Andrew Barron knows a thing or two about war. He was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010, and he went on to train soldiers to use smartphone apps in combat zones. And now, he works as design director for Bohemia Interactive Simulations, which makes advanced military training simulations. The simulation, dubbed Virtual Battlespace, is powered by the game engine used to make the Arma military games.

That has given him perspective on realism in military simulations and video games, and he finds that the latter fall short because they’re mostly about nothing but shooting. He gave a talk at the recent Game Developers Conference (GDC) dubbed “Depiction of war in games: Can you do better?”

The military once led the development of war simulations, but now, it often creates simulations based on commercial video game technology. But Barron, who now works in Bohemia’s office in Prague, finds that games often fall short in the sophistication of narratives, as they often oversimplify complex conflicts. They also fail to depict the non-combat aspects of war that dominate a soldier’s life.

Above: War in real life: Andrew Barron in Afghanistan

Image Credit: Andrew Barron

He once heard a soldier say, “This wasn’t what I expected. I thought I would be doing hero shit like in Call of Duty.” I interviewed Barron, and he felt that game developers could become more knowledgeable about war, fleshing out games to be more realistic and engaging when it comes to storylines that balance the educational value with fun. He pointed out that the conflict in Afghanistan wasn’t just about the war on terror. It was also about age-old ethnic tensions as complex as Game of Thrones.

Games about war could point out moral ambiguity and ethical issues — like in Spec Ops: The Line. Soldiers often have to go through life-or-death decisions about whether or not to shoot at someone who looks like a civilian. Game narratives could also point out that “civilians pay the highest price,” he said. Some games have done that — like This War of Mine.

I’m not a veteran myself, and I have high respect for people like Barron. I have studied a lot of military history and wrote about anti-war literature in college. And so, I had a very interesting conversation with Barron about games and war and the responsibilities that game developers should acknowledge — and the need to employ veterans on game teams — when it comes to making entertainment about subjects with such gravity in the real world.

And for another take on war and games, check out this GDC 2015 panel on “Gaming the Laws of War: Can Real Consequences Mean Real Fun?”

Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Barron. I do a lot of interviews. But I haven’t had a memorable and deep conversation about a subject like this in a while.

Above: Andrew Barron is a veteran and design director at Bohemia Interactive.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: I listened to your talk at GDC. It was very good. I wondered what kind of feedback you had gotten from people who listened to you.

Andrew Barron: I’d say that I’ve been — I didn’t know what to expect my first time giving a talk. I didn’t know how much feedback to expect. At the show, I got some positive feedback from people immediately afterward, which I really appreciated. Notably, a lot of veterans came up to me — at least three, maybe four — and said, “Hey, I appreciate the talk. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I’m glad someone is up there saying this.” That, to me, was the most important feedback — not that the rest wasn’t. I’m glad they didn’t feel that I was misrepresenting them.

There’s been a couple of articles online, things like that. Journalists [have] been taking an interest, which has been interesting for me, seeing what it’s like to talk with journalists and see how they work. Overall, it’s been very positive.

GamesBeat: What years were you in the military and in Afghanistan?

Barron: I was in the reserves. I was never on active duty. I joined the reserves in 2002, and I left in 2011. I was activated and started training in the fall of 2010, and I was in Afghanistan about seven months in 2011, February to September. I got out of the military after I got back. I’d been in the military for eight years altogether at that point. I got out as a sergeant, the fifth enlisted rank.

GamesBeat: I’d thought about the topic for a while as well. I’m not a veteran or anything like that, but I did study war and history in college. I thought there was an interesting line that you pointed out between what’s realistic and what’s fun. What’s the difference between the two? What is the purpose of a video game? Is there a particular goal you have in mind as far as giving this talk and reminding people that games are not realistic, but they could be more realistic?

Barron: I’m not trying to tell people that they’re doing things wrong or that they have to stop doing things. I’d just like to be — the games industry is old enough and mature enough, both game players and game developers, that maybe we can expand the scope of the topics that we address and the way we address them in games. Especially with indie games, you see games taking on some very interesting topics that didn’t exist before — fatherhood, things like that. As an art form, it’s growing up and challenging itself. That’s part of it. I think we’re ready to move in that direction.

The other part is, it’s not as much about games but just as a culture, I wish we would be a bit more mature about war. Take it more seriously. Having been in the military since 2002 and having seen my country in a constant state of war — the saying, at least in the military and the Marine Corps, is that, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war.” I think that’s pretty accurate. We have this low level of warfare that goes on forever. It’s not really discussed or thought about in sophisticated terms. That’s not all on the shoulders of video games, but at least, in part, it can be on the shoulders of video games.

Above: War can be like a video game.

Image Credit: Andrew Barron

GamesBeat: You addressed that in one set of slides where you pointed out that “hero shit” is such a small slice of the overall picture. Like having a movie about sex is a small slice of understanding about relationships.

Barron: That wasn’t made up. That was literally what I heard, that line about, “This isn’t what I expected. I thought I’d be doing hero shit like in Call of Duty.” I heard another Marine say that in Afghanistan. That stuck with me. It was part of the inspiration for the talk.

I think I mentioned in the talk that when I talk to people as a veteran — I’ve stopped really describing my experience in Afghanistan. The talk itself was very difficult for me to put together and prepare for and deliver because I had to think about some things I didn’t want to sort through. But it’s interesting to have a conversation with a civilian that hasn’t done any military history research, that’s not as sophisticated on the topic. That’s immediately where they go to in the conversation as well.

“How was it in Afghanistan?” I start talking about tribal conflicts and yadda yadda, and they cut me off. “No, what I mean was, did you see action?” That’s immediately what they jump to. Well, what do you mean by action? How do you define that? Hero shit like in the movies. It’s interesting to see — well, not interesting. It’s frustrating, in a way, how those conversations go. I generally just don’t have them anymore.

GamesBeat: I noticed that you were modding games before you went into the military. You were looking at war in video games and playing those games without direct knowledge. What did you notice between that time in your life versus afterward? What changed about how you view games?

Barron: I’d say I was always, from my teenage years, more interested in real military history. My dad was in the Marine Corps. My brother joined before me. I was always interested in the real story behind it. But certainly, after joining — you go through training. You see what is trained versus what isn’t trained, what they prepare you for. You have friends that go off to war, and you talk to them about it. They tell you their stories of what it was like. Even before you go yourself, you start slowly getting a picture of what it’s actually like.

This is where military simulations fall in because that’s what we do with simulations. We’re helping the trainers in the military prepare soldiers for what it will be like, which is why we need all these features that aren’t really useful in a video game. One thing I always found interesting, going from the modding world to the military simulation world — I’d go back to the forums for Arma or Operation Flashpoint, and I’d look at the discussions around what must be in VBS, our military simulator product. They were always just so off base. It was so interesting to see the difference between what they thought it must be versus what it actually was. These are people who are interested in more realistic games like Arma. They would already be a bit more sophisticated than the average gamer. But they’re still pretty far off from what the military actually needs.

GamesBeat: Did you find that anything in what you played, military simulations, actually served as training for you before you went? Prepared you for what it’s like, physically or emotionally?

Barron: Definitely. There’s a lot you can do without simulations, first of all, but certainly with simulations, it’s the next level. For example, we did a convoy simulator, the CCTT, Close Combat Tactical Trainer. This is old, old stuff, built in the early ‘90s I think, with really bad graphics. It’s actually a real Humvee you sit in, and there are screens around on the walls where it projects the 3D graphics. You have laser weapons you shoot at the walls. You have a steering wheel that really “drives” the Humvee. It’s like a really big arcade game, that type of simulator. Not a desktop trainer.

Anyway, we were practicing convoy operations, and it was incredibly helpful. Even immersive, surprisingly. The graphics were bad — really old, bad 3D graphics, much worse than what we have in VBS — but even that little bit, you felt immersed. We ran through a number of scenarios. We practiced different drills, reactions to contact, reactions to IEDs. All the stuff I have been doing professionally, building simulators, I got to be on the other side and use it. It worked. And these things were nothing compared to graphics of our modern games.

Above: Should this soldier shoot at this civilian on the bridge?

Image Credit: Andrew Barron

GamesBeat: It seems like the choices you might make in a Telltale game. I don’t know if Arma has some of this as well but distinguishing between who’s hostile and who’s not, what you should do. Are those kinds of games useful in some way, as preparation or education?

Barron: Another simulator that I used when I was in the military, one that’s very effective, is a marksmanship simulator. You have a projector and a gun with a laser in it, and you shoot at the screen. Again, it’s kind of like an arcade game, but imagine a whole wall that has these graphics projected on it. These are used by the military for marksmanship training. Police use these as well.

I was an operator, and I was also a marksmanship coach. I would train my Marines in these simulators. One of the best things they have is what are called “shoot/no shoot” scenarios. It doesn’t even need to be 3D graphics. It can be a real-life video recording of a situation where, OK, you’re on guard duty, and some guy is approaching your guard shack. He looks drunk, and then, he reaches into his belt and pulls out a gun. You can put soldiers in these scenarios and have them yell at the screen. “Hey, stop! Hey, shithead, stop! Put up your hands!” And you watch them through the whole scenario. What do I do? Do I yell at this guy? Point the weapon at him? Shoot him? Then, you can pause it at the end and replay it for him and talk him through it.

Telltale games give you these reactions. You have a limited amount of time to make a decision. That’s maybe an equivalent in the military simulations world. You have a limited amount of time to make an important [decision]. The controls are different, but it’s the same principle. Very useful for military training.

GamesBeat: So, in some ways, it can be done? You can teach civilians about war through video games?

Barron: I think you can do it through gameplay — like your example of the way it’s controlled in Telltale games. It can also be done through narrative, which is why I was talking at the narrative summit, through the way stories are told. Or, obviously, in games, it’s best with both. You have narrative together with gameplay, and you can make the best experience. It can be done with games, and I would argue it can be made fun. The narrative can be made interesting, and the gameplay can be fun.