The RPG Elements of Military Service

Petraeus Explained
RPG Elements at work.

For those not familiar, RPG elements are defined as “game mechanics traditionally found in role-playing games that are incorporated into a non-RPG title.” They include:

Leveling up player characters
Inventory systems
Loot and loot systems
Character customization
-Persistent weapon and skill upgrades

For a deeper look at how RPG elements work, and how they make playing video games addictive (in a fun way), read this article at Kotaku.

One of the things that makes military service so enticing are the built-in RPG elements. Military service, by nature of war, is probably the job that relates most to video games – even if that comparison remains trite or childish. Besides the “content,” the way the military works internally often looks and feels like a very, very long video game.

To be clear, the military is not like a video game and, if it was, it would be like this one. However, I’m acknowledging something I’ve noticed over time, as a longtime gamer and soldier.

Looking around, RPG elements can be found all over the place. Using the examples above, I’ll elaborate.

Leveling up – Promotions with increased pay and job upgrades. Some promotions require going before a selection board, what might be known as a “trial” in an RPG.

An Army promotion board. Also known as a "trial."
An Army promotion board. “The Trial of the Command Sergeant Major.”

Inventory –  There are certain things that might be identified as “inspectable items” that have to be on a soldiers’ person at all times. Then, of course, there are packing lists for training and operations.

The stuff I’ve got in my “inventory.”

Loot – Special equipment for different mission sets (breaching tools, signaling equipment). Items found on the objective during a sensitive site exploitation – maps, cell phones, etc. And don’t forget the “free stuff” soldiers find when conducting police calls – usually eye protection, multi-tools, and magazines.

"Loot" gathered after conducting sensitive site exploitation during NTC.
“Loot” gathered after conducting sensitive site exploitation during NTC.

Character customization – Admittedly, aesthetic choices are limited. However, when it comes to field gear, most units allow a degree of customization – “shooter’s preference” – and most soldiers can tell apart other soldiers based purely on the way their gear is setup. And while hair is strictly regulated, there is definitely a range of allowed styles that can easily differentiate – from bald to the infamous high and tight.


Persistent weapon and skill upgrades – Weapon upgrades come in the form of actual weapon upgrades. New sights, magazines, slings, etc. Skill upgrades come in the form of additional schooling and training.

Lots of "upgrades."
Lots of “upgrades.”

Quests – This is probably where military service most relates to RPGs. While military service generally speaking is most similar to a traditional Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMO) – essentially a single-player game with thousands of others – there are also opportunities for Campaign Mode (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom), numerous side-quests that upgrade your “stats” (Ranger School, Recruiting/Drill Sergeant Duty), and lots and lots of grinding (physical training, field exercises, staff duty, etc).

Worst. Quest. Ever.
Worst. Quest. Ever.

The thing that I think most encapsulates the RPG elements of military service is the Enlisted/Officer Record Brief. It’s like pressing pause and clicking on “status” in most video games. On the ERB/ORB, you get a “snapshot” of a soldier’s service. Included is: name, branch (infantry, aviation, etc.), rank, personal information (religious preference, marital status) previous deployment information (campaigns), security clearance status, foreign language proficiency, military education (special schools), additional skill identifiers, civilian education, awards and decorations, assignment information, and a picture of the servicemember (avatar). The more things you do in the military – the more quests you go on – the more stuff you get on your ERB/ORB. By the time you make Command Sergeant Major or General, you’re essentially at level 99.

It was Napoleon who said “A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of colored ribbon.” While that statement remains true (look again at GEN Petraeus’ stack up top), today, Napoleon might say “A soldier will fight long and hard to update his ERB.”

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