Anyone who tells you war is hell isn’t being entirely truthful with you. War is hell, yes, but in its own way army life can be heaven. I don’t speak from the authoritative cold, lice-infested trench, but from what I can tell, for all the fear and death – war is pretty exciting. In a book recounting his experiences (and army “bullying”) in the first and second brutal Chechen wars, Moscow-born Arkady Babchenko (a city boy) remarked that he was already dead at the age of nineteen: The best and worst parts of his life had already been lived during the war. Sure he starved, saw boys die, saw friends die, moved charred bodies by the hundreds, ate dog meat, was beaten to a pulp by his superiors for months, and was shot at with bullets and artillery – but he also held that it was the freest and realest time of his life. He says this now in middle age as a law graduate and newspaper writer.
When a young Army Ranger was under heavy (but inaccurate) automatic fire, pinned down in the middle of a dusty street in Mogadishu, the first thing that came into his head was to get out and never come back – he would give anything to escape. In the next instant something stranger crossed his mind: He could not believe what he was doing and where he was – this was all something out of a movie. When he was interviewed for the book Black Hawk Down he would say it was at that moment that he had decided to reenlist.
This all seems contradictory to what we’re told; that war is the worst thing that could happen. Certainly it must be for the men and women who never come back. But it seems that it’s not uncommon for soldiers, in their post-combat reevaluation of the world, to find it to be the most exciting thing they ever did, or ever would do.
Maybe this is why so many young men like myself flock towards military shooters. Somewhere between the sleep deprivation and the dirt and the smell of death is the isolated thrill of firing a gun at something with a hundred other people. The moment when helicopter support swoops in and saves the day as you and your teammates fight a losing battle. The cold satisfaction of skirting enemy lines and popping people in the head with a sniper rifle. And those feelings, unlike the myriad others that accompany a battlefield, seem to be present in modern videogames.
It’s unsettling and politically incorrect to suggest these things are “fun”. Certainly in a scripted single-player environment one can be made to feel ashamed of their actions, but there is no remorse when it is player versus player. Bad teams are crushed and bad players are ridiculed and utterly decimated in play. Good players are conquered. There’s no mercy, and it’s nothing but a fun time being merciless towards armed opponents.
Unfortunately, if that’s our reaction, videogames are the last thing to blame (albeit, the easiest). Human nature doesn’t pretend to be politically correct – take your concerns up with evolution and the social environment. The fact that videogames provide a virtual platform for some degree of these actions is a godsend – America’s Army didn’t teach me to join the army; it just made me better at violent videogames.
But as is the case with secondhand experiences, I am aware these moments are fuzzy recreations of the real moments. I am not “immersed” like some grinning moron in a bad infomercial for some community college game design program. I welcome death, because it allows me a chance to finish my pizza before it gets cold. To say I am doing anything more than playing at being a soldier would be a gross exaggeration. But like the child who is caught and “executed” in a game of cops and robbers, or who leads a daring raid in a pinecone-throwing war, I am able to get more of an idea of what it must be like for someone to do this under more dire circumstances.
The trend I keep noticing in the gameplay moments I commit to memory is teamwork. I’ve been in my share of Hollywood gunfights with more explosions than people and constant death and respawning, and while they’re fun, they don’t seem to stick with me. It takes a situation where most everyone involved takes the next step to pretend that losing their virtual life really matters. It’s when everyone is effectively roleplaying as soldiers, working together as a team, that something clicks and a smile erupts on my face. A big knowing smirk that would probably confuse any detached onlookers. “Why is he looking so sly all of a sudden?” they would say. I would respond “I was just running behind a tank, protecting it from AT fire while it gave me cover.” They would look at me like I’m a fool, “And why is that so exciting?” I don’t know, not really. But I love it.
Playing soldier is my guilty pleasure. I’m not sure if “normal people” are aware of that – it’s not the violence that makes young men play these games. It’s the something else that we can’t quite explain. Somewhere a cognitive psychologist is jumping up and down waving his arms above his head, because he probably has an answer. But for now I’m comfortable admitting that I enjoy pretending to kill people in my spare time. Just don’t ask me why.
Nick Halme is a freelance writer who asserts he is too lethargic to be a gun wielding maniac.