Like the action movies of the 1980s, mainstream video games view war through a pretty rose-tinted lens. Even when big budget military shooters make an effort with the narrative, war is regularly presented in games as a singular event: 'a war' rather than 'war'; something that parachutes you in for the opening chapter, runs you through 6-to-10 hours of tightly-wound, linear plot, and brings everything to an explosive, heroic conclusion.
The challenges we face as players are material and easily quantified: we have something to blow up, something to stop from being blown up, some specific person or persons to kill. When we're asked to engage emotionally, big shooters paint in broad strokes. Maybe they'll treat us to a long shot of an iconic landmark collapsing, or perhaps a main character will die, in slow-motion, and set to a quartet of tortuous violins, to telegraph that heartstrings are being tugged. But the experience, overall, is compartmentalised. The heroes head out, the heroes come back, and that's the end of the story.
Over the last console generation, that formula has come to define war games as a genre; entertainment products primarily concerned with goodies shooting baddies. Trying to use games to look at anything more than the glorified surface level of military service can be construed as insensitive, or a cynical use of shock for shock's sake. Whatever the reason, games that centre around soldiering have, in the main, failed to achieve much more than Rambo.
WILL Interactive, a developer based in Maryland, USA, is a welcome exception to that rule. It's a company that makes war games without the war: interactive, live action films with strong casts and TV-level production values that are designed to explore the challenges of war off the battlefield; not for entertainment, but to help new recruits, returning veterans and their families and employers deal with the psychological tolls of military service.
The remit is wide. WILL develops programs that teach players how to cope with and spot the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, deal with sexual harassment both at home and on base, how to reintegrate soldiers into civilian life and even how military families should manage their household budgets. The training is comprehensive.
"Our products actualise the many aspects of how humans really make daily decisions - including what we eat, how we spend our money, and the ways we interact with others," says Sharon Sloane, WILL Interactive's President and CEO. "For example, in 2009 WILL produced a program for the US Army called Beyond the Front. It became the centrepiece of Suicide Prevention Stand Down [an Army programme aimed at reducing the rate of suicides among its personnel], during which every Army soldier and civilian was required to play the program.
"Five months later I received a thank you letter from the then Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, in which he wrote, 'I am confident your work has saved lives.'"
WILL's programs guide players through different difficult scenarios and provide advice and instruction on how each problem should be dealt with most effectively, whether that's by a counsellor, a spouse, or the service person themselves. When you start one of its programs, you're introduced first to the key characters. Then, as each character's story plays out in short video clips, you're prompted to make key decisions about the best way to handle the situations they face - whether that's how a character suffering from PTSD should react to a nagging spouse, at what point a character's behaviour becomes self-destructive enough to warrant counselling, or even how best to convert your military experience into a CV that employers will find attractive when the soldier re-enters civilian life. WILL Interactive calls this system 'VEILS', or 'Virtual Experience Immersive Learning Simulators'.
"It's a long name," Sloane admits, "[but] it is quite descriptive of what we do. We immerse the users of our software in circumstances similar to those they will encounter in real life. Then we enable them to play the situations out before they actually live them. As users make decisions, they experience the near-term and long-term consequences of their choices."
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the VEILS programs is the opportunity to play out each scenario from multiple perspectives. The War Inside, a VEILS simulation that explores the effects of PTSD, begins with a post-deployment barbecue for its returning soldiers and their families. The party's a mess: Sergeant Brad Wheeler has an explosive argument with his wife, Jen, which finally tears their already frayed marriage apart. Meanwhile, Specialist Eddie Vogler suffers flashbacks to his deployment, breaks down, and leaves without telling anyone. It's a pointedly bleak look at some of the worst outcomes for soldiers who don't seek help for psychological trauma.
But once the scene concludes, you're invited to play through the weeks leading up to that barbecue again, both as Wheeler and Vogel, but also as Wheeler's wife. The War Inside is at pains to make the point that the demons that soldiers bring back from deployment don't just haunt them, but their families too.
"The War Inside is one of our most powerful programs on PTSD," says Sloane. "I have received numerous comments from service members and their spouses that the program helped to save their marriages, family relationships and even their own lives. In some cases it broke down the barriers that kept service members from talking about their problems. In others it made them feel less isolated. Some have sought and benefited from professional help [as a result]."
Playing through as Wheeler gives you a deeper look at the psychological state of a soldier recently returned to the real world, and the struggle they can face to reconnect. Just going to ￼get a slice of pizza is a challenge, as you wait in a queue behind another customer who is outraged that the pizza place doesn't have real Parmesan cheese. At home, Wheeler can't understand how Jen, his childhood sweetheart, can make such a fuss over unwashed laundry. When his toddler son, Miles, starts acting out, Wheeler doesn't have the parenting skills to deal with his behaviour. He shouts at him, sparking another argument with his wife.
But at each of these points of conflict, the game presents you with a decision to make that guides the story, not unlike the system used by Telltale in games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. After shouting at Miles, you have three decisions available: you can assert your authority, tell Jen you think she's spoiled Miles in your absence, or take a step back and admit that Miles needs time to adjust to the father he barely knows.
Sometimes the choices seem obvious on paper - more shouting and accusations probably aren't going to ameliorate the situation with Jen and Miles. But the program isn't a puzzle game, and it's not trying to trick you. It pauses time for you to make your choice, but what it's really doing is showing you that you that, in each situation, you do have a choice - in the hopes that when a similar situation arises in real life, the player will be primed to consider all their options, rather than reflexively flying off the handle and making things worse.
The real kick in the gut at the end of Sergeant Wheeler's story is that, even if you make the right choices, admit you need help and agree to see a counsellor, Jen leaves you anyway. If you want the 'happy' ending, you need to play through as Jen as well, seeing her husband come back from war a different man to when he left, and learning how to reconnect with him as much as the other way round. In this way, VEILS does more than might be expected from traditional forms of counselling: highlighting the difficulties not just for the affected parties but their significant others as well.
The second reason that WILL Interactive's stories are such a good fit for a video game experience is explored in the story of Specialist Vogler, who even at a summer barbecue is so disturbed by his experiences on deployment that he can't stop checking rooftops for snipers or mishearing loud noises as gunshots. Unlike Wheeler, Vogler isn't married and his family didn't support his decision to enlist. His PTSD is also markedly worse than Wheeler's, after seeing his best friend killed by an IED while on patrol. Wheeler's story is a parable about the effects that PTSD can have on a family. Vogler's is a warning against the dangers of suffering in silence.
Vogler's narrative confronts the stigma that exists in the military around seeking psychological help. One of the conversations you have in his shoes with his squadmates concerns another soldier who has been taken off active duty to be treated for PTSD. Instead of being supportive, the other soldiers mock him behind his back for the perceived weakness. Later, after you've made some good decisions as Vogler and are considering reaching out for help, you're given the chance to note down the number of the Army's OneSource helpline, but hesitate because your squadmates might see you do it. The prospect of losing the respect of his fellow soldiers, of being thought of as weak, makes Vogler falter.
￼The VEILS programs pull no punches. If you choose not to seek help, but tough it out alone, Vogler's situation goes from bad to worse. At first, Vogler finds an outlet in driving his motorbike too fast. But the more he refuses to confront his experiences, the more his life spirals out of control, running the gamut of alcohol abuse, physical violence, and losing himself in anonymous sex with strangers. The bad ending of the program concludes with his discharge from the Army. It's unlikely that you'd make the consistently bad decisions by accident, as in your typical adventure game, but the inclusion of these stark outcomes makes for an effective warning about the risks of riding out trauma alone, and the video game medium creates a safe way for soldiers worried about stigma to explore their issues.
The third important role that VEILS fills is to instruct service personnel in how seeking help might affect their careers down the line. In the program Standing Strong, you play as one of four characters in a story that explores how the Army deals with sexual harassment of both its military and civilian personnel. Playing as Specialist Christine Price, you are cast at different times as both witness to harassment (two male soldiers on deployment touching-up a civilian member of the canteen staff) and a victim (of two male soldiers stopped just short of rape).
What's so harrowing in the scene following the assault is how unsure Specialist Price is about her possible courses of action. Sitting on her bunk with two squad-mates, she's frightened that reporting the assault won't just affect the way the other soldiers on the base treat her day-to-day, but also that speaking up could negatively affect her career, perhaps even seeing her transferred off-base instead of the perpetrators receiving just punishment.
The VEILS system helps here is by pausing the action and putting all the relevant information up on the screen. It explains clearly the military's definition of sexual assault, the different ways that a witness and a victim can report it, whom to approach inside and outside the chain of command and what the probable consequences will be for the victim, witnesses and perpetrators. The processes are explained step-by-step, separating fact from fiction, and the player is advised that, whatever course of action they choose to take, counselling and medical treatment will be made available to them on request.
VEILS is not a magic bullet, but it is a non-stigmatised first step towards seeking help. Because it's essentially a video game, it's non-threatening and can be used without any perceived loss of face. But the potential benefits of 'games' like The War Inside and Standing Strong go further than combating stigma and providing links to support networks. In the same way that the military regularly uses simulators and software to train its troops for combat, programs like VEILS offer advantages over traditional, one-to-one counselling in cost, portability, accessibility and anonymity. They aren't replacements for professional help, but they are effective complements to it.
"Several of our programs have already been made a compulsory part of training," says Sloane. "In addition to Beyond the Front, a library of anti-terrorism programs WILL created immediately after 9/11, became mandatory training for commanders across all of the services. The predecessor to Standing Strong was also part of required training.
"We expect this will continue. As we are now delivering our programs on mobile devices as well as online, we anticipate our software will continue to be used around the world, 24/7/365 at the point of the spear—where and when it is most needed."
Free demos for a number of WILL Interactive's VEILS programs are available on its website.