You probably have your own idea of who “the troops” are. Maybe that idea was molded by repeated showings of M.A.S.H, the works of Tom Clancy, or films like The Hurt Locker. But just who are America’s soldiers, individually? What do they do when they’re not patrolling bases, running drills, or fighting on the battlefield?
We got the chance to find out.
Activision and The United Service Organizations (the USO) recently put on a joint tour, traveling to military installations across the world to show off new Call of Duty: WWII DLC and host tournaments for the soldiers at each stop. I hitched a ride and spoke to countless soldiers and veterans about everything from tactics for dealing with the ever-present boredom of base life to coping with injuries and whether or not they prefer Fortnite or PUBG.
Here’s the truth straight from the mouths of many men and women in the armed service about how video games have become an inescapable part of their lives.
Ramstein fulfills several duties, including training and maintaining multiple squads of soldiers. The American-run installation was founded by a number of European nations in 1952 as a display of the strength of international relations in the aftermath of World War II. Ramstein fulfills several duties, including training and maintaining multiple squads of bomb-disposal experts and K-9 units. The base also provides a setting that tries to capture a piece of the world back home for the people who serve here.
Communities within Ramstein are composed of rows of canary-yellow apartment complexes. The recreation center even serves up surprisingly authentic tasting barbeque and thin-crust pizza. If you walked into Ramstein without realizing you were already in Germany, there would be almost no giveaways except for the occasional German sign or national resident who dips into their native language when they can’t find the right English word.
Built into the base hotel is a mall (the KMCC) that has a massive department store and a food court containing a Taco Bell, Starbucks, and Johnny Rockets. Minor breaches, such as the movie-theater showtimes being in military time, as well as the bier halle next to the Dunkin’ Donuts poke holes in this strange American theme park, but it does its job well enough, especially if you’re a soldier who’s been away from home for months.
However, sometimes you need more than shops to feel at home again, and that’s why the troops at Ramstein are getting excited. Whenever we see one of the soldiers as our tour group passes, there’s usually a grin on their face.
It’s not hard to guess why: Call of Duty has come to town.
Bring The Ruckus
Bring The Ruckus
Three Activision production team members work quickly to set up the 24 PlayStation 4s for a no-stakes, friendly tournament in the community center’s main hall. It’s a quaint but charming place, the kind of joint where you’d stage a homecoming dance. There’s barely enough room to hold all the soldiers’ let alone the family members who have come to watch and participate. Before the tournament is even under way, several of the soldiers are crowding around the developers, asking them about what it was like to develop the game and for details on the upcoming Black Ops 4. Sledgehammer’s team is good-natured about it, not dropping any hints, but they thank the troops for their enthusiasm and crack jokes with them. As the tournament begins, it becomes immediately clear just how much Call of Duty means to the crowd. These aren’t just bored men and women looking for some kicks to pass the time. For a lot of them, video games are a way of life.
“All service members are gamers in their own right. Lot of nerds in the military,” bomb dis posal expert Jeffery Hegel tells me, chuckling. Ac cording to Hegel, the disposal team often plays Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments when they’re off duty as a way to relax. Liam Fink, a senior officer with electrical engineering, sees the game as a social activity. “It’s a good way to build camaraderie between friends,” he tells me, saying it’s also one of the ways he stays in contact with other former members from other deployments. Gaming is a family activity on the base as well, according to Master Sgt. Michael Becker., who plays through all the Call of Duty campaigns with his son, Owen. “Playing is something interesting for us to do as a family,” he says. “It’s stuff we do together. It’s a lot of fun.”
All service members are gamers in their own right. Lot of nerds in the military.” -Jeffery Hegel, bomb disposal expert
As the tournament goes on, soldiers talk trash but never curse, and they cheer whenever they win a round. The center transforms into a loud, exciting arena, with the teams that make it to the final rounds screaming map positions in their headphones and sticking together in groups in-game. Other soldiers stand behind those playing, encouraging them on or poking fun at their fellow service members for playing badly. When the final match ends, the room rumbles and roars, with the victors standing up to fist pump and shout like they’re on live television.
Tomorrow these soldiers will go back to their posts and resume their duties, but for now, in this moment, they’re living like champions.
As far as the tour is concerned? We’ve got a flight to catch.
A Tale Of Two Bases
A Tale Of Two Bases
We find no malls at either of the military installations we visit in Kuwait’s desert, but the console wars are alive and well at Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring. Both bases are support outposts in the Middle East that accommodate all branches of the armed service, and are a far cry from the populated pseudo-suburbia we saw in Germany. Some shops are sprinkled throughout each base (including the inescapable Starbucks), as well as surprisingly clean porta potties, but mostly there’s sand. And a seemingly endless supply of soldiers doing everything in their power to stave off boredom.
That’s where the USO comes in. “Our job is to keep service members connected to family, home, and country,” says Chris Stagner, the organization’s PR manager and a veteran. “We look to provide them with what they need to serve the country with USO centers that let them come blow off steam by watching TV, playing games, or reading books in the reading room.” For many soldiers serving in the Middle East, these USO centers are their bastion of entertainment in a place that has precious little excitement.
Both centers contain libraries, one for adults, filled with literary paperbacks as well as cooking guides and page turners. However, there’s also a library filled with children’s books that soldiers can check out to read to their kids over video chat. A nearby theater showcases movies stowed away on a server. And, of course, there’s an entire section of the center dedicated to gaming stations. A check-in desk at the front of the center reveals a host of PS4 games to check out that includes everything from Bloodborne to Grand Theft Auto V and Madden. Activision also donated more than $100,000 worth of Call of Duty titles to USO centers around the world during the tour. Out of all the departments in the USO center, the gaming section is the most popular. For many soldiers looking to escape piping-hot temperatures and a profound feeling of isolation and homesickness, gaming is the optimal way to accomplish that feat. It’s not hard to understand why: Many of this generation’s soldiers grew up with games.
Our job is to keep service members connected to family, home, and country.” -Chris Stagner, USO PR manager
“I’ve been playing video games since I was four,” sergeant Jesus Martinez Jr. tells me excitedly. He radiates with fervent enthusiasm when talking about his passion for The Legend of Zelda and how he plays Monster Hunter World with his wife and seven-year-old daughter. But it’s also an activity he enjoys by himself as well, a fundamental part of his life. “Gaming is escaping reality. Like here, it’s every day work routine but playing games, it feels like a whole new world, new character, new life.”
Martinez is not alone in his love of digital escapism. During our time in Kuwait, gaming was everywhere. One soldier proudly told me about how he managed to save $1,000 on his Alienware laptop before his deployment. Troops arguing about whether PlayStation was better than Xbox was an inescapable conversation at both camps. Countless soldiers told me gaming had been a part of their lives for as long as they could remember and explained how games were essential in coping with stress and loneliness.
Melissa Renee Williams, a mechanic, has played games since the original PlayStation and finds interactive experiences to be “a really cool way to relax.” She spends her free hours roaming the historical playgrounds of Assassin’s Creed when she’s not squaring off against other service members in Call of Duty’s multiplayer. Some soldiers even investigate building an audience as a streamer, like Warren J. Wiggins of the Engineer Battalion, who streams shooters like Ghost Recon: Wildlands on Twitch. “I like the support part of streaming … with people wanting to watch you and interact with you. I think gaming is therapeutic. It helps me escape reality. When I get into a game like Ghost Recon or Call of Duty, I’m in that character, I don’t think about anything other than the game.”
Our time on all three bases evinced that the formerly ostracized hobbies of geekdom are now the mainstream. Not only was gaming a huge part of base life on every installation we visited, but also cultural adjacent subjects, too. During one of the tournaments, one soldier roamed the USO center shouting “Wakanda forever!” In another, I watched a group of soldiers on the periphery of the action shoot side-eyed glances toward the tournament’s ruckus as they prepped to play a fantasy tabletop game. Camp Buehring’s USO center even hosts a monthly anime night. But more than being part of the current zeitgeist, gaming and geek culture serves as a refuge and boon for soldiers who have fulfilled their service.
What Comes After
What Comes After
Once the tour was done and I was back in America, I talked to several veterans who served in various wars and operations about what it means to come home and how games can help. Transitioning is a notoriously difficult process, especially for soldiers who join the military right out of high school and have never had any other professional experience. The armed service is a meticulously structured operation that builds an atmosphere of comradery. Confronting the chaos and freedom of the unstructured civilian world can be traumatic for those leaving the military.
“The military is the easiest job anyone could have, regardless of how scary it is,” says Elvis Walden, assistant director of the military video game charity Stack Up. “They tell you when and where to be, and they tell you how to dress. That’s it. It’s a very simple job. There’s a lot of structure to it. Everyone has a place. Everyone has a purpose. So, when you come out into the civilian world from military life, it’s all dog eat dog, with no one really looking out for our best interests anymore. And that’s the hard part.”
According to Walden, there’s not enough research being done on veteran transition, and the research that is being done isn’t focused on understanding modern veterans. “Veteran sui ci des are outnumbering the rest of the population in the U.S. The problem is there’s a stigma that you’re a warrior. That you can’t show mental weakness or that you’re no longer useful for the military. Realizing that you yourself need help is the most powerful tool you can have.”
When you come out into the civilian world from military life, it’s all dog eat dog, with no one really looking out for our best interests anymore. And that’s the hard part.” – Elvis Walden, assistant director of Stack-Up
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than 20 million veterans in the United States. Around four million are disabled and, according to the Bureau of Labor, there are nearly 400,000 unemployed veterans today. However, charities like Stack Up and the Call of Duty Endowment, Activision’s military charity, are actively working to use the power of games to help soldiers transition into post-military living.
Dan Goldenberg, the executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment, says the charity’s goal is to find other charities that have proven to be efficient in helping veterans find jobs and give them money. “We thought we could use analytic techniques to find the best nonprofits in the country and if we did that, we could help a lot more veterans than had been helped to that point,” he says. “Since inception we’ve helped give out about $30 million in grants and helped over 43,000 vets find high quality jobs.”
However, more than the practical aid of charity, gaming helps on a social and emotional level, with Walden calling video games “a Rosetta stone” for civilians and military members to converse in a common language that makes it easier for vets to adjust socially. For soldiers like 13-year Army vet Bryce Dubee, teamwork-based games make it easier for them to relive those specific elements. “I gravitate toward things that have good, cooperative elements,” he says. “That’s something I miss from the military and even talking with my friends, they do the same, saying, ‘I like having that communication and being on a team, and I love when a game has that kind of thing.’ Whether it’s a Destiny raid, or playing as a group in Overwatch or Fortnite.”
Video games also help those who come home wounded deal with the fallout of their disabilities. Mary Dague, a former bomb-disposal expert, lost both her arms hugging a bomb to protect her fellow soldiers. Cheery and upbeat, Dague uses games to help weather stressful times. “After I lost both my arms I remember waking up in the hospital and being bored, so I asked the nurse to grab my PSP out of my bag and everyone just stared at me,” she says. “And then it clicked: I don’t have hands! So I had about a year, year and a half, where I went in and out of depression because video gaming had been a lifestyle, a coping mechanism.” Dague eventually learned how to play games with her feet. She currently helps runs a streaming group called DrinkinBrosGaming and raises money for charity, citing games as an important part of her daily routine. “[Games] are how I decompress and recharge my batteries.”
For Dague and a huge number of people currently or formerly in the service, video games are more than just pastime. Gaming is an emotional anchor, something that makes the hurdles of day-in, day-out monotony, as well as coming home again, a little bit more bearable, whether it’s through virtual escapism or reconnecting to someone you shared a piece of your life with years ago. All around the world this interactive medium burgeons, influencing lives and culture in ways big and small, but perhaps there is nowhere where you can better see the intensity of its emotional impact than in the lives of the men and women of the armed forces.