One of the finer pleasures of being a journalist who spends too much time in the depths of PC gaming is the number of encounters you have with the platform’s various subcultures. Over the past five years, one in particular has fixed me with a mixture of dread and amazement: It’s the community that surrounds the hardcore soldier sim.

There are plenty of clubs, teams and clans dedicated to gun games, but the soldier sim community has something rather more formidable going on behind its IP addresses. While Counter-Strike teams practice their enclosed takedowns for hour after hour, and the internet squaddies of World War II Online get all regimented to bomb a virtual Germany, they nevertheless seem like mere foot soldiers in the arena of digital combat. Those who have truly graduated, those who might think of themselves as the special forces of the gun-game milieu, are those who immerse themselves in multiplayer games of Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault.

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While all the other gun games could be argued to have some semblance of sport, with their leagues, ladders and championships, the Armed Assault and Flashpoint communities aren’t interested in competition. They’re interested in the pursuit of virtual war. These titles are very much simulation, and the communities’ attitude demonstrate that fact. “There’s often a need for hierarchy,” says my contact, a dedicated Flashpoint and Armed Assault player who has relayed tales of online military actions to me many times over the years. “Many of the guys in here have been in the army, or want a militaristic experience. Most gamers find it quite a dry experience.”

This should come as no surprise to those people familiar with the soldier sims from Czech developer Bohemia Interactive Studio, since they’ve long been the most complex and unforgiving combat simulations available anywhere in gaming. Bohemia has dedicated themselves to creating games that make realistic, squad-based combat their primary goal. From the helicopters’ avionics to the naturalistic behavior of the ambient wildlife found in the game world, Bohemia’s attention to detail is astounding. This means they also create games that are daunting, even terrifying to the average gamer.

What’s surprising is the rigor with which the communities themselves select and train recruits for their virtual wars. “Some teams will require you to beat the game environment with only bits of the GUI,” says my soldier sim insider. “Applicants can use the in-game compass, read maps and have to navigate to a set destination in a certain amount of time.” That, of course, is simply the initial test. “What matters to most of the team leaders is the amount of time dedicated to the clan itself. If you can’t go on maneuvers, then you’re probably not going to be on the team.”

That’s right: These electronic soldiers practice their tactics before playing out missions within the game world. They need hierarchy, but also battle discipline. Like a real army, they train up in the game world using practice runs, assault courses and wargames. “First we’ll have a briefing, with a rundown of what we’re going to be doing. The commander probably assigns people with their numbers at that point, so that each player knows their number and can respond to questions and commands on TeamSpeak without the commander getting confused. It’s also about odd and even fire teams, classic military tactics.”

Understanding how military tactics work in the game world is what the pre-campaign maneuvers are all about. The soldier sim clans will school their troops in orientation, put them on firing ranges to practices with rifles and drill complex activities such as getting in and out of helicopters in the field. “Some teams will try to work like particular military units from the real world,” says my contact. “My lot use some specific British military tactics, such as where our numbers are like the numbers of a clock face when we’re in defended position. A commander knows exactly who is where, and you know who you’re relying on to cover you.”

The conflicts themselves are usually large cooperative games of up to 30 players operating against a series of events scripted by one of their own number. “Most clans will have a couple of players who create missions or even linked campaigns,” says my contact. “Some of them are quite gamey, because we’re sort of roleplaying as soldiers. You might learn how to deal with something as the military would deal with it, such as maintain a checkpoint in counterinsurgency ops.”

He went on to tell me about typical missions his team would face. “We see perhaps one new mission a month, usually designed by one of the clan members. Once we’ve had a bit of time to practice with the squad we’ll go in.” These missions can be all kinds of military scenarios and will usually include everything from the units forming up at their base camp to hitting an objective many miles away. “We might have one mission that is essentially just us pulling out of a town that is going to be overrun by enemies. The objectives can be defending convoys, clearing ambushes or whatever. And we’re not always successful.”

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The single-life-per-game dynamic of both Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault means that once a player is out of the game, he’s out for the hours that may be left. These are no 20-minute sessions; this will be an entire evening or afternoon of conflict. The game itself can either deploy AI or allow a kind of semi-people situation, where real people play against each other, often in asymmetric groupings. Some clans, my contact told me, would employ their less regular members as insurgents for their missions. If they hadn’t made the practice sessions they might not be able to do what the commander tells them and are therefore better suited to an enemy role in a hybridized part-AI, part human mission.

The extremely versatile options that Bohemia has delivered for both Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault means attendance is limited only by how many people can turn up and how sturdy the supporting server is. “Sometimes we get other clans in for joint ops,” says my contact, as he recalls how missions sometimes play out on a grand scale. He explains that a typical Armed Assault game might be 20-people strong, but that it could be bigger. Community core ShackTactical, one of the most devoted groups in the solider sim community, occasionally fields 60-man nights. As a result, they “ended up having a lot of influence on how the game was created,” says my contact.

He was right, of course. Players influence far more in a niche market like this. Thanks to Bohemia’s open approach to development, the players are able to mod almost any military tool they can think of into the game, such as parachutes or particular armored vehicles (my contact’s team, who played out British Armed Forces scenarios, made sure that their avatars were carrying the correct backpacks, and that a British soldier’s kit was accurate), but they also have a good deal of say in how the game itself came to be. Once the soldier sim community consolidated around Operation Flashpoint, it was inevitable that Bohemia, severing ties with their publishers, would make the next game, Armed Assault, for their staunchest fans.

I should say that I too am a fan, but my own experience with Operation Flashpoint has been quite different. I played a few single-player missions, spent some time crawling around in a heart-bursting co-op session and participated in a crazy tractor race. The player who organized the race kept things interesting by sending attack helicopters after our tractors as we tooled around the course. Clearly, in a game like this, what the gamers bring to the experience is all important. Their input, especially in creating missions, scripting and modding, makes the overall experience.

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And this user-led creativity goes much, much further in creating an overall war simulation. A number of enthusiasts and commercial interests are now at work on stacking up other simulations on top of the soldier sim, making the game even more of a comprehensive military scenario toolkit. Bohemia created Armed Assault with the community’s laundry list of features in mind, to the point where the game was tailored to the hardcore sim gamer’s needs. More than any other title out there, Armed Assault was made with the people who were going to play it in mind. These same people were going to take it further, however, in the form of something called “Virtual Battle Space.”

Operation Flashpoint had already pitched its tent firmly in the camp of soldier simulation, but it was to do far more than simply entertain armchair commandos. Virtual Battle Space, or VBS, a commercial modification first for Operation Flashpoint and soon for Armed Assault, is intended to extend the game in all directions, expanding its remit from game to modern-conflict training simulator with a full suite of editing tools. It’s the logical extension of what Bohemia has been doing with their games for the past decade.

Thanks to the community’s enthusiasm, VBS has evolved one step beyond what the gamers are doing, one step beyond it even being a game. Through the modifications in VBS, Operation Flashpoint became a serious military application; this is about as serious as modding is ever going to get. The resulting application has been employed as training tool by the armies, air forces and navies of the United States, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and The United Kingdom.

I chat to my captive ArmA player about all this, and he tells me most of the people responsible for creating these simulators, or even using them, are (in conjunction with Bohemia themselves) the same people who are on the game forums or are organizing the teams that make war in imaginary places every weekend. They’re the virtual soldiers he fights alongside on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s at this point the lines begin to blur. Does the fact that what started out in the realm of videogames has become a tool of the military say something about human nature? When does it stop being about entertainment? Are the soldiers who use this stuff to train allowed to say they enjoy it? In fact, are those people who gravitated toward this in the first place simply inclined to becoming soldiers, even if that soldiery is imaginary? More importantly, for observers like us, does the relationship of some people with these games, and the kind of things they push these games to do, speak of a more honest approach to admitting what games might be: surrogate experience for those kinds of actions that the modern world denies us? There’s a reason why all those history books are full of blood and guts, after all.

Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.

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