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?”
“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?