Blog Post

Gaming at War - Part Two: War is Simulation (?)

(This is part two in a series about the use of video games by the US military, the use of the military by video games, and whatever lies in between.  Read part one.)


“All but war is simulation,” read the motto of STRICOM, the United States Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (now the US Army Simulation and Training Technology Center).  Indeed, US military personnel may use virtual simulations throughout their careers, from combat training to post-service therapy.  Yet, these various forms of simulation share a common goal: the management of affect.  By constructing virtual scenarios that anticipate or recreate future or past combat experiences, these simulations are intended to objectify the stresses and traumas of war, allowing the soldier to retain emotional distance, effective communication, and rational thought.  Simulations in use by the military turn the unpredictable and often ambiguous elements of combat into pieces of data, quickly identified, quantified, and engaged in with calculated detachment.


The contemporary structure of military simulations originated with SIMNET, the first large-scale networked combat simulation system.  SIMNET (Simulator Networking) was pioneered by Air Force researcher Jack A. Thorpe in the late 1980s in response to the expensive training simulations is use by the US military at the time.  These systems were constructed for full physical fidelity, simulating every detail of a specific vehicle and training individuals in the mechanics of its operation.  Judging these as inefficient, Thorpe imagined a networked simulation which focused exclusively on elements of combat normally only learned on the battlefield: team communication and decision making under fire.  Combining this selective functional fidelity with the newly developed ARPANET (the predecessor of the much-beloved internet), Thorpe’s SIMNET allowed personnel from any branch of the US military anywhere in the network to participate in real-time, 3D rendered wargames on a scale never seen before.  (see video here)


While training simulators have advanced technologically since the birth of SIMNET, they nonetheless continue to embody its fundamental goal and underlying contradiction: the use of a digital simulation to train human interaction.  This would seem to be the hardest facet of combat to model, compared to the technical operation of weapons and vehicles.  The ICT’s Virtual Humans project (, a virtual reality research collaboration between the University of Southern California and the US Army, provides an example of the difficulties of digitally recreating human communication.  While these simulations are intended to train soldiers for cross-cultural negotiations during wartime, they fall short of believable immersion on many accounts, with the simulated actors’ synthesized voices particularly betraying any sense of realistic conversation.


Theatre scholar Zack Whitman Gill has argued that searching for realism in these simulations is perhaps beside the point.  In his study of “Warrior Training” exercises, the US military’s increasingly theatrical and extravagant real-life training simulations, Whitman claims that realism and immersion are fundamentally unachievable in these scenarios.  To Gill, the asymmetrical nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan occludes effective anticipation.  Rather, he concludes, through the continual repetition of simulations, actual combat “becomes simply another rehearsal, always downplayed as merely another step towards a continually deferred performance.” (154)  It is thus crucial that soldiers “never suspend their disbelief in their training” (154) so that they can continue to calmly reflect, communicate, and make decisions.


With training more and more (yet never perfectly) resembling combat, it follows that combat would more and more resemble training.  The increasing integration of network and information technology, such as the Future Force Warrior, into combat provides soldiers with helmet views that parallel the heads-up-displays of first-person shooters, while the similarity between military drone operation and video game play has been much noted.  This Yahoo News article even outlines one Army reseacher’s desire to create what would essentially be an Army-wide leaderboard, which soldiers could use to compare kill ratios.  Jose Vasquez, in his article “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of Warasserts that the new visual technologies of war simultaneously illuminate the battlefield and obscure its consequences, making easier “the ability to kill on a mass scale without fully comprehending the devastation happening on the screen.” (102)


Anthropologist Margie Serrato investigated the use of digital technology by US military personnel deployed to Iraq.  One soldier’s comparisons of his videogame play and his combat mindset express this: “I thought it was a video game.  It felt like a video game.  Halo was in my head. [...]  Another big thing was, I was engaging targets.  I keep saying targets.  I was engaging the enemies and I didn’t care about the result.  I just wanted them to stop shooting at me.” The soldier goes on to admit that he did realize the violent consequences of his shooting, but only after viewing the bodies of those he killed after the combat zone had been secured.  Then, it ceased to resemble a video game for him, and he returned to reality.  What had been Covenant fighters, identity-less representations of AI code in the heat of combat became physical human bodies once again.  


Serrato relates the soldiers to the US military’s rejection of representations of enemy forces as subhuman or animalistic.  Instead, soldiers are “trained to perceive the enemy as an objectified target or threat.”  Nonetheless, despite the affective conditioning provided by virtual combat simulation, soldiers may still feel intense emotional responses to their own violent acts.  Even drone operators, supposed to be removed and insulated from their killings, have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.


One method for treating this: more simulation.  Virtual reality exposure therapy has developed in the past decade as an incredibly effective method for soldiers to overcome traumatic memories of combat experiences.  Soldiers work with doctors and programmers to construct simulations of these experiences, which they repeatedly relive through virtual reality goggles.  Doctors control the parameters of the simulation, gradually introducing the sources of trauma in according to the patient’s progress.  Eventually, this habitation is said to decrease the debilitating emotional effects of trauma.  As patients are sometimes unable to talk openly about the traumatic event, exposure therapy intends to bring the event out of the patient’s memory and imagination and transform it into a virtual, manipulatable reality.


rom training to therapy, combat simulations permeate all phases of military life.  While these simulations may recreate a variety of scenarios and activities, they all use simulacra for the common goal of affective management.  The repetitions of simulated combat objectify the stresses and traumas of combat, turning the unpredictability of modern war into the calm, detached information processing and decision making.  As the experience of combat and its simulation gradually converge, soldiers on the ground become actors in yet another rehearsal.


1 comment

This post is extremely interesting. I am also into these types of game you have mentioned, and you have had very similar experiences as me like growing up to playing these games. Coming from a person who has been playing these types of shooters competitively for years, reading this post does open my eyes to how much they relate to real life military action such as teamwork and precision. And as the technology continues to advance, so will these games. I feel within the next decade, we will develop virtual worlds to where the player can feel like they’re actually there experiencing the battle. Yes there is technology that is getting close to this stage like the Oculus Rift, but this is just a beginning stage. When virtual reality (VR) is mastered, the experiences of these types of shooters will feel like a reality and give you the feeling of actually being there in the comfort of his/her’s own home.