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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Soldiers, Gaming & the USO

This piece originally appeared at NYPost.com just ahead of July 4, 2013-- it has since disappeared due to technical issues. But I decided that it's too important. So here it is again.


These toys do hard work


By William Vitka and Ben Moore

Video games are generally viewed as entertainment. Under that broad umbrella, you can add business and art. There's money and beauty in those digital hills, after all. But, video games have grown to encompass a heck of a lot more than even that since they debuted on an oscilloscope.

They encompass so much, in fact, that the question is slowly becoming: What can't be done with video games?

Well. What about helping our men and women in uniform?

For Christopher Broman, video games served as a distraction and refuge from long days on patrol in Afghanistan. Broman has been part of the Army National Guard since 2007. He’s been deployed twice, in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and Afghanistan in 2010-2011.

“We were in the middle of nowhere,” Broman says about his deployment in Afghanistan. “Our platoon was out for almost 10 hours every single day.”

Broman delved deeply into games. He says games allowed him to escape to another place.

“When I play games, I’m not thinking about the mission tomorrow,” Broman said. “I’m just thinking ‘get the bad guy.’”

Some of the games Broman fell in love with while on deployment include Skyrim, Persona 4, and L.A. Noire. Each of these are single-player games with a heavy focus on narrative. For Broman, these games were familiar and comfortable. They acted as a safe haven after a long day of patrolling a foreign place.

Games also helped Broman socialize with his platoon. Even though each member of his platoon came from a different place and background, games served as a common ground where they could connect with one another. Broman specifically remembers playing a lot of Call of Duty: Black Ops.

“That’s what we did because there was nothing else to do,” Broman said.

Broman still plays Battlefield 3 with members of his platoon even though he’s no longer on deployment.

Recently, the media has claimed a link exists between video games and real-world violence. Broman argues against this, saying video games are too abstract to be mistaken for reality, which is why his platoon could enjoy military games like Call of Duty, despite having to work as soldiers every day.


In fact, Broman and his platoon would collectively laugh at the discrepancies between Call of Duty and actual military life, such as how a .50 caliber rifle in the game sounded like a “peashooter” when compared with a genuine gun.

Broman thinks it’s the competitive element of games that attracted his platoon, not the violence. He says they would also play family-friendly games like Mario Kart, which he believes is equally competitive.

Like Broman, Clayton Stratton also played video games while serving in the military. He served in the United States Navy for six years, deployed on the USS Nimitz, a supercarrier and one of the largest warships in the world, and on the NAS Lemoore in California.

Stratton says that games are a perfect social conduit for servicemen and women since the military already has a “built-in” group mindset and a mental culture that fosters both cooperation and competition simultaneously. He thinks video games can encourage a stronger sense of belonging.

"As a result," Stratton said, "video games can foster or further encourage closer-knit military units and a stronger sense of belonging, leading to potentially more efficient and cohesive military units."

Stratton's words are now being echoed by researchers at Duke University who say that video games may actually make better soldiers. At least in the sense that they can ascertain and process critical information more effectively on the battlefield.

In an article by The Daily Mail, Professor Greg Applebaum of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience is quoted as saying, "Gamers see the world differently. They are able to extract more information from a visual scene."

It's pretty obvious how important this can be for the lives of the men and women on the front lines. To say nothing of the emotional impact video games have.

That's a fact not lost on USO Chief of Staff and Executive Vice President John Pray -- a retired Brigadier General. The United Service Organizations was founded in 1941 by President  Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those folks know a thing or two about helping our troops on the front lines. They've evolved with the times and know what kinds of entertainment can help our soldiers.

John Pray, USO Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff, watches as troops participate in a Pro vs. GI Joe event with the Florida Marlins in 2011. 


"Our goal, our mission, is to lift the spirits of troops and families … We support and comfort ... We connect families and their loved ones ... And then we entertain," Pray said.

"MEGS [Mobile Entertainment Gaming System] is a project that we started several years ago. We have listened to our service members and we understand that gaming is a big part of their lives before they got in the military, it is a big part of their lives while they're in the military. It's a great way [for them] to relax and recharge."

Pray said that the MEGS system is precisely what it sounds like. Built from the ground up, it's a ruggedized case loaded with equipment: A system, controllers, flatscreen TV, games and movies. It allows them to respond to requests from a unit or a group of soldiers serving overseas and provide them with a contained gaming experience.

It does, however, need to be plugged in, which obviously presents some difficulties. Though we here at Parallel Worlds think folks in the gaming industry should really get their act together and find a solution for that. We're thinking: Solar power.

The USO also has about 160 locations around the world where there are providing troops with a homelike environment to relax, recharge and many feature entertainment rooms for gaming . There are nine such centers in Afghanistan, Pray said.

"Within those centers, we have areas where we have banks of computers. [Troops] can either play by themselves or use the bandwidth that we buy that allows them to play maybe with friends back home or with others," Pray said. " We realize that not every service member can make it to one of our centers. Particularly in Afghanistan, serving in a lot of austere locations," Pray said.

You read that right: The USO has to buy bandwidth. Which seems particularly unfair. But the USO has a good relationship with 3Di Technologies, which helps the organization with its connectivity.

Pray said, "Another program that we have, to provide gaming out to our troops wherever they are, is USO2GO. Units can order one of eight modules -- they can actually order all eight if they want to -- one of which is gaming.

"That's our most popular."

Once the order is validated, the USO fires them off -- through the U.S. Postal service, no less. Once the package gets to Kuwait for example, one of the major staging areas, the military takes over and delivers into the destination theater.

Another fascinating program the USO hosts is 'Pro vs. G.I. Joe,' where professional athletes will game with soldiers stationed overseas. The communications are done via Skype, and, again, the USO usually needs to purchase bandwidth for these events.

The Call of Duty titles are the most popular, Pray said. In fact, CoD voice stars James Burns and Kamar de los Reyes were most recently working with the USO in Afghanistan. They were out with the troops while we spoke with Pray.
Pray also echoed what Broman and Stratton said: Even single-player games become group events. "It's amazing to watch," Pray said. "Maybe just one person is playing, but everyone is engaged."
It gives them a chance to escape their harsh realities.
Of the psychological aspects, Pray said, "There's an intensity [in the games] that keeps you interested and focused, but is not like you're bringing other combat experiences into that environment. It allows them to play. [The troops] understand that it gives them the opportunity to recharge their minds in a different way."
Another harsh reality of the situation is that the billions and billions the gaming industry pockets does not find its way to those gamer troops. The USO operates almost exclusively through game and system donations. Though they do purchase some systems with donated funds.
Activision is a notable exception. They work closely with the USO.
"They do some marvelous stuff for us," Pray said.
In our opinion, it's not enough. These are our troops. Men and women who quite literally put their lives on the line for us. They do it so we don't have to. We can sit here and stay home and enjoy our games in safety (or sit here and write an article about it on a nice computer we'll be gaming on later).
The troops don't have that option.
And this isn't a matter of politics. Nobody cares who you voted for. It doesn't matter what 'side' you're on.
This is just a matter of people helping people.
Please: Donate. Be it money or games or movies or books or time, through volunteering.
Pray left our conversation with this message to the troops: "The USO is America’s way of saying thank you to our troops and their families."