War is Hell. Not the flaming, burning, lava-pit Hell with devils and demons cackling maniacally while poking you in the tuckus with their pitchforks. No, war is more like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, having it roll back down, and pushing it up again. It is tedium, ad nauseum: Fly the mission, rinse, repeat. And for every mission, there is an inordinate amount of logistical planning involved so all the right materiel is available, including planes and tanks, sure, but also just the right amount of televisions and MREs (meals ready to eat).
There have been a huge number of PC and console titles in the last few years that purport to be the most realistic depictions of war ever seen. While they do give the average player a glimpse of what it takes to be in America’s Army, why do these games ignore what takes up 90% of the army’s time and effort?
“I’ll tell you why they don’t include logistics and crap in the videogame world, ’cause its time consuming and boring as s**t,” Capt “Otis” Lehto, a U.S. Air Force pilot said in a typical military tone. “All Hollywood sees in war is the cool and dangerous part of the fighting, not the huge logistical effort that backs each war.” Capt. Otis is currently flying F-16s, better known as the Viper, on missions in Iraq with his squadron, “Triple Nickel,” 555 FS. As you read this, he is on the front lines of the War on Terror, which another pilot, Capt. Fekete, describes as, “Nothing but fun in the sun, it’s almost like spring break … with mortar attacks.”
When depicting the realities of war, real-time strategy (RTS) games are a little better than their shooter counterparts. “In Age of Empires and Command and Conquer, you do have logistics, you have to get resources and make sure you are building stuff in the correct order,” Capt. Lehto said. The resources, however, are extremely simplified. You need X amount of gold and Y amount of lumber to construct building Z. In real war, it is never so simple. “You’ve seen the amount of stuff they have here to keep this army going? It sucks,” Capt. Lehto explained. “No one buys a war game to save logistic lines and that sort of stuff.”
Is there any game which encompasses any kind of realistic logistics? “I have seen some level of troop happiness in games like Evil Genius … In there you have to make sure you have enough damn bunkbeds and TVs for entertainment and crap like that,” admitted Capt. Lehto, but it’s different when you have to make sure “each person has three cans of permethrin and Deet [two kinds of insecticides]. That’s just the pains of the real world and a pain in the ass for war-fighting in general. Why would I want to have to deal with that stuff for entertainment?”
Even though games often do not accurately show what goes on behind the battles, the action is pretty close to what it feels like to be in the thick of war. The U.S. military uses videogame technology to train and recruit its soldiers. It’s plausible to suppose that playing commercial strategy games would give soldiers an advantage in battle. For example, using combined arms in games like Warcraft III and Age of Empires is extremely important. One does get a sense of tactics from playing RTS titles and concepts like flanking and controlled retreats are just as useful to understand with a squad of men as it is with a squad of orc Shamans and troll Berserkers. Right?
“People that played videogames did have better SA,” Capt. Lehto explained. SA means “situational awareness,” a military term which could correspond to a driver being aware of the other cars around him. “They were trained to multi-task two and three things at a time and process different levels of information. That is one improvement.”
Capt. Otis Lehto is a fighter pilot, so the games he knows best are those that involve flying huge machines. “I played TIE Fighter, those games were fun, I don’t think they taught me any tactics. People are smart and are going to maximize the game’s abilities. So if it’s different at all from the regular world, then they are going to learn different tactics.” It’s possible that one might even learn bad habits based on the game’s poor physics engine, habits which would result in a failed mission or a fatality. “Like in Crimson Skies, with a tough plane, I would just ram the guy. That’s not gonna help you in real life unless you are a kamikaze.”
But there are definitely techniques used in flying that are found and improved upon in games. Capt Lehto said, “what [games] did help was gun aiming technique; getting in plane, having low aspect shots to help and shooting in front of the guy and letting him go through the bullets. I would have to say someone that played Crimson Skies a lot would be better at shooting the gun in the Viper.”
So, playing videogames could actually make you a better fighter? Otis offers this one example, “I had a buddy in Korea, he would play Falcon 4.0 all the time, and he was one of the best pilots I knew. He definitely had a leg up from playing that game all the time. I just didn’t like it, I thought it was boring.”
Using games to simulate wars and battles is an ancient idea, just look at a chessboard for proof. Technology has brought war games beyond the abstract, showing players a much closer representation of what action in war is like. Are computer strategy games preparing a generation of Enders, supreme tactical geniuses formed by rigorous simulation training? If so, it will be a logistical nightmare when the bugs do attack. Every kid will be able to shoot a gun at the Buggers, but there won’t be enough toilet paper in the barracks and our race will die from dysentery.
Greg Tito is a playwright and standup comic residing in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently splitting time between World of Warcraft, a new D&D 3rd edition campaign and finishing one of his many uncompleted writing projects. He also blogs semi-regularly at http://onlyzuul.blogspot.com/.