank just in case there are enemies inside with a SMAW. How do I know if there's a shopkeeper in his family screaming in fear inside? It's a game, so I don't bother with that.

I find it easy to disconnect from that reality in something like Battlefield games, though BF3 is getting maybe a bit too realistic with its animations. When the action is more cartoony it's a little bit less intense that way.

This is one reason why I don't play "realistic" military shooters at all. I'm no soldier, and I don't want to pretend to be one.

I occasionally make an exception for games that have you fighting against aliens or monsters, but I really prefer games where you're just some random person thrown into a situation, rather than someone who chose to be there fighting.

Resistance 1 & 2 are games I enjoyed, but my favorite game in the series is Resistance 3, where you're someone who isn't a soldier anymore and who is only fighting because there's no real option to protect his family and friends...

I do read a great deal of military science fiction though. It's quite interesting even if it's not for me.

Thanks for the anecdote, which I think articulates the issue better than any abstract analysis ever could. Games like MW3 and BF3 are carefully constructed entertainment experiences, and I think it serves us well to remember their limitations. I guess this is part of what annoys me when they're touted as "realistic" shooters. I think most gamers can still tell the difference between entertainment and reality, but this is a nice reminder that as they converge, the lines can get blurred.

Thank you, MisterStatic.

With regard to what is in, and what is not in, realistic shooters I'm very curious to see the work being done in an upcoming war reporting simulator in the works. I'd provide a link, but I'm away from my PC at the moment.

While not a directly comparable experience, the treatment of CoG tags and other ephemera in Gears and also games like Bioshock and even Fallout 3 stands in stark comparison to how very intrinsically personal items are handled in MW3.

TheWanderer wrote:
Thank you, MisterStatic.

With regard to what is in, and what is not in, realistic shooters I'm very curious to see the work being done in an upcoming war reporting simulator in the works. I'd provide a link, but I'm away from my PC at the moment.

While not a directly comparable experience, the treatment of CoG tags and other ephemera in Gears and also games like Bioshock and even Fallout 3 stands in stark comparison to how very intrinsically personal items are handled in MW3.

In Gears' favor, I believe it's about collecting the tags of fallen comrades as part of making sure their deaths are tracked, counted and remembered--at least that's what the achievement titles seem to indicate.

I meant to refer to BF3 above.

Hey Wanderer! Thanks for writing that. As a vet, I give you official permission to wear that shirt. Most soldiers or veterans would be flattered, it shows support.

I have a hard time taking "serious" military shooters seriously, they are so comic and cartoonish. I remember Colonel Antal (developer on Brothers in Arms) once labeled Modern Warfare as "military dress up dolls." Other than the uniforms and weapons, those games have almost nothing in common with the real thing.

Modern Warfare, Battlefield, etc, make me think of a football game where the both teams enter the field, fully dressed and ready to play. Everyone looks serious, coaches are scheming, players are focused. The teams line up on the scrimmage line, the quarterback hikes the ball, and... everyone in the stadium runs in random directions, helmets and shoes are flying through the air, players are biting ankles, doing anything but playing football. That is what these shooters feel like to me.

I would like to think of it as the different level of respect that I grant to those who have taken a path that could lead them to die for their country.

...

And in that instant, as I flickered psychically between the reality and the simulation, I was repulsed. It became too real for me, had too much weight for my conscience.

I think it's more that something about the game that causes that flicker. Certainly it comes out of that respect, but it's not just that respect or the level of it.

I want to be able to play games in a way that helps me communicate my respect to those who fought for me. Or, at the very least, not disrespect them.

I've thought about this topic a lot as there are certain games I wish certain veterans I knew had lived to see. I think it's a very subjective thing. Probably quite a few of "the young people who are, at this very instant, calling each other f*gs and cursing a blue streak on XBOX live" have a parent serving in these wars.

That doesn't mean you can't honor those who have served through your play style. I know what you're talking about--there are certain achievements I refuse to unlock because they hit too close to home given what's happened to some of the veterans I've known. I just also know that it's a personal thing, and there's a lot more involved in 'dishonoring' anyone than just snatching some dogtags and triggering a cutscene.

I wonder whether playing BF3 on a tactically-minded server, or playing something like ARMA with a group of milsim fans would change your feeling? There's something to be said for calling targets, moving carefully, and not giving into the crazy orgy of death that you find on the consolized FPS of this generation. (At least to me, it feels more respectful and realistic.)

TheHipGamer: you've got your Post comment button set to three-round burst! : D

CheezePavilion wrote:
TheHipGamer: you've got your Post comment button set to three-round burst! : D

Where is the "like" button when you need it?

Thank you for writing and sharing this Wanderer. Very powerful and thought-provoking.

CheezePavilion wrote:
TheHipGamer: you've got your Post comment button set to three-round burst! : D

Rule #6 of posting on GWJ: triple-post.

One of my goals this year is to get into the next ARMA version, but it's something I need to find time for. I thought I came close with Red Orchestra 2, but I think the bugs stalled a lot of early adopters and killed the momentum. For what it's worth, we had a decent group play RO2 last Wednesday and will try again tomorrow. If you're within the sound of my voice, perhaps join us.

CheezePavilion wrote:
I've thought about this topic a lot as there are certain games I wish certain veterans I knew had lived to see. I think it's a very subjective thing. Probably quite a few of "the young people who are, at this very instant, calling each other f*gs and cursing a blue streak on XBOX live" have a parent serving in these wars.

They could also very well be soldiers themselves. More than half of my soldiers (Army) fit the bill of being 19-30 year old guys with a high school education who enjoy playing video games, Call of Duty especially.

I haven't had any deep discussions about the effects of these games on them, but I can see them swearing a good bit.

Great article. Pretty much sums up why I cannot bring myself to indulge in these types of games. Can't even play a WWII themed RTS without these thoughts running through my head.

Superb piece. Very humbling as sometimes it's all too easy to forget what some of these games are actually attempting to simulate/recreate

Thanks for sharing.

You are a good man.
Most people in uniform don't hold a lack of knowledge about what insignia and unit designations mean to service members. Far more important was your reaction when realization hit.
That was a real gut check and your reaction then mattered far more, and speaks really well for your character.
I agree with Soul Daddy's comment, mil shooter games are far more a scrimmage than combat, no matter how HD the graphics.
Happy they are there and enjoyed by so many, including lots of military folks. It's just not for me.
I can't divorce my brain from the concept of taking ANY hits resulting in serious injury or death.
Racing forward heedlessly into enemy fire repeatedly, go down, rinse and repeat, makes the skin on the back of my neck tight.
Enjoy the games, and thanks for recognizing the ones who do it for real. No respawns.
Semper Fi

Thanks for sharing this.

This is the sort of article to remember when the age-old discussion about 'video games harm kids' comes up: they DO have an effect on you. Consider a kid less self-reflective, absorbing the game literally but not reflectively: it can contribute to being screwed-up.

Dehumanization is real. Just see the news today.

That's not to say I think video games should be banned. I like blowing stuff up virtually, I like twitch, I like competition. But I understand that these things affect me, and affect others too.

Dehumanization is real. Just see the news today.

The news is sensationalist. It certainly isn't a reputable source of scientific inquiry, nor does it express anything in a rational, peer-reviewed fashion. If you want to convince me (or others?) of a cause-and-effect relationship between video game play and "dehumanization", you'll have to both define what you're looking for and present a mechanism for testing the hypothesis that video games are responsible for it.

Another idea might be that competition and violence are ingrained; whether we express them with a mouse, a football, or a gun-shaped stick, they are part of being human, and some population segment will always be poorly adjusted to society and express those inclinations in unhealthy ways.