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

TheHipGamer wrote:
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.

I took Nathaniel's comment the other way--that the news dehumanizes.

Great and thought provoking.

The creepiest moment in any game I've played in recent years was toward the end of Modern Warfare 2. You're rappelling down a cliff, inverted, and you and your buddy both come down on top of a guard. You reach down with both hands, knife in one, and you lift the guy while simultaneously jamming the knife through his windpipe.

And when you do it they animated it so that this NPC guard looks right at the screen, dead center, and stares right at you until his eyes roll back into his head and he goes limp.

It was the weirdest, creepiest almost queasy moment I've ever encountered in a game and it weirded me out. It's also pretty awesome if only in that it had been a long time since a game got any kind of reaction out of me like that.

So I guess I'm kind of with you. At least a little bit.

wordsmythe wrote:
TheHipGamer wrote:
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.

I took Nathaniel's comment the other way--that the news dehumanizes.

On a re-read, I can see how it could go either way. Apologies for being all higgly-piggly, if said reaction was misplaced, Nathaniel.

Thin_J wrote:

The creepiest moment in any game I've played in recent years was toward the end of Modern Warfare 2. You're rappelling down a cliff, inverted, and you and your buddy both come down on top of a guard. You reach down with both hands, knife in one, and you lift the guy while simultaneously jamming the knife through his windpipe.

And when you do it they animated it so that this NPC guard looks right at the screen, dead center, and stares right at you until his eyes roll back into his head and he goes limp.

It was the weirdest, creepiest almost queasy moment I've ever encountered in a game and it weirded me out. It's also pretty awesome if only in that it had been a long time since a game got any kind of reaction out of me like that.

So I guess I'm kind of with you. At least a little bit.

I had a very similar situation happen to me not long agoin RO2, where a comrade (literally, I was playing on the Russian side) was shot dead as he ran from a fox hole. An artillery strike came in as I ran by, and I was forced to drop into the same foxhole. Regardless of my swift action, a shell hit nearby and killed me. My body landed on top of this dead man. We were face to face as we both died in a ditch. The games of 2011 really went out of their way to make me uncomfortable, to make me think.

Thank you for your perspective. It's refreshing to hear someone who doesn't have military experience recognize the significance of something as seemingly simple as a patch, or a chevron. I've seen people wearing all sorts of insignia without any comprehension of what it means to the people that actually earned those devices. It certainly bothers me but, sadly, I suppose I'm kind of numb to it since it's fairly commonplace. It certainly taints my opinion of the person when I confirm they have no right to it, and they're only doing it for decoration.

It's particularly significant when you're talking about a unit identifier. There's a lot of pride and history in some of those patches, as you realize. A lot of Brothers and Sisters. A lot of memories, good and bad. And a lot of honor.

I don't know if you've ever heard of the story of Michael Monsoor, but it highlights the importance that a simple insignia can hold for people in the military.

This article popped up in the Front Page rotation--it makes a good companion piece.

I'm a former Army NCO who got out in 1998 and still have plenty of friends in the military. I personally don't like playing modern shooters because:

A. I'm not a huge shooter fan unless the shooter has cool mechanics (Bioshock, Borderlands,Half Life)
B. I think of my friends still on active duty when I play these games. I'd rather play games where the line between fantasy and reality is clearly drawn. If I'm going to play something military related, it's going to be historical.

As a counterpoint, one of my co-workers is an Iraq War vet who loves every modern shooter. He told me that in Iraq, all of his squadmates loved playing Call of Duty when they had a little downtime. So not every veteran thinks that these games are degrading or offensive.

jdzappa wrote:

As a counterpoint, one of my co-workers is an Iraq War vet who loves every modern shooter. He told me that in Iraq, all of his squadmates loved playing Call of Duty when they had a little downtime. So not every veteran thinks that these games are degrading or offensive.

Certainly not, and from what i've heard, CoD is massively popular among the troops today, although I think that's a generational thing. The men serving today are part of the video game generation, most of them have probably been playing FPSes since Doom, so, for a 24-year-old in the service right now, this is normal.

I had my first moment like this playing one of the older CoD games, back when it was set in WWII. I shot one of the Nazis, and the particular death animation that played had him falling to the ground and grabbing desperately at his neck to staunch the bloodflow (although there was none depicted). The nature of the CoD games (then and now) however, was that I pretty much had to shoot him until he ceased moving altogether, or else he'd get up and shoot me again, so, with this man lying on the ground, trying not to bleed out (even though, in reality, the gesture at this point would be almost certainly useless), I had to shoot him again.

That moment really got to me, and made me uncomfortable. I understand that playing a FPS is essentially like playing video-game "tag" with blood but... there are places we go now that I can't always say sit well with me.

That said, souldaddy's description of the "modern" military FPS's fidelity to the real is hilarious, and absolutely spot-on, although frankly, one might amend it to say that some members of each team begin deliberately playing a different sport entirely, just to spite the members of their own team.

Good article, Wanderer!

Others have pointed out some very good examples of game moments that successfully humanized war. One of the first for me was MOH: Allied Assault, storming the beach at Normandy. The difficulty, sound and visuals were so loaded that I actually was stuck cowering behind a hedgehog for the longest time. It caused the real fear and horror, if at a smaller scale, that I imagine would occur in real war. I just remember thinking "holy sh*t, I am so glad I never went to war."

Very well said, thank you for sharing.

I'm currently serving and while I don't personally play anything of the military FPS type, I have plenty of coworkers who play all the time. I know of a few people who originally joined the infantry because of the way it's portrayed in both video games and movies. I knew beforehand how outrageously unrealistic some of these games can be sometimes, but I feel like a lot of times it can give people the wrong impression of what we actually do or what we're supposed to do. That being said, recruiting commercials seem to be intentionally misleading as well. I hope that younger generations don't continue this trend as from my perspective it's already done some amount of damage our military, having kids fresh out of high school join because it's "cool."

Your comment about wearing a patch brought me back to about a year ago when I saw a photo of an Eve Online player wearing a set of dress blues complete with rank and an unrealistic number of medals/ribbons complimenting his chest. I'm glad you felt some amount of reverence for the old man you met that day. I don't think you should feel bad as it was a naive mistake, but I feel that more people should know just how much some people have given for that Purple Heart or Combat Action Ribbon or even just a National Defense Ribbon.

Great article!

My first video game moment that really hit me was while playing Rise of the Triad. I think this was the first shooter that featured injured enemies that pleaded for their lives, and being a naive do-gooder, I mentally applauded the game designers, and proceeded on my way -- only to be shot in the back by an entire squad of 'recovered' enemies 30 seconds later. My sense of betrayal and anger at the developers is something I feel keenly to this day.

I had a second moment that slipped my mind; I remember it now! Storming the beaches at Iwo Jima while playing Battlefield 1942 totally blew my mind, and in a very small way, I felt some inkling of what a mess that must have been. The sense of wonder and trepidation that washed over me when I finally saw the open area of the island beyond the beach was truly intense. (I felt incredibly clever when I found a way to circumvent the map planning and sneak to the top side of the island without having to go directly onto the beach first, during later play-throughs).