While he was deployed to eastern Afghanistan, Lt. Jonathan Bratten would trudge back to his hut after long shifts in his battalion headquarters and stare up at the Hindu Kush, the 500-mile-long range of snow-capped mountains that straddles the country's border with Pakistan.
"I'd look up there and just want to go running around in them," he said. "But then I'd think, that's a terrible idea! I'm in Afghanistan."
So he'd go into his hooch and fire up Skyrim. The game was, he said, not just a way to blow off steam, but also a way for him to recapture a feeling of control over his life that he didn't have while he was in Afghanistan. Like many young servicemembers, Bratten's day to day life while deployed was severely limited: what he wore, where he went, and who he spent time with were all strictly limited by the rules and circumstances of his deployment and service.
It's no surprise that games are as popular with the military as they are with civilians, but it turns out there are some key differences in the way the two populations approach and experience them. We have very different contexts for games, particularly games that rely on conflict and war. And now, researchers are exploring the particular relationship military members and veterans have with games.
I bought my first Xbox a couple months after I wound up in South Korea. When I arrived there as a newly-minted Army "public affairs specialist" in 2003, the U.S. was only a few months into Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the Army's wisdom, I had been sent to the opposite side of the world, stationed at a camp 40 kilometers or so south of the DMZ. Even after four years of devoted partying in college, I knew by two months in-country that I wasn't going to be able to keep up with the breakneck "normal" pace of drinking there.
The Xbox, I figured, would help keep me out of trouble. I played Shenmue II and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and whatever else I could get my hands on at the little AAFES shoppette when payday rolled around. It was a strange place and time for gaming—and for me, as someone trying to flail his way into becoming a functioning adult. The Army was my first post-college job, and it was where I first began thinking of games as something I could use as a refuge or escape instead of merely an entertaining diversion.
Doctor Jaime Banks, a researcher and professor at West Virginia University, has been studying the reasons servicemembers and veterans play games. She recently published a paper in the journal Game Studies with WVU colleague John Cole that looks at gaming as a coping practice for military members and veterans, as well as how servicemembers view the avatars that represent them in the games they play.
"I have some family members who are both gamers and members of the military," she said. "Listening to them talk about how they play games, and watching them play games … I started to get curious about how different populations connect with these games."
Banks' study is admittedly pretty small. It's an exploratory study meant to highlight an issue she's interested in examining further. She looked at survey responses from a sample of 100 currently-serving military members and military veterans.
Some of what she found in her study is admittedly pretty unsurprising: Military and veteran gamers often see game avatars as idealized versions of themselves, embodying a mythic goal for their own performance or self-image. "The avatar is a Special Forces 'badass' in the heroic and cinematic sense," one respondent to Banks' study wrote. "This pulls at me in a primal way, to be that ultimate warrior."
But her study also found some surprising trends among current and former servicemembers.
Her initial questions were about which games were most important to them, and why. Unprompted, about half of her respondents said at this point that they used games specifically to cope with service-related stress. It wasn't until her final survey question— Is this avatar important to how you think about yourself as a member or veteran of the US military? Why or why not?—that respondents began talking about how they saw themselves represented in their favorite games.
"The people who did say it was important suggested it was remarkably powerful," Banks said.
It's important to understand exactly what Banks means when she uses the term "avatar," which is now a kind of squishy term used to mean any representation of a user, usually online. But Banks explained that it has a specific meaning in her research, and in the ongoing academic discussion of games and identity.
"An avatar is a visual, on-screen representation of a player that can extend identity into the space (although it doesn't always) but definitely extends their agency into the space," she said. "My avatar is an extension of my agency."
And among the servicemembers and veterans Banks surveyed, agency wound up being the important factor in games.
One respondent said that after several medical discharges, he didn't consider himself a "legitimate" veteran. He felt that neither fellow veterans nor civilians could really understand the frustration caused by simultaneously wanting desperately to serve and being barred from doing so, and that the soldier-avatar in his preferred game was important to him "because it's the only way I can work this out."
Then there was a Navy corpsman who was discharged after being injured, who said he always plays as a healer class now. "Playing this character in the game allows me to be who I was before I was injured," he wrote. "To feel useful again."
"Being in the military, we're kind of forced to 'suspend disbelief' all the time. We're told, this is the way things are, but this is the way things are in the Army." - Lt. Jonathan Bratten
But these players weren't working through their frustrations and sense of loss in military-themed games like Battlefield 1 or Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Banks found that her small sample of military and veteran gamers appeared to be statistically more willing than the average player to suspend disbelief in games, especially with respect to in-game avatars.
Banks asked her respondents what their favorite games were. Fantasy games were the most the popular thematic genre at 40 percent, beating out military-themed games, which accounted for 23 percent. In terms of gameplay, MMOs (also at 40 percent) were the biggest group, followed by shooters, at 30 percent. While it's hard to directly compare game genre popularity due to different tracking for retail box copies and free-to-play PC games, it's still clear that military-themed shooters (named Call of Duty) top the US and UK retail charts every year.
(Free-to-play games available on Steam and other platforms are also incredibly popular, but these weren't significant in Banks' study of military members and veterans.)
The idea that servicemembers' gaming habits are different from their civilian counterparts finds some resonance with those who have lived as active-duty members of the military. It's kind of a "no shit" proposition.
"I think that makes sense," Bratten said when I told him about Banks' findings. "I mean, being in the military, we're kind of forced to 'suspend disbelief' all the time. We're told, this is the way things are, but this is the way things are in the Army."
It's true—being in the military is profoundly weird, often deliberately so. You have to learn new behaviors, new customs, and even a new way of speaking. While watching a sand table exercise on Fort Knox, I remember hearing a colonel explain that the plan was to "attrit [sic] the enemy down to combat-ineffective status."
Matthew Watts is a Chicago-area IT specialist who spent ten years in the Navy. He became interested in MMOs during his time at sea. He had initially balked at the idea of playing Everquest when some of his shipmates made plans to visit an internet café when they had shore leave in Singapore in 2001, shortly before Sept. 11.
But he found that his media tastes had changed since becoming a sailor.
"Before I enlisted, I used to like JAG," he said, a bit sheepishly. "You remember that show? It was a terrible show. I couldn't stand it after I'd been in the Navy."
I knew exactly what he meant. I had never watched JAG, but there was something about the military-themed television, movies, and games that I had loved that became upsetting and different once I was in. Black Hawk Down was suddenly terrifying in a new and uncomfortable way, and I found myself subconsciously spotting uniform errors and procedural inconsistencies in every military-themed scene I saw. It wasn't the violence of military shooters or movies that bugged me, it was the uncanny dissonance between what I was experiencing in my everyday life as a soldier and what I was seeing on the screen. I had seen Mel Gibson's film adaptation of Hal Moore's Vietnam war book, We Were Soldiers, before I had enlisted, and I'd loved it. A drill sergeant played the same movie for my platoon in Georgia the week before we graduated, mere months later, and I had to look away.
So many of our heroic stories today involve the military and soldiers, but somehow the process of becoming cultural heroic epics makes them alien to actual soldiers. The sheer ridiculousness that Hollywood and games often inject their stories with can be the culprit sometimes, but stories that hit too close to home can also be uncomfortable for servicemembers, especially for those who have traumatic memories associated with service. And at some point you do need to be making an entertaining movie or game rather than one that simply recreates a slice of military life.
Watts eventually bought a PlayStation 2 ("My first deployment console," he called it), and Final Fantasy X was, for him, the first must-have title for the console. Enterprising modders were offering flip-up LCD screens for Xbox and PlayStation 2 at the time, making them viable options for deployed troops. All of a sudden, you could play console games in your rack, and Final Fantasy X was an ideal combination of flashy graphics and a setting that could hardly be further from military life.
By the time Final Fantasy XI came out, Watts' resistance to MMOs had largely evaporated, and he and some of his shipmates dove in and never looked back. He said the game became a way for him to bond with fellow sailors and to keep in touch when they wound up inevitably parting ways.
"I definitely still use video games as an outlet to do that," Watts said. "I mean, I play MMOs with people [from the Navy] I haven't seen in over a decade." They've since moved on to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
Looking at Banks' study years after I called it quits, I was struck by the responses from servicemembers who reported chronic physical or psychological issues. Service-related injuries and PTSD, she found, seem strongly linked with escapism and coping as motivations for playing games.
"What was really interesting to me is that they (chronic sufferers) were the only ones who reported higher levels of fantasy motivations and skill-development motivations," Banks said. "My interpretive brain takes that as possibly suggesting when you have these more pervasive, every day issues, not only do you want to escape those things, but also augment yourself in other ways."
Even absent physical or mental trauma, there seems to be something unique about military gamers. Age, gender, length of time in service, and service branch didn't seem to matter in Banks' results, which she said could mean that there's just something about being in the military that affects gaming consumption and motivation.
Watts and Bratten used games to take back a small and brief measure of control during deployments, periods when control was something they had very little of for months at a time. While on a ship under steam or stationed on an Afghan airfield, there's no real way to strike a "work/life balance," because your life is spent at work. Under those circumstances, games can function as a non-work social space for servicemembers, somewhere to hang out that isn't The Job – a place where they can express their agency outside the ubiquitous chain of command.
"Who needs escapism more than people who are deployed?" Watts said. " Final Fantasy definitely became a thing for us. Sometimes when we were deployed and we couldn't play, we'd sit around and wax lyrical about our exploits in that game. It was kind of interesting, and I really kind of miss that."
Lieutenant Bratten is still in the Army, now working as a historian for the Maine National Guard. Like all guardsmen, he attends weekend drills every month, one of which he'd just wrapped up when we spoke on the phone. He told me they'd been running a field exercise, and one of his soldiers had sat in the back of their Humvee while they waited on their next set of instructions, playing Fallout 4 until his battery finally died.
I never got sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, like Bratten did, or to sea, like Watts did. I did my year in Korea and then spent the rest of my active duty service writing high school sports columns in Kentucky. I remember living in the barracks on Fort Knox when the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 launched, and the big games around that time were God of War II and Gears of War. Both games had "war" in their titles and leaned heavily into anger and violence, but they could hardly be further from the real war that we were constantly, resignedly, aware of every hour of every day.
There are more than a million people in the U.S. military, and while there are still ongoing issues about who serves where, it's one of the country's most diverse institutions. There's such a wide variety of experiences in the military, even within individual service branches, that it's dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about "the military experience." Life for a marine at Quantico looks a lot different than it does for an airman stationed at Bagram.
Banks' findings suggest that servicemembers and veterans tend to approach games with a higher level of escapism than the general public, and tend to identify deeply with their on-screen representations when they play. And the stories she collected from her military respondents show that many servicemembers find escape and identity in games with fantasy themes, especially MMOs. They're less drawn to the depictions of the military most often found in games, even though these portrayals are ubiquitous and usually "positive," inasmuch as depictions of soldiers as unstoppable killing machines are positive. But these portrayals can be alienating for troops who either can't see themselves as John Rambo, or who find an uncomfortable, uncanny valley—too close, but not close enough—in the depiction of the military life they're seeing on screen. When we consider the civilian-military divide, perhaps we also need to look at the games that lavish so much care and attention on military conflict, yet seemingly have so little of value to say to the people who fight in these wars.