Interesting article from last February's Washington Post about how video games may have prepared the current generation of servicemen for combat.
A quote from Retired Marine Col. Gary W. Anderson, former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab:
"Remember the days of the old Sparta, when everything they did was towards war?" says Anderson, now a defense consultant. "In many ways, the soldiers of this video game generation have replicated that, and that's something to think about."
Whether experience with commercial games actually improves soldier performance remains debatable. What's clear now, though, is how video games have provided a way of thinking about war for these guys--a useful, visceral metaphor for understanding their experiences.
One blistering afternoon in Iraq, while fighting insurgents in the northern town of Mosul, Sgt. Sinque Swales opened fire with his .50-cal. That was only the second time, he says, that he ever shot an enemy. A human enemy.
"It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! " remembers Swales, a fast-talking, deep-voiced, barrel-chested 29-year-old from Chesterfield, Va. He was a combat engineer in Iraq for nearly a year.
Like many soldiers in the 276th Engineer Battalion, whose PlayStations and Xboxes crowded the trailers that served as their barracks, he played games during his downtime. "Halo 2," the sequel to the best-selling first-person shooter game, was a favorite. So was "Full Spectrum Warrior," a military-themed title developed with help from the U.S. Army.
"The insurgents were firing from the other side of the bridge. . . . We called in a helicopter for an airstrike. . . . I couldn't believe I was seeing this. It was like 'Halo.' It didn't even seem real, but it was real."
"The very first time I fired my rifle" -- it was an M249 squad automatic weapon, a machine gun -- "I was scared. I had never shot my gun before at an actual person. But once I pulled the trigger, that was it, I never hesitated," says Crippen, 22. He's now a sophomore at Virginia State University, studying computer engineering, trying not to get so distracted by his Xbox. "All I saw was the street where the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] came from, and I just fired in that direction, maybe 20 rounds at most, and it felt like I was playing 'Ghost Recon' at home," referring to a Tom Clancy game.
"You just try to block it out, see what you need to do, fire what you need to fire. Think to yourself, This is a game, just do it, just do it, " says Trevino, 20, the baby of the group, recalling his first shot at a human enemy
The last quote is perhaps the most striking: thinking about killing as "just a game" helps him block out other emotions.
It also reminds me of war writers who describe the experience of live battle as unreal--as moments of disassociation. In other generations, they might have thought of it like a movie, or a dream, or even theater. Or think of the way we thought 9-11 resembled a blockbuster disaster movie. According to Paul Virilio's War and Cinema, American WWII soldiers joked with the phrase "we're off to the movies" when they knew they entering a heavy battle. Virilio provides this chillingly beautiful quote from Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel describing his experiences as a German WWI soldier:
In this war where fire already attacked space more than men, I felt completely alien to my own person, as if I had been looking at myself through binoculars...I could hear the tiny projectiles whistling past my ear as if they were brushing an inanimate object...The landscape had the transparency of glass.