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An Open Response to Major Busch, USMC.

A response to "Why A Video Game Does Not A Soldier Make"; from the purview of a gamer, designer, and former Marine.

Slade Villena, Blogger

October 12, 2010

7 Min Read

For those who haven't read "Why A Video Game Does Not A Soldier Make"; please follow the link here [ http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130435221 ]

Italics are used as direct quotes from the article.  



Thank you for taking the time to write an important message.  One that should be heard by all gamers and game developers. It is also a message that hasn't been given it's due.

I'd like to address key points in the arguments made.


"We know children are immersed in digital interactivity now, and the soldier of today has grown up on video games. It is becoming a new literacy of sorts. Playing and risking your life are different things. In the video war, there may be some manipulation of anxiety, some adrenaline to the heart, but absolutely nothing is at stake."

First off, in no way should anyone compare actual warfare with the digitized dungeons of FPS players.  It's not even a fair comparison. Penn and Teller's "Bullshit!", Season 7, Episode 3, shows a perfect example of how your statement is proven true.

But at the same time, games are being targeted for their role as "enablers" of youth violence. Despite the various research disproving them. Jack Thompson should ring a bell. Columbine, Colorado, another salvo blaming games for their "role". Most pundits and polits demand this kind of rationale, without having the same logical elegance written by people who've been in the 'business of war'.

So now, as a national conscience, we've targeted video games for their 'influence'; it seems that Americans dismiss the "reality" of games, but at the same time pin the blame when it is convenient. Our national conscience is confused.


"I honestly don't like that Medal of Honor depicts the war in Afghanistan right now, because — even as fiction — it equates the war with the leisure of games. Changing the name of the enemy doesn't change who it is."

This is a moral ambiguity for me, it actually made me look at my Steam account, just to check what kind of "leisure" items I have on tap.

I have a spectrum of shooters and strategy games.  The spectrum goes from "building civilizations, and watching their history unfold" to "living out my zombie apocalypse fantasies." All of the games have some weapon systems involved in game mechanics. Barely any of them address the concept of maneuver warfare. 

A cold shudder came down my spine, when I tried to recall recruit training in the Marine Corps. Along with it came all the called shudders I received in my career as a Marine. And than I remember some friends who never came back.

I'm trying to reconcile my identity as a game developer, a gamer, and a Marine.  I agree with you Major Busch, on all points; game designers need to understand the gravity of warfare scenarios they depict. "Equating war with the leisure of games" is a haunting statement. 

But now, how do I justify why I play FPS's, and why I play strategy, without using the term "fun"? Of course its leisure for me, but now your statement forces me to go further.

My best answer; also derived from a piece of fiction, Ender's Game. The sci-fi novel explores the life of a child who is forced to become an officer. "Ender" is exposed to numerous games; all honed to train his mind in the art of war.

I share the same context, but I use them to study warfare. Enlisted life taught me this daily. But those days are gone. I don't think I'm qualified for re-enlistement, nor cut out to be a Marine Officer; my torn achilles tendon will forever remind me "I will never be fast enough for the Grunts." So, my last avenue, for studying war, is realized through games and game design.

So how do I "give back"? I want to use the same rationale as Ender's Game. Designs that I use, and war-based mechanics that I play must force me to think and be a better strategist. 

A Marine Drill Instructor once told me "Drill is just a thinking man's game." This is how I justify why I use war-based designs, why I play strategy games and FPS's. It's one of the few avenues where I can think about war in a small microcosm. The system itself serves no higher purpose, and has no "higher stakes", but at least I can derive the value of clashing strategies in my head. 

By making myself a better strategist, I make myself a better citizen. By making my games make better strategists, I serve my country. One game mechanic at a time. It's not a matter of pride, or chest thumping bravado. It's a matter of making citizens who can think, instead of playing political poker.

Sir, someday gamers from all over will respect the business of war, the way it ought to be. Just give them some time to grow up, or even enlist in the Marines.

Hell, I did. And there's a lot of gamers just like me.


"But what nation or military has the right to govern fiction?  Banning the representation of an enemy is imposing nationalism on entertainment. The game cannot train its players to be actual skilled special operations soldiers, nor is it likely to lure anyone into Islamic fundamentalism. It can grant neither heroism nor martyrdom. What it does do is make modern war into participatory cinema. That is its business."

We should tell that to Fox News, and all the other chicken hawk pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. The "cinema" of our national narrative, especially how we justify our presence in the middle east, is the worst form of "participatory cinema" that people practice here in the States.

The pundits and polits are riding their careers and cultivated personalities using the blood of Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. They broadcast news and events as if they were responsible for its "meaning". Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity perform this charade on an hourly basis. I have yet to see a game design troupe stoop to this level. We do design our space as "fiction", but at least we keep it there, and we are honest about it.

People seem to equate putting a "Support the Troops" sticker, as actually helping the troops. All while we neglect veterans benefits. The civilians in this country, who loudly wave their flags in "support", are the same opportunists who deny giving reservists back their jobs.  The same kind of people we are allegedly "fighting for".

This is the "participatory cinema" that my peers see today, from civilians and from contemporary media.

I'd rather be flattered by video games. I'd rather see a Halo kiddie scream and trounce in game, instead of Glenn Beck insulting our cultural conscience.

I don't think it's fair to put this on gaming culture; we already have a balkanized and polarized political sphere working in the midst. Gaming culture did not create this scenario; gaming lives in it.

Our special interest groups and oligarchy-ruled media should be the target of this assertion. Games have attempted to at least bring a more honest discussion of war. Seven Days in Fallujah should be fresh in our heads. The game WANTED an honest discourse, but even that is "too much, too soon".

So now, war games are relegated to the 'business of leisure'.  The pundits will accuse us of making monsters out of gamers, while they infantilize our troops like children. Gamers themselves are accused of being "callous", "brainwashed", "desensitized". We're not pushing the blame around; it'd be easier to do this seriously if the chicken hawks can stop being irrational.

Sir, if I may be so bold; our national media has already failed in creating an environment where we can rationally talk about war. I think games can do a better job, if given the chance to do so. And also, if the loudspeakers on Fox News are turned down a notch, and have a little less "bogus politics".


Semper Fi.


[ Slade Villena served as US Marine, earned the rank of Corporal, and was honorably discharged on December 2009. ]

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