I learned how to be a man in the 75th Ranger Regiment, but I’ve never held a real gun. I’ve had fights with my commanding officers; I’ve sniped my comrades and been shot in the head by Corporal Machi; and I’ve learned more about life while playing a videogame than I might have in school. I owe it all to the roles I’ve played in a fake military unit.

Within the already small community of realism players, there are groups of gamers that take the game a step further. Realism units set themselves apart from other clans playing under a tag; These units bear actual military unit names such as the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the 28th Infantry Division, the 9th SS, a German unit, and the 10th Mountain Division.”Realism” gameplay rules emphasize authentic weapon choices and real-world combat tactics in a first person shooter. We play using Valve’s Day of Defeat: Source, but realism servers exist for many popular games. The match rules which we play under are simple: two teams attack or defend their native side of the map. Each combatant has one life; you aren’t allowed to respawn. One life, one objective: Eliminate the other team.

In most realism units, there is a clear chain of command. A dedicated command staff of officers oversees the day to day operations of servers and websites, and makes the decisions that affect a unit as a whole. Non-Commissioned Officers deal with the lower ranks’ concerns, police the servers as administrators, and try to recruit new members. And last but not least, there is the Private, the relatively new member who acts as the recruiter, the student, and sometimes, a pain in the neck.

I started my path in realism gaming in late December 2005. I was just getting over a turbulent clan experience in Counter-Strike Source and long-term relationship trouble with my girlfriend. I was somewhat broken by these events, trying to find a distraction in which to pour my newly acquired free time and effort.

After purchasing DoD, I played a few times on the 5th Ranger Battalion’s fairly popular server during the later week of my high school’s winter break. The members of the realism unit overseeing the server were very kind, had great senses of humor, and, damn, could they shoot. The unit was the 5th Ranger Battalion (now known as the 75th Ranger Regiment). Late in January of 2006, I was accepted into the unit and started Basic training in the 25th class since the founding of the unit. I was optimistic and believed that after Basic, it’d take me a year to make it to Captain.

Basic training wasn’t what you would think it would be from seeing movies like Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead. The instructors taught us recruits small group tactics, such as battle formations like staggered and straight, line and column, covering fire, bounding for cover, etc. The drills were open to the entire unit, not just the new recruits, and sometimes there were no spots available if you logged on too late. There were rare occurrences of public discipline as portrayed in the movies. Officers would not slap or hit a private, but the NCOs would. They would call your name out and tell you to shut up or stop. At times, an unruly private or NCO would be booted and given a talking to by a higher rank. This usually consisted of being sat down like a child and told that you were bad.

It was not every day that someone was disciplined for infractions. The discipline is there for the new soldiers who were learning the rules and troublemakers like myself who always bent or broke them. The rules are laid out in a handbook that was, at one point, twenty pages long. Members are required to play at least twice a week on the public servers, checking the forums at least once a day for updates and messages from your squad leader. You are also responsible for going to drills every Sunday and Thursday, or, if unable to attend, you are responsible for posting a drill excuse on your behalf. You are to follow the chain of command at all times and respect those above you. There were also “standing orders,” such as “refrain from using 1337 speak on forums.”

Many different commanding officers attempted to tame me, each with little success. Then, I was given the chance to learn from someone with whom I could connect. Joseph was a kind-hearted man in his early 60s who started out as a private under my command; However, his tenure in the U.S. Army’s Medical Corp and ROTC had taught him how to drop the hammer when it was needed. A few months after Basic, I began a bumpy road of promotions and demotions. My brash attitude toward the rules and a knack for profanity warranted many attempts to curtail my behavior. I was issued demerits, a form of administrative discipline that restricts privileges. If you exceeded three demerits, you were dishonorably discharged from the unit, unable to ever return. My attitude was not only a social problem, it caused riffs on the battlefield as well. My tactics were savage and cunning. When my ruthlessness didn’t work as planned, I would blame someone else’s lack of skill for my failure. I wanted to win at all costs and this attitude, though I didn’t realize it at the time, alienated my peers for the passing thrill of a hollow victory.

Joseph’s mentoring style was subtle. He didn’t openly approach me with the same old story. His frankness made me slowly start to come to him. One day, when I was a Private and he was my superior, he pulled me aside and asked to speak with me.

“Private Branch, you are quite a pain in the butt, you know that?” Joseph described an infraction that I had committed against an NCO during a weekend play session. “I am very disappointed in you. You are smart and I think you have what it takes to be an NCO again someday, but you have to stop the doo doo crap.”

“Yes, First Sergeant, I understand. I’m sorry,” I said, wanting this to be over.

“Nick,” he said softly. I was amazed that this utterance affected me as much as it did. When you are always referred to by your last name, being addressed by your first can have a profound effect. “You can do that with everyone else, but I’m here to help you. I’m doing this because, if you’re like this in the game, how do you expect to ever hold down a position when you tell your boss how to do his job? You’re a good kid, and the work you’ve done is great, but you can’t keep letting this happen. Let’s look at some of your positives, shall we?” He began to list off the merits that I had earned, the few matches in which I made a difference during a round. It was sobering because I didn’t think anyone really noticed my efforts.

There were also skills that could only be hammered into my personality over numerous realism weekends, attempting to keep a team of twelve jittery sixteen-year-olds in line, all while trying to keep a fun and healthy environment. We may play soldier, but if you roleplay the maniac drill sergeant too harshly, you can quickly become like the one guy at the weekly D&D game who takes it too far. I changed under Joseph’s mentorship. A year passed, and I learned how to deal with leadership problems. I slowly started to apply things that the unit taught to my daily life: speaking with authority figures, keeping a strict schedule, respect even in the face of stupidity and neglect. These sorts of things are common sense to some, but I learned them in the 75th Ranger.

Eventually, I was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. In that position, my superiors asked me to deal with Private Johnson, who had been intimidating others and undermining them on the battlefield. I found Johnson in a channel with some other NCOs. I asked if I could talk to him privately, and set up a secure channel.

After he asked why he was needed, I began my metaphysical assault by letting out a disapproving breath. “Private Johnson. I understand that you had some problems during a scrim with a few of the others.”

“Not that I remember, Sarge,” he said quickly. It seemed that he was prepared for this conversation.

“Don’t give me that. I’ve got six PM’s sent within 20 minutes about it. All the same story. You walked in and started assaulting these guys with insults and sarcasm. They told you what to do. They told you how to do it, and you ignored it all. Seriously, Johnson, what the fuck were you thinking?”

The channel was quiet. I began to wonder if Johnson had left. I knew that I had stepped over my bounds and reprised my role as the mean NCO, the one people had whispered about. Then he responded:

“Sarge, I’m sorry. I’ve just been going through a rough patch right now. The rest of the guys just weren’t playing. They were talking and messing around and not even trying.”

“Johnson,” I said. “I understand that it can be frustrating at times, but just because they weren’t playing to your expectations, you flipped out on them? That’s grade A horsedung right there. And you’re trying to feed it to me like I was born yesterday.”

After that, Johnson told me everything. He was frustrated and he just wanted to win the match. Something with his girlfriend had distracted him and he acted out of spite that night. I can’t say I blame him, four months before I might have been doing the same thing. “Sarge, I dunno. I was just frustrated and angry and – ”

“You needed to vent, I know. Look, Send a PM to the guys on that team, or catch them on Ventrilo and apologize. Figure shit out with your girl, get yourself some, and come back happy and ready to go. That’s an order.”

He laughed. “Hey Sarge, thanks for that. I really needed someone to talk to.”

“Nah, I understand,” I said before pulling out a tactic from the old man. “Look, Jake, I’m here for whatever comes to pass. This is my job. Now get outta here.”

I didn’t tell him that in this unit, it’s not about how bad you foul up or how horrible you are at the game, it’s about how you can get back up. Things hurt, they will sting like hell, but, as long as you take your lumps, you will grow a little each time.

I didn’t express this sentiment because I knew that, if he has the heart to keep trudging on, he won’t need to hear it from me. Sooner or later, playing in this fake military unit over the internet will either break him in two or make him a man. Sometimes people take what we are at face value, a bunch of nerds playing soldier. The truth is that the roles that we play in the 75th Ranger Regiment are as valid as the roles that we play in real life: supporting friend, benevolent leader, proud parent, and even village idiot.

Playing in this unit, as we tell our stories of pain and heartache along with our stories of victory and happiness, we become comrades and friends. “Realism” may have been the hook for me, but the people that I’ve met, the stories and battles that we’ve shared, is what keeps me logging in every weekend.

So as I sat alone in the channel recently departed by Johnson, I knew that if he can reach that level, if he can come to grips with the roles that we play, then he will realize that camaraderie is worth more than all the XP, Kill to Death Ratios, or match wins in the world.

Nick Branch can be found evolving in small coastal caves across the Mediterranean, but you can also find him over at his blog, The Branches.

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