Long hours, hard work, crap weather. Then there's the boredom, the long hours of boredom, followed by the bursts of heart-pounding adrenaline. This is war.
And it's video games that keep many of those serving in the world they've left behind. This is video games as a way to stay connected, a way to stay sane, a way to make friends when friends matter most and even a way to feel the love of a spouse left behind. They alleviate boredom in the bunkers, on the battlefield and even in commando centers overlooking silos stacked with nuclear missiles.
For much of the last century, troops played a few hands of poker or checkers. These days, it's video games. And why wouldn't it be? It's a job like any other, but just one with different stress from your typical 9 to 5.
Last week, Kotaku asked members of the armed forces to recall their gaming memories and to put into words what gaming means to them. The response was overwhelming — and not limited to the U.S. armed forces. The servicemen and women were insightful, polite and respectful. And while I sadly will not be able to recount every single story I heard, the sense that I got was those in the service want civilians to know just how important video games are.
These are their stories.
"When I went to basic training, the most frequent conversations we had other than women we would like to get with was video games," says Nick. What games they were going to buy, what games they recommended and what games they thought were utter crap. Gaming was and is the lingua franca.
During basic training, Nick was in lockdown for sixteen weeks, with no way to get news from the outside world besides letters and the rare phone call. "One of the guys in my room got pages from a Game Informer that had the write up on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," says Nick. They weren't allowed to have magazines, so right before the drill sergeant saw the pages, his buddy did what anyone would: he hid them in his underpants and smuggled them back to the room. The guys poured over those precious pages countless times, reading and re-reading them. Says Nick, "It seems silly but when you lose a smart phone, internet and TV any bit of news is like gold."
With basic training done and dusted, Nick is currently preparing to be deployed in Afghanistan. "One of the major things everyone is bringing is either their Xbox 360, PS3 or a laptop powerful enough to play games," he says (Nick is bringing all three as well as his DS and PSP). The guys in his unit told him that during down time, all everyone does is either sleep, go to the gym or play video games when they aren't on a mission. "They say deployments are long stretches of intense boredom filled with moments of insanity," Nick adds. "During the intense boredom video games are key."
"As you probably know, combat zones are intensely boring," starts Adam. Long hours on patrol broken up by a few hours of contact, or shooting. "I was the gunner of an AAV during my active duty stints and had to always be scanning the area around me," says Adam. To stay awake, he'd talk to the driver or the other grunts via the intercom in his helmet.
"Being from all over the country, the only thing most of us had in common was video games and the Marines," he says. So that meant arguing the finer points of Super Mario Bros. technique or debating Genesis versus Super Nintendo or reminiscing about the old Sierra "Quest" game puzzles. "At one point, during a 40 hour road march, someone got into a shouting match over firing rates of a weapon in SOCOM," says Adam. "Almost all Marines argue over, and sharply criticize, how realistic weapons are in games."
Adam brought his trusty Gameboy Advance with him, noting that it got passed around "more than a band groupie". The grunts debated whether the Zelda series was better than the Mario series, and the GBA gobbled up sixty batteries in no time flat. Thirteen grunts and 3 crewmen were packed in that AVV for three straight months.
"Combat itself was somewhat like a video game for me," says Adam. "Our weapons can shoot over 1000m, accurately. I would see a distant flash, sight in, press the triggers, and no more flash. I barely saw anyone from either side get injured or killed. Call of Duty 4 actually had a more profound effect on me, because it made me stop and think about what happened to those on the receiving end of my weapons. I was not expecting that reaction at all and it wasn't easy to deal with. It made playing any shooter hard, for a while."
"My wife and I met while we were both in the Air Force in 1992, and got married in 1993," says John. Their first date was in the small town surround their base. Then started off at a movie, but ended up in an arcade. They spent more time in the arcade. "Super Street Fighter 2 was the game, and my wife played a pretty mean Blanka," he continues. "We would spend more time on dates in arcades as we dated." And when they shipped out, they continued gaming on base and off. "Long distance was expensive back then," says John, "so we could not call our family to whine."
And there were the long hours, the loneliness. "Being newly married we had to work our stress out ourselves." Samurai Shodown, says John, helped with that. "I am pretty sure if it were not for the video games there is a good chance we would not be together at this time," says John, now a proud father of four. "Between it being a good way to bond, something to talk about and way to work out our frustrations and boredom it kept us from the usual young couple activities of fighting, insecurity and getting in trouble."
When Kyle arrived in Kuwait, he and his fellow troops crashed in large tents that housed around 50 cots. Everyone either had a PSP or a DS. "Every plug in the tents had extension cord plugged into extension cord plugged into extension cord just to give everyone enough places to charge their system," he recalls.
But once they got into Iraq, they were set up in compartmentalized housing units (CHUs), which were basically trailers that housed two per room. All the power was 220V, so the first thing the troops would do was buy some shoddy Chinese or Russian transformer to switch the output to 110V so they could hook up their consoles. "Once plugged in, the only hope was that transformer didn't set the room on fire while you were sleeping and or burn out your precious video game system."
The rooms were wired for internet, but the speed was slower than a dialup, and they plugged their consoles in. And when they weren't waiting five days for the latest episodes of Lost to download from iTunes, they were gaming. "The post exchange on base carried just about the worst selection of video games ever — they always seemed to have an abundance of Jumper: Griffin's Story for 360," says Kyle. Until one day, when they got Rock Band, and everything changed.
"The gamers I have seen who don't game primarily on FPSs, war games, and other combat centric titles are usually the people who tell me they don't really want to be in the military," says a Air Force serviceman currently deployed in the Middle East. Take his dorm buddy, who plays Eve Online religiously, seeming to forgo other games altogether. "He's anti-military and never wanted to join, but he needed money for college," the serviceman continues. "He's not planning on reenlisting either... Anecdotal evidence, yes, but I'd be really curious to look into the theory on a wider scale."
This is speculation, the Air Force serviceman admits, but he wonders if maybe for a lot of gaming military members, their games of choice to themselves often mean a chance to live out their glorified combat they were seeking when they joined. Continuing, he says, "The average military member will never actually live out that exciting, epic firefight, the moment of a decisive battle, the heat of combat, or the thrill of knowing you just outwitted your mortal enemy and crushed them beneath your strategic might and skill, so gaming definitely offers a way of living out that fantasy. Call it a strange form of escapism?"
Dan was in the Navy. "A lot of people look at the Navy like it doesn't do much or it's not as hard as being in the Marines or something but it's difficult and stressful regardless," he's quick to point out. Spending 75 percent of the year in a 900-foot, floating metal box in the middle of nowhere sucks. According to Dan, "So gaming very quickly becomes the activity to stay sane." But Dan and his buddies went one step further. They created a secret gaming room with his buddies, and wired it for online play.
"We wanted an awesome gaming setup," he says. "We wanted full games, not just 4 players. We wanted a nice place to chill out and either watch or play on a good size TV." So Dan and his buddies carried an old, enormous TV straight up six decks. The set-up they created was piping Halo multiplayer through 24/7, timed so that whenever somebody was hitting their break, they could hop online for some quick gaming on their encrypted set-up.
"Gaming on that boat wasn't just to pass time, it was the only sense of being back home any of us had, it was amazing for moral," says Dan. "I personally became friends with a lot of people I probably wouldn't ever have without that huge LAN."
"Memories that stand out?" asks Joseph. "Opening the door of my truck on my last mission in Iraq to take a picture as we passed a Humvee, only to see a Lieutenant playing his PSP in the back."
Almost every member of his square had a PSP, which most of them bought them while stranded in Northern Iraq during a July sandstorm.
"Games were just a way to normalize the experience, and make our down time feel more like a gathering of friends than one of coworkers."
John J. Dick is best known as the voice of Serious Sam. But in 1991, he was serving in Iraq. "I would say that a big part of Serious Sam's character is drawn from my experiences in the military, yeah," says Dick. "I was kind of a smart ass when I was in the service."
This was 1991, years before lighting fast internet and HD consoles, but when multiplayer meant being in the same room. "We didn't have any televisions, much less consoles or computers," says Dick. "I was limited to the Game Boy." Several of his buddies had Game Boys, and they'd trade games and play multiplay via the link cable.
"I was in a forward platoon, so we didn't have much access to the PX," he says. "Whenever we did make a supply run, though, there was a group of us that would always make a beeline for the gaming section before anything else."
In 2008, this serviceman brought an entire Rock Band set with him to Afghanistan, taking it across the entire country in a heavy duty storage box. He and his troops met up on Christmas that year with a bottle of scotch and a handle of Jim Beam and spent the night playing Rock Band. "That was a much better Christmas that it had any right to be," the serviceman tells Kotaku, asking to remain anonymous.
By the next year, he'd figured out how to stuff a 32-inch Samsung television into one of his gear boxes. "We were living in tents and sleeping on cots, but by god we had hi-def 4-player Call of Duty," he says. "I laugh when people on Kotaku say the military guys probably don't like shooting games because they do it in real life. This is absolutely not true. It can generally be said that military guys will enjoy any competitive game." The thing to remember, he says, is that games stay "inside the base." He says, "I've never seen someone playing a DS on mission or something stupid like that."
But it's not only the competition that games offer, but the solace. "One time after some guys died in an IED I played Peggle for 3 hours straight when I couldn't sleep."
There was a joke among Peacekeeper missileers," a former ICBM combat crew commander tells Kotaku. "How many blue indicator lights are there in the Peacekeeper ICBM Launch Control Center (LCC)? The answer was two: one on the Survivable Low Frequency Communications System (SLFCS) and the other on the PlayStation 2."
The Survivable Low Frequency Communications System was a comm system designed to transmit coded messages during and after a nuclear attack, the former commander says. "The PlayStation 2 was designed to give missileers something to do while we waited for a nuclear attack. Electronic devices were forbidden in the LCC, but many missileers would smuggle PS2s in to help fight off the creeping boredom of the long nuclear alerts."
"The PlayStation 2 was designed to give missileers something to do while we waited for a nuclear attack."
Once during the dead of winter while underground and on nuclear alert, the former commander fired up Metal Gear Solid 3, listening to some long-winded Kojima dialogue, while his partner snoozed at the rack. He recalls his black PS2 bathed in the green glow from the lamps assuring him that all of his GM-118A Peacekeeper ICBMs are still there and ready for launch at a moment's notice. He sipped his seventh Mountain Dew, feet up on the arm-monitor panel as he then moved the DualShock 2 in the palm of his hands. He cussed how he couldn't pause the damn cutscenes when another rabbit set off the outer zone security alarm at one of the launch sites. But screw it, he let his partner sleep part of his own sleep shift, and when he finally hit the hay, he could hear his work partner firing up Vice City.
Says the former commander, "I love Metal Gear Solid 3."
Before Eric joined the Air Force, he spent two years at GameStop, working in retail. He was buying games every month and playing everyday. "Now I only play games every couple days, and when I do play them its only for short periods of time," he says. "I have not been able to sit down and play a game in its entirety."
Eric's got a lot on his mind — he's his squad's Physical Training Leader and must see that everyone in his squad passes their PT test. "After living in the dorms for sometime I do see some people that just strictly play video games. They get off duty and go right to their games, and it has taken a toll. A majority of males that fail their PT tests are the ones that strictly play video games."
Some military wives send cookies, this one sends video games. She says she's the one who turned her husband into a gamer. "When he left for deployment this last round, there was a very silly –- but touching –- moment that I will never forget," she says. "I let him take my copy of Fallout: New Vegas." Her husband was shocked, and he asked her a million times if she was sure it was okay. He knew she hadn't finished it, but she assured him over and over again: I can finish this when you get back home.
"He says playing the games I let him take with him remind him of me, and of home," she says. "Every man on that ship could tell you the same thing. Games remind them of being home, the days when they're at sea for 90-plus days without hitting a single port, it gives them something to get lost in. Something to enjoy. Something that isn't contained on a 500 ft metal box."
The stakes might be higher and the circumstances hardly ideal, but the rationale, the motivation and the desire to game is the same. Video games offer all of us experiences and entertainment, but there's also the comfort they provide, the escapism of a good book or movie. But for those in the military, video games aren't simply unwinding or passing the time, video games are more. They're a lifeline to everything they've left behind, and, for some, everything they thought the service was going to be, but isn't. And yet, they can stand as a reminder of memories and experiences they'd rather leave in the past, or they can simply serve as a place to hang out, have fun and play. Just like for everyone else.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images.