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.
War is a controversial topic. Following the community's response to two GameSpot articles discussing the portrayal of war in video games--regenerating health in Medal of Honor: Warfighter and EA's decision to link to real-life weapons manufacturers--GameSpot asked five United States armed forces servicemen to share their perspective on the topic of war in video games.
This is what they had to say.
Nathaniel Dietrick // Combat Medic // US Army
I joined the army right out of high school in 2006. I enlisted as a combat medic and went to the army's licensed vocational nurse school. As a nurse, I have spent some time at major medical installations in San Antonio, Washington DC, and Hawaii. I witnessed the burn units, orthopedic wards (which provided care to the amputees), and ICUs. I was deployed to Iraq from 2009-10, with a Combat Support Hospital (CHS) during my last year in service. I had, by most standards, a pretty tame deployment--a few mortar strikes here and there but nothing terrible. One of the hardest parts for me was witnessing the loss that everyone experiences at some point. Whether it is a close friend, a son, or husband/wife, war eventually impacts everyone who serves.
We played plenty of video games while deployed. It was always too hot in the afternoon to do anything, so a few of us would always crowd around a PS3. God of War and BioShock 2 were definitely our fan favorites while we were there. Military games and first-person shooters, along with sports titles, are very popular for a lot of people I have known within the army. Games like Battlefield and Call of Duty can be heard blaring in any barracks across the US. I think these games are usually far enough from reality that it doesn't bother most soldiers, although I can easily see how it could affect some.
I don't think soldiers play military games for different reasons compared to most people. They are fun and entertaining, and provide engaging competitive opportunities. Some soldiers may have difficulty if they witness something in-game that resembles a real-life event too closely. However, I feel like most soldiers are able to separate themselves from the game and realize there is nothing threatening about the experience. I also think most soldiers are tough to offend. Soldiers tend to be pretty proud of their service and the job they have done, so games that do not truly portray warfare tend to be overlooked by service members.
"Most soldiers can tell you that [military shooters] are nothing like the war that they have experienced. Military life is full of tedium and drudgery that is unfit for an action-packed game. The hard work, the pounding heat…"
I think most developers miss the authenticity mark when it comes to the emotional content of the game. Sure, the guns look real and the vehicles match the real thing, but most games are flashy set pieces that lead players from one explosion to the next. Most soldiers can tell you that this is nothing like the war that they have experienced. Military life is full of tedium and drudgery that is unfit for an action-packed game. The hard work, the pounding heat, the sweat and fatigue is something that games have difficulty conveying. Often the bonds between soldiers and the pain that is felt if they die are overlooked. Many games have even featured allies that will spawn infinitely with randomized names until an objective is taken. One game I thought really nailed the price of war was the Mass Effect series. Many of the choices and events you are presented with really drive home the unavoidable cost that everyone must face. When a character dies you understand the seriousness of the event, and this is something many games fail to portray.
It seems that there is a structural component to first-person shooter games that leads to the trivialization of war. The single-player campaigns and fast-paced action tend to lead to players seeing war as something that can be undertaken casually. I would like to see many of the major installments like Battlefield or Call of Duty take their time and release a game with a serious and thoughtful look at what being a soldier is really about, rather than continue to release the same adrenaline rush rehash. Military games will always be popular, and I hope that the developers making them will continually try to hold themselves to higher standards.