At a morning formation, or at the rifle range, soldiers look like soldiers have always looked; disciplined, aggressive, and serious as a heart attack.
There is something very different about today’s soldiers, though, that most Americans might find surprising.
No, it’s the fact that almost universally, pretty much every member of a modern platoon is a “gamer.”
A gamer, mind you, is one who routinely plays video games for entertainment. Being a gamer does not necessarily define a person, although it might, but it does indicate that a person spends a significant amount of his or her free time playing video games, in the same way that another person may spend their time watching “Dancing with the Stars” or reading “Fifty Shades of Gray.”
When I invaded Iraq in 2003, most of the junior soldiers I served with grew up playing video games. Many brought Gameboys with them and we spent hours trying to beat each other’s fastest time in a “Mario Kart” time trial or struggling to knock out Mike Tyson on an NES emulator-version of Mike Tyson’s “Punch-Out” on the XO’s ToughBook.
The senior NCOs and officers, however, were mostly non-gamers. These are the guys who deployed during the first Gulf War and suffered through the military of the 1990s. Their childhood was defined by its lack of video games, as far as I am concerned. Games just weren’t their thing. For the most part, they were country boys or “old-school” and looked at the rest of us with disdain, as softer versions of themselves.
More than ten years later, things have changed: The Global War on Terrorism has been fueled by Red Bull and “Halo” tournaments. Almost universally, today’s soldiers speak the language of video games. The background conversations of the duty day revolve around “Call of Duty,” “Titanfall,” and “What’s your Gamertag, sir?”
As an infantry platoon leader, I’ve given classes on ethics using scenarios from “Mass Effect,” a game that has more resonance with today’s soldiers than My Lai.
There’s a standard line that permeates the ranks of the more senior non-commissioned officers in the Army. They’d argue that this generation of soldiers is softer than others, by virtue of their upbringing in front of a television screen with their thumbs on a controller. I’d argue that this generation of soldiers, precisely by virtue of their Nintendo-upbringing, is better prepared for the challenges of the modern battlefield. This generation, unlike those of earlier generations, have faced civilization-damning decisions and the reality of perma-death. They have struggled with decisions that affect “the ending” and know how much it sucks to get popped after all of that work. No one wants to make it to be a level 70 orc shamanonly to get killed in a botched raid.
In fact, the Army itself has taken to games as a way to move the force forward. It is the future and should be embraced, not ridiculed.
As a military gamer, it feels like we are at a crossroads, where a culture that has been forever defined by its stoicism and conservatism is teetering towards “bro’ing it out” at Twitch.tv and Reddit.
And I’m not convinced that that’s a bad thing.