GamesBeat

A soldier’s perspective on Call of Duty and its ilk (interview)

It turns out that real soldiers don’t regenerate and machine guns don’t have unlimited ammo. Who knew?

It’s no secret that first-person shooters — in all their Hollywood-inspired clamor and spectacle — don’t simulate the realities of war very well. From basic rules of engagement, to gun safety (such as “don’t flag your buddies”), and the dynamics of combat, first-person shooters are more akin to interactive action flicks than a proper re-creation of armed conflict.

Of course, no one wants to play a hyper-realistic military simulator, as this hilarious Onion sketch illustrates.

No one wants to fill out endless paperwork, take mandatory sexual harassment training, write NCOERs (noncommissioned officer evaluation reports), sit through Powerpoint presentations with the potency of 10 Valiums, or stand 12-hour watches. No one wants to experience “hurry up and wait.”

Because that would be boring. Too realistic.

People want an escape from the mundane. But surely we can find a happy medium between silly action flicks and boring reality.

With the recent release of what will probably be the best-selling video game of the year, Call of Duty Black Ops II (for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC), I thought it instructive to get the low-down from a real soldier, a veteran who deployed in support of the Global War on Terror. Sergeant Dave Mull deployed to Iraq in support of the Global War on Terror three separate times: ’04-’05, early ’07-late ’07, and ’08. His Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is Cavalry Scount (19D), which essentially means that his job is enemy, area, and route reconnaissance. Altogether, he served 12 years.

Our conversation yielded some fascinating insights, and some of it may surprise you.


GamesBeat: It’s been pointed out before that many soldiers — and sailors, Marines, and airmen — like to play first-person shooters during their downtime in forward-operating bases (FOBs). From a layman’s perspective, this might seem odd, since the servicemember would, presumably, not want to experience a fictionalized version of reality. Have you experienced this phenomenon and how do you account for it?

Mull
: I’ve always looked at FPS as a form of therapy post-deployment. My first tour was still in the sixth generation of consoles, so when I could play, I was actually busy with tactical role-playing games like Square’s Front Mission 4. But by my second tour, guys were getting Xbox 360s shipped over, so in downtime, we were playing Halo 2 and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas.It’s like a cartoon version of reality — it lets you work out aggression and build hand-eye coordination at the same time.
Rainbow Six Vegas
GamesBeat: What are some of the most basic details that your average military shooter gets wrong?

Mull
: A lot of times it’s simple things like nomenclature, the positioning of equipment, or a feature on the rifle. I remember Counterstrike used to have the M4 eject on the wrong side so there would be more interesting things occurring on the screen when you fired. Also, you have the realism aspects: There’s almost never any calculation for bullet drop or ambient wind, and dropped weapons and magazines are magically full when the player walks over them to pick them up.I happened to notice in the opening [of Call of Duty Black Ops 2], Frank Woods rambling about a C-130, but the plane that was shown had a high tail and a body more like a C-17 Globemaster … just with turboprops.

GamesBeat: And heavy automatic weapons rarely overheat — and have infinite ammo, of course.

Dave Mull
: Definitely. The Army defines a hot barrel as 200 rounds fired within two minutes. Very few games use this mechanic. The recent Killzones are the only ones that really spring to mind, but they had unlimited ammo, with the only limiting factor being heat buildup.
M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon)

Above: The author firing the M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). The barrels get really hot and have a tendency to overheat.

GamesBeat: What inaccuracies seem the most jarring? Is there anything that would prevent you from playing such a game?

Dave Mull: Hmm … they seem to be trying far too hard to make everything “epic” in campaign mode. It can sometimes be a chore trying to figure out which enemies actually count and which ones are the infinitely respawning cannon-fodder bots.

It won’t stop me from playing it, but you’d think they could remember that sometimes nothing happening can be just as, if not much more, suspenseful.

GamesBeat: It does seem like the goal of many shooters — Call of Duty especially — is bigger setpieces, bigger explosions, and bigger bodycounts. Which naturally makes them more like a Michael Bay movie than anything resembling reality.

Dave Mull: Remember in the Metal Gear Solid games, it’s intended that you don’t kill anyone. Of course, you can, but it’s not the way [series creator Hideo] Kojima envisioned it.

GamesBeat: Indeed. And a reader on Bitmob, GamesBeat’s sister site, pointed out that MGS4 is one of the few games to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. In many ways, it’s a more realistic depiction of war than any first-person shooter.

MGS4's Beauty and the Beast Unit
Dave Mull: Very much so — specifically toward the end with Adam’s adoption of Liquid Snake’s personality and with the four gals of the Beauty and the Beast unit.

GamesBeat: Medal of Honor: Warfighter single-player producer Luke Thai cited movies like The Hurt Locker and Saving Private Ryan as influences. Does it bother you that gaming leans so heavily on Hollywood, which isn’t exactly known for its factual portrayal of war? Could the games industry draw inspiration from a more credible source?

Mull
: Real combat isn’t very exciting from a third-person perspective. You spend long periods of time bored out of your mind, and then, all of the sudden, someone is trying to kill you, and your adrenaline spikes through the roof, but you either can barely identify their position or have little to no idea where it’s coming from. And even when it is up close, it’s usually over very quickly without much in the way of struggle. Games are a form of entertainment so it stands to reason that they ape Hollywood’s plots, effects, and layout. I suppose one should remember that such entertainments are meant for everyone, not just vets.


GamesBeat: This is true. It’s been pointed out many times that a completely realistic shooter would be unplayable for all but the most hardcore individuals. One shot and you’re dead — unless you have Kevlar — no regenerative healing, much lower body counts, and incessant boredom.

Mull: Ugh, you should see that abomination the Army trains on.

GamesBeat: Which one is that? The EST 2000? [Engagement Skills Trainer 2000, a life-size, squad-based shooter that attempts to simulate combat]
The Army's EST 2000

Mull
: Yep — it has a controller shaped like an M4 or M16 and graphics like a Dire Straights music video.

GamesBeat: The only purpose I can see is to build unit cohesion, but I’m sure your average, commercial video game could do that better.

Mull
: Never mind that since it’s for training, you can never win … it’s very Kobayashi Maru.

GamesBeat: With the implicit understanding that every game takes enormous historical and artistic liberties, which game that you’ve played seems the most “accurate?” Which game simulates the realities of combat the best?

Mull
: Its probably a tossup between Killzone 3 and Fallout 3. Killzone has the right, gritty feel for things — the crosstalk is right, and you feel like you are in a real infantry platoon. Some of the weapon features make a helluva lot of sense, too — for example, the main rifle sounds a tone for the last five or so rounds in each magazine, and the grenades feature an LED bargraph to aid in cooking.
Killzone 3
Fallout is special because you don’t have any health regeneration — you need to eat. Weapons and equipment degrade over time and with use, so you need to salvage similar items and rebuild them, and you can largely go “off script” whenever you want. I can’t tell you how many times I got tired of hearing some whiny NPC’s sob story and went on the rampage instead of helping them.

GamesBeat: It seems like many games try too hard to get the macho chatter down pat.

Mull
: Very much so. Black Ops 2 goes overboard with it. Trying much too hard. I think they got the dude from Days of Thunderin there — sounds like him anyway. You really don’t have to say “Tough shit” all the time. Drop some mom jokes or something.

GamesBeat: So you’re saying most soldiers don’t have these dramatic, introspective thoughts about war and the nature of patriotism?


Mull
: I might start rambling Kipling at times, but most Joes’ conversations are a constant mix of dick and fart jokes.

GamesBeat: The developers feel they need to sex it up, I guess.

Mull
: I suppose. The Killzone 2 trailer/opening drop was just about perfect. Clueless privates are screwing around; Sarge is chewing new assholes and generally being angry.

GamesBeat: So which FPS that you’ve played seems the most inaccurate?

Mull: Black was pretty damn bad. You had AK-74s in 1963 and HK-G11s in the early ’70s. Think Call of Duty without the side effect of being any good.
GamesBeat: Which FPS franchise do you prefer? Why?

Mull
: Of the current crop, Call of Duty. It’s the most popular, and that’s what all of my friends play. It’s nearly universal among gamers, hardcore and casual alike.

GamesBeat: Does realism – as it relates to first-person shooters — ever factor into your buying decisions?


Mull
: No. I’d say fantasy is more likely to factor. Like I said, I often use FPS as a form of cheap therapy and a way to relax after a long day. The actions can be the same, but if it can divorce itself that much further from reality, it’s certainly not a bad thing.

GamesBeat: How much of Black Ops 2’s campaign and multiplayer have you tackled thus far? What are your initial impressions, from a realism perspective?

Mull
: I did the first two chapters of campaign and am about halfway through first Prestige on multiplayer. The campaign is the usual super-dramatic movie experience, and multi is multi. I will say, though, that it seems they have finally figured out how to level the playing field without penalizing players with hot Internet connections.
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