Playing Soldier

4

Wargames
are huge and always have been. If you think the latest videogames are anything
new, think chess. Think toy soldiers. They’re fun, they’re violent, and they
have a moralistic narrative frame that makes them palatable to most political
persuasions.

Scott Waters plays out his military obsession through paint, not pixels.
Not mine, however. I’d always prefer to be a thug than a soldier, not because I dig on evil but because I hate taking orders. So, in the interest of not sending an anarchist to do a grunt’s job, I’ve gotten Scott Waters, who spent three years the military, to comment on some wargames.



“Boy, this takes me back,” Scott says as he jogs along with the light machine gun. Scott’s not a fan of videogames or of his time in the military, so it’s uncertain whether this is a positive or negative comment about Counter-Strike (Sierra, 2000). Seconds later, he gets fragged. The other online players go on shooting each other with virtual bullets and equally rapid-fire comments, mostly accusing a player called NiCo of being a “fucking camper.”


I ask Scott if “camper” — used in gaming to describe someone who finds a discreet position and picks off opponents sniper-style — is a military term. He says infantry that didn’t keep moving and attacking would be accused of cowardice or dereliction of duty. Infantry’s duty is: Close With and Destroy the Enemy. “There’s a song, too, but I’m not going to sing it for you.”


The second time he dies out of the gate Scott admits that it bugs him to be killed by some distant player he envisions as a geek in his parent’s basement — someone who doesn’t know the difference between an MP5 and an AK-47. The time he spent as a grunt in an infantry battalion stationed in Victoria with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) aren’t translatable to this game, and he isn’t particularly inspired to spend the time humping up the learning curve.


Regardless, when I sit him in front of Ghost Recon (Ubi Soft, 2001), he says, “Oh, I’m glad this shit wasn’t around when I was a teenager, I’d have never left the house.” Scott’s feelings about the military are conflicted, and this plays out in his paintings that glamourize and criticize the war machine with double-barrelled impact. Continuing the love-hate vibe, on listening to the Tom Clancy rhetoric intro his lip curls. “Do you have to sit through this stuff every time you play?”


Scott Waters plays out his military obsession through paint, not pixels.
I show him Ghost Recon because, although it has an online network through Xbox Live or PC, it also has a single-player option. You also spend a minute or two locating your enemies across a wide field swathed in fog that Scott finds “dirtier, more atmospheric — seems like a soldier could really suffer here.” As he and his squad of bots track down the enemy, he says that while Counter-Strike‘s immediate gunplay was good because it gives you a sense of the chaos and melee, this build-up is good too — tensely realistic. “The breathing’s nice,” he says.


The realism ends when he quite sensibly tries to take out the lights, and finds they’re just scenery. The special netting camouflage of your team is supposed to suffice; when I remark on the cyber-camo, Scott says, “Yeah, everything’s special-forces-this, elite-squads-that nowadays. Regular infantry isn’t exciting enough.”


As he closes and destroys, he says, “I like just finding the soldiers and shooting them, better than the hostage-saving or bomb-setting in Counter-Strike.” He shoots a few more and then takes one for the team. He’s respawned in one of his squad-bots, dies immediately, and blames it on the controller. “It’s the opposite of how it should be — it goes up when I push it down,” he says. As I change the options to his liking, I ask him where that feeling of how it “should be” comes from, since he doesn’t play videogames.


“Dunno,” he says, pushing the controller up and down to get the feeling. “It should be a pivot. Maybe I get that from planes. Or from holding a gun.”


Scott isn’t really into the games, overall. “I guess because I’ve been in the military, I’m less interested in playing a strange facsimile of it.” He enjoys playing MechAssault — playing a giant robot stomping around the countryside — when I put it on: “it’s less morally troubling than the idea of playing a soldier killing people. More fun.” This reminds me of a great piece I read on gamers.com that had Henry Hill, the guy GoodFellas was based on, reviewing a bunch of games. The mob games don’t do much for him, but he loves Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2002), a cutesy game that he decides he wants to play with his wife.

In Scott’s case, having interest in and experience with the military diminishes
his ability to indulge the fantasy of the game. A soldier or a wiseguy can play
these games and comment on the realism, but realism’s only one dab on the vast
palette of fun.

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4 Comments

  1. The realism ends when he quite sensibly tries to take out the lights, and finds they’re just scenery.
    Now that’s what I call shitty game design. Even Duke Nukem 3D let you do stuff like that. Not that it helped gameplay or anything, but it was just more realistic, and if you were in a destructive mood, more fun.

  2. I dislike these games for similar reasons – they are too real in a lot of respects (one shot kills, for example). The tension is high but can be so quickly dissipated during a momentary lapse in attention or adrenalin levels.
    Give me the hyper reality of Quake 3 or Aliens Vs Predator over Counterstrike anyday – I don’t want to be a puny human playing with guns, I want to escape from the constraints of everyday physics and biology.
    I want to be able to take a few hits off of some rocket launcher and still have the right to reply. I want to experience the realism of new and imagined worlds, not this world we live in (i found Kingpin to be especially disturbing in mirroring reality – why do people want to simulate being a street thug?).
    PS Is there a URL to Scott’s artwork online?

  3. I’ve linked his pic above to his site. Scott’s also responsible for the scary monopoly man on the front page and most of the other well-designed pages on this site.

  4. James Schellenberg on

    Good article, Jim! I also love Scott’s design work, your site has always looked spiffy. As for military games, I don’t care for them that much myself, although I do tend to play FPS games with a more cartoony (less realistic?) element. Or at least, games that match my science fiction tendencies, and those games often tend to be quite violent. As I come from a pacifist background, this means that in addition to the general disrespectability of games, I’m always a bit torn on the real world/entertainment aspect of games. I wouldn’t be a soldier in real life, what does it mean that I would in a game? Not much?

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