December 20th, 1989 – Fort Clayton, Panama – 01:30 hours
The balloon has gone up – quite noisily. For the past half hour, we’ve been listening to explosions from Panama City as the bombing runs began on Noriega’s headquarters. My fellow Military Policemen and I are standing around, waiting to get our orders to move out. We know we’ll be securing the POW camp – we had spent the past week building it as a “training exercise” – but we don’t know when. We’ve taken shelter at the front of the barracks because a few Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) snipers have somehow gotten into the dense jungle behind us and have been taking potshots at us for the past hour. To pass the time, we’re saluting each other and yelling, “Sniper Check!” Some of my peers have begun writing on the camo coverings of their helmets – “Born To Kill” seems to be the motto de jour (thanks, Kubrick). As desperate as we seem to turn this into another Vietnam, it instead has the surreal absurdity of a Monty Python sketch. At any moment, I expect an officer in full drag to show up and begin dancing.
A few minutes later, we are told that some of the infantry guys are now in the jungle and have killed two snipers and are chasing a third. We all groan, because now we’re going to have to fall in and roll out instead of enjoying the fireworks coming from the bombing in the city.
One of my buddies turns to me to say something, but I never hear it. At that moment, a mortar round lands several barracks down from us. I’d like to think it was the force of the explosion that knocks us over, but the truth is, we all shriek like children and fall on our faces.
Someone near me begins screaming.
An Outsider’s Opinion?
I’m not, nor will I ever be, someone you’re liable to confuse with Rambo. What I experienced during the Invasion of Panama was the tiniest slice of Hell. I could count on one hand the number of times I came under direct fire. I’m not a battle-scarred veteran, not a hardened soldier – I wouldn’t even qualify as a dependable Boy Scout. But I do know what it’s like to be in a firefight. With all respect to the superb Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series, no graphics card will ever be powerful enough to truly simulate the experience.
It is misleading and poor practice for anti-gaming activists – who usually have neither experience with actual combat nor the games they’re accusing of being “combat simulators” – to make any comparison between what it’s like to push some buttons and “kill” some pixels versus what it’s like to hold a real firearm and shoot at another person. Even the most realistic of games, arcade games with plastic light guns cast from real weapons, fall woefully short of an actual firearm – there’s no kick, the weapons are far too light, the act of reloading is done automatically and you’ll never experience a weapon jam.
That and the fact that getting shot doesn’t really hurt … .
The loudest critics of games tend to be those who have never really played them – at least, not with an open mind. Their research into games usually consists of quoting the most violent scenes in the game that they themselves have only heard about and never actually experienced first-hand. Taken out of context and with selected description, it’s quite easy to horrify people. If I described how one game allowed me to cut into someone’s torso and carve out one of their organs, you’d think I was talking about something produced by Rockstar instead of Atlus’ Trauma Center: Under the Knife.
It’s not that criticizing games for their violent content is a problem to me; I’m more than willing to agree that there are games that should be kept out of the hands of children – just so long as you’re not infringing on my right to play those games. The problem I have with most gaming critics is that they’re all too willing to throw up comparisons of the games with actual combat. Perhaps their intent is to demonstrate how horrific experiences in the games can be, but to me – and a number of veterans – what they’re instead saying to us is that the sum of our experiences can be reduced to Dolby Digital Sound and the latest Unreal Engine.
Mechanics vs. Motivation
There are a number of games where the mechanics of aiming a weapon are extremely accurate. Even if you ignore the crosshairs, a lot of games give you the concept of “lining up your sights” and what a “good” target is supposed to look like. But is that enough to teach someone to kill?
According to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a retired Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor, yes. Grossman goes on at great length in a number of his writings about Michael Carneal. Carneal is the 14-year-old boy that committed the Paducah, Kentucky, school shootings in 1997 that left three students dead and another five wounded. He opened fire on a group of students in a prayer circle, hitting four of them in the head, one in the neck, and three in the upper torso. Grossman points out the incredible amount of skill this demonstrates; skill that this 14-year old could only have learned by playing videogames.
“I trained a battalion of Green Berets, the Texas Rangers, the California Highway Patrol, the Australian Federal Police, and numerous other elite military and law enforcement organizations, and when I told them of Michael Carneal’s achievement they were simply amazed […] His superhuman accuracy, combined with the fact that he ‘stood still,’ firing two-handed, not wavering far to the left or far to the right in his shooting ‘field,’ and firing only one shot at each target, are all behaviors that are completely unnatural to either trained or ‘native’ shooters, behaviors that could only have been learned in a video game.” [*]
Carneal’s accuracy was amazing, there is no doubt about that. And perhaps he did learn such accuracy in the arcade (although having spent many more years in arcades than Carneal and yet not qualifying my first time with my rifle in boot camp, I’d be willing to debate the value of “arcade learning” in real-world shooting any day). But focusing on the mechanics of shooting taught by videogames ignores the much more important subject that should be the focus of any inquiry into violence: Where did the subject learn the motivation to commit such acts?
The mechanics of aiming – especially for pistols – is not particularly difficult. And I hate to break it to Grossman, but “headshots” aren’t an invention of videogames. Carneal’s motivation for that horrific killing spree should be the focus of Grossman’s papers, not the fact that someone might learn to shoot from a videogame. The fact that Carneal targeted students in a “prayer circle” – one of them his ex-girlfriend – has more to do with that case than how much time Carneal spent in an arcade.
Grossman himself focuses on how unbelievable Carneal’s marksmanship is. Are we to believe that anyone playing an arcade game is automatically better qualified with a weapon than highly-trained “Green Berets, the Texas Rangers, the California Highway Patrol, the Australian Federal Police and numerous other elite military and law enforcement organizations?” The things that a videogame teaches about combat – at least a good game – focus on using cover and concealment, working as a unit, carefully clearing out a building without exposing yourself to enemy fire – things that involve thinking and problem-solving. Being a superb shot in a game does not translate into being a sniper in the real world. During my enlistment, after the initial nervousness of boot camp, I qualified at all my units as an expert with the M16, .45 and 9mm pistols, and M60 machine gun. Yet in most videogames, I’m lucky to get one “headshot” per several hundred shots.
Old Soldiers WASD
When I decided I was going to write this piece, I sat down with my father-in-law and talked about it. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and he and I often talk about our respective experiences. His experiences are vastly deeper and more frightening than my own. During one night on guard duty, his position was overrun by Viet Cong. He called in an air strike on his own location and survived only through a bizarre stroke of Fate.
I showed him some different games to get his opinion on the authenticity of combat in games versus reality. When he tried to play them, the first thing we agreed was that playing first- person shooter games with a joystick sucks – “thumbs are too twitchy to aim with.” We talked about some of the game scenes and how some critics claim games are too authentic, and how games teach kids to kill. While we played Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault, I told him how some people say games are too much like real combat.
“Really?” He looked down at his joystick, then up at me. “You know, when I was young, they said it was Rock and Roll corrupting us. Probably the same people doing the bitching, too. But this … this game, teaching someone what combat’s like?” He laughed.
“Might as well give them Pac Man.”
Shawn “Kwip” Williams is the founder of N3 (NeenerNeener.Net), where he toils away documenting his adventures as the worst MMOG and pen-and-paper RPG player in recorded history.