Finding Solace in Virtual WarS

Can virtual combat be entertainment for the soldiers who engage in the real thing on a daily basis?

The commanding general in charge of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, the department store and mall found on every U.S. army and air force base in the world, doesn't think so, at least not if the virtual combat is a video game depicting warfare in Afghanistan.

That's why Maj. Gen. Bruce Casella decided to stop the sale of Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor in his stores. He also notes that in the multiplayer modes of the game, gamers can take on the role of Taliban fighters.

But the inclusion of the Taliban as both enemy, and controllable character, is at best a red herring. I had a chance to sit down and play Medal of Honor against other video game writers earlier this year, long before the game's inclusion of the Taliban had become such a hot topic, and didn't even notice that some of us were the Taliban. It felt no more meaningful than playing a game where one side is red and the other blue; one side cops, the other side robbers; one side U.S. Army, the other Nazis.

And when talking to Kotaku, Casella seemed more concerned about the subject matter of the games than the characters in it.

"We regret any inconvenience this may cause authorized shoppers, but are optimistic that they will understand the sensitivity to the life and death scenarios this product presents as entertainment," he said. "As a military command with a retail mission, we serve a very unique customer base that has, or possibly will, witness combat in real life."

It's an interesting point, but one that also holds true for a myriad of games that AAFES does sell, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops. Both feature military combat in realistic settings.

More importantly, at least some active duty soldiers don't seem as bothered by the notion of playing a game featuring combat as Casella seems to think they would be.

Greg Zinone, founder of Pros. Vs. G.I. Joes, runs a nonprofit organization that allows active duty soldiers to play video games online against professional athletes and celebrities.

He says the nonprofit, which started about two and a half years ago, has been extremely well received. But getting the military on board initially was an uphill battle.

Zinone started out by going to the USO and teaming up with them to get soldiers online and play Madden against pro athletes.

"We started out with Madden because we thought that would be popular, but they wanted to play these war games," Zinone said. "We play a lot of Call of Duty now, Call of Duty is huge among the troops."

But initially, the USO was very hesitant to transition from Madden to Call of Duty, Zinone said. They didn't believe that soldiers would want to play the sorts of games that turn what are very real life and death moments into entertainment. Eventually Zinone convinced them that's what the troops wanted.

"Combat guys, all they want to play are war games," Zinone said.

The video games proved so popular with combat troops that the USO created Multi-Entertainment Gaming Systems or MEGS. These MEGS are two giant footlockers packed with consoles, controllers, video games and a projector that are dropped at forward operating bases for front line soldiers to use.

"They have absolutely nothing where they are stationed, but occasionally they get video games," Zinone said.

One combat soldier told Zinone that they like to play the games because it's not like they are "reliving what we did an hour or a day ago, it's just a game."

"Sometimes we're sick of being the good guys, we're the good guys all day," the soldier told Zinone. "When we are playing these games we want to be the bad guys too."

Maj. Gen. Casella's decision to not sell the game on bases is unlikely to have a big impact on Medal of Honor sales. Last year AAFES only sold $176 million worth of video games world wide, that's less than 2 percent of the total video games sold in the U.S. last year, according to the NPD Group.

But the impact it can have on soldiers, no matter where they stand on the decision, can be very real.

Zinone suggests that the Army and Air Force just keep the game behind the counter, if they're worried about it bothering some of their customers.

Not providing the game sends a bad message, he says.

"These soldiers come back from active duty and they're being told they can't buy a video game because they won't like it," he said. "That seems kind of pointless."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.