November 11th is a holiday in the United States. Its a day set-aside to thank veterans of the US military for their service and to reflect on the sacrifices they all make of their time, their health, and all too often, their very lives. As gaming has become increasingly mainstream, were finding more and more members of the military joining the digital ranks in the War on Boredom. In honor of the coming holiday (and birthday for all the Marines out there), I thought we might take a look at how games are doing more than simply alleviating boredom.
When I was serving in the US Army, we had building-sized simulators for practicing convoy operations. We had what amounted to laser-tag with our squad-on-squad combat training. The guys that flew helicopters, and especially drones, had even more than that. So I guess it really shouldnt be a surprise that games are pretty instrumental in training the modern military. What may surprise you though, is how some of these games are being used to help some of our men and women when they get back home as they combat PTSD and try to re-integrate to civilian life.
Seeing the Signs
Wired.com posted a story (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/10/pstd-game/ ) not too long ago about the Pentagon paying out nearly half a million dollars to small companies hired build a new type of video game. These programs are designed to help identify servicemen suffering from mental issues by tracking their scores while playing simple games.
The idea stems from the realization that therell be a dramatic drop in scores if a Soldier experiences a traumatic event that they have trouble separating themselves from. So the plan is to possibly equip servicemen with these games as they deploy and then monitor the scores over time. After being involved with an ambush or an IED, if the scores stay down, then that could be an indicator that the serviceman may need some additional help dealing with the situation.
Its not Angry Birds, but it is rather close.
Obviously the big problem will be making games someone wants to play. One constant fact of the battlefield is that getting a Soldier to do something he thinks is stupid is a veritable exercise in futility. Thus, simply ordering the games played probably wont be very effective. But not to worry, I understand they may be working on Angry Birds: Taliban.
Another interesting way games are being used to help servicemen comes from a project being developed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. According to the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/31/AR2011013101528.html ), the new concept is designed to help servicemen and their families learn to reintegrate in an anonymous setting and uses, appropriately enough, Second Life as the platform for the project.
Overseas servicemen form tight bonds with their comrades-in-arms, but family left back State-side often dont have the same coping mechanism.
Though the idea is based mostly around servicemen experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being traumatized overseas, I kind of feel that theres even more potential here. With or without PTSD, I can attest personally to the difficulty of readjusting to life in the States after an extended deployment. When you step off the plane and onto your native soil, theres this odd sense of detachment that sets in. Its a hard thing to describe, and mostly because of the bizarre mix of strong and conflicting emotions, all bundled by a Soldier whos spend the last year or more pretending emotions dont exist.
There seems to be a lot of potential in this project, and certainly there are a lot of servicemen that could use something like this to sort of phase back into society rather than just being thrown into it. Because of the inherent anonymity of online games, itll be easier for men and women to open themselves to counselors and talk about the things they would otherwise never allow themselves to express in person. Also, its an opportunity for family members to gain a better understanding of how hard reintegration is for their returning loved ones, as well as vice versa.
Can PTSD be Reversed?
I dont know if PTSD can be reversed, but Wired.com (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/07/neurofeedback/ ) and the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/25/tetris-ptsd-study-flashbacks_n_1453465.html ) have both had articles in the past year or so pointing out that studies of games such as Tetris have demonstrated that they have a capacity to help curb the effects of PTSD significantly. Apparently focusing on something simple that still requires a lot of concentration can help to reduce flashbacks, among other things. Now that there is evidence this process works, scientists have started towards the idea of creating games specifically to achieve that effect.
To those who have experience with PTSD or are close to those who deal with it, curbing flashbacks seems like a small thing when compared to all the problems associated with the disorder. It is, but its a critical thing that helps a lot of other issues. Its a difficult life walking around being reminded of things you really want to foget as you go about your day. Dealing with it would put anyone in a bad mood, but it also reinforces the aggressiveness needed to deal with those sorts of situations. Hyper aggressiveness is a required component of survival on the battlefield. For most, the mind equalizes after the stress of the situation has passed, but for those who have to endure constant flashbacks, that stress never passes and the mind is never allowed to move back to a more normal state.
Getting the Adrenaline Fix
Probably the most over-looked problem experienced by returning veterans is the adrenaline addition acquired after extended deployments. The first crack of a small arms round against an up-armored HMMWV or the buzz of a heave-caliber round passing just past will create a terror few can imagine. Our bodys way of dealing with terror is adrenaline. It shuts our minds down so that we can focus on the immediate task, enhances our speed, strength, and endurance, and it gives a rush of exhilaration to combat the fear that beats any chemical high ever invented. Its no exaggeration to say that Mother Nature knows her work, and she does it well.
Once or twice, and we may remember that time we were scared as an experience, telling it as a good war story to the guys at the VFW. Too many times, and it becomes a craving that you cant get rid of. This is what a good number combat veterans deal with, and youll know the evidence immediately when you see it. Its the guy who just bought a new sport bike and cant go anywhere unless hes well beyond the speed limit. Youve seen the guy who becomes a cop or a firefighter and throws himself into every dangerous situation with gusto. Its the guy who becomes a contractor because he just has to get back into the fight, but with fewer rules this time.
War-gasm n. \`WOR, ga-zem\ 1. Intense or paroxysmal excitement brought on by exposure to armed conflict. See Also: Sexual Tyrannosaurus
More than PTSD, more than the war wounds we tell our children about, this is the invisible cross our vets carry. I think its little recognized because it manifests in so many ways, but maybe theres something we can do to help control it. That therapy could be video games.
Flying, sailing, and racing sims are all great ways to relax into something monotonous and take your mind away from the world for a while, but sometimes you just need something with more action. For those times, games like PlanetSide, Firefall, Call of Duty, or Tribes might just be what the doctor ordered. Well, probably not. Most doctors would be horrified to hear someone recommend CoD to a returning vet, but those docs have never seen combat. Theres nothing in CoD that approaches realism, so I really dont think we need to worry about poor Jonny flipping out mid-match.
Engaging in some fun-filled twitch-based gameplay can really get the endorphins flowing. Its nowhere near the adrenaline rush of combat, and its certainly not a fix. That said, the guy engaged in whole-sale digital destruction isnt out barreling down the freeway in a two-wheeled torpedo either. Plus, when you do it with other vets, its a good time to laugh off your problems with folks who understand and maybe work through a few of those issues while pwning noobs.
Take Once Daily
Im no doctor by a long shot, and I seriously dont think anything I have to say should count as medical advice. What I know is what Ive done, and what several of my brothers and sisters in arms have done over the last several years. Im no expert, but Ive see whats worked for the folks around me. It doesnt solve everything, but I firmly believe spending a little time in an imaginary world can be a fantastic step towards returning to the real one.
When you login to your World of Warcraft account, youre no longer Private Snuffy, and youre no longer damaged goods. Youre MuleSkinn3r the dwarf warrior, G04tRope the cleric, DevilDawg the kobold paladin, or maybe MagnusFalco the mage that all the other folks in the group make fun of. Whoever you choose to be in the fictional universe, I think youre learning how to choose who you want to be in the more physical one, and thats a good thing.
Groups like the Black Widow Company arent just about having fun. Theyre this generations Legion Hall where vets go to be with their own and to continue serving their communities out of uniform.
As much as we might wish otherwise though, games cant fix everything. Sometimes the damage is just too great and you need help. Never for a moment believe you have no one to help, or have to do it on your own. Look around a little harder, and I think youll find you have an army of brothers and sisters around you just waiting to offer a hand when its needed.
If youre a veteran and are looking for someplace to start, here are a few places you might check out:
http://www.militarygamers.com A great community of Active Duty and Prior Service folks with connections to multiple military-centric clans and outfits across multiple games. They also have members who work in the VA for those who need help/advice on that front.
http://the-bwc.com A multi-game clan founded and operated by a veteran for veterans. Tired of trying to play tactically with people you cant understand? BWC is packed full of vets who learned from the same field manuals as you did.
http://www.militarymentalhealth.org A non-profit teamed with the US Department of Defense to build this website full of free screenings and self-assessments.
http://iava.org - Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is a non-profit organization formed specifically to help the latest generation of veterans.