Flash-to-Bang: Nonsense on the internet, hearing it from soldiers

Smoke Grenade

Just about everyone I meet in the Army has a Facebook account now. It is more odd to not have one than to have one. Whenever I am up, standing in front of soldiers, I automatically assume I’m being Snapchatted. Social media is out there and exists. There’s no putting it away.

There are loads of military themed sites that vie for the attention of service members and veterans. Years ago, it was soldier blogs that made waves, giving others a peer inside the world of the military. Those have mostly died off, replaced instead with aggregate sites that allow many more voices to be broadcast to a much wider audience. These are sites like Task & Purpose, We Are The Mighty, The Rhino Den, Havok Journal, SOFREP, etc.

Then there are the strictly social media landing spots – Power Point Ranger, U.S. Army W.T.F. Moments, Gruntworks, Doctrine Man, etc. The list goes on and the low barrier to entry – an internet connection and an idea – allow these sites to rapidly proliferate and compete for the attention of its audience.

While aggregate sites allow for the display and dissemination of partially to fully formed ideas, the social media sites are pure candy. They post clickable, shareable, rage-baiting images and ideas designed to trigger an emotional response. Some of it is hilarious. A lot of it is nonsense.

Last week, before the media event and graduation at Ranger School, I heard soldiers speaking with confidence to one another that the outcome was pre-determined because of the Havok Journal article that claimed the President was going to be at the graduation, so ipso facto, the women got a free pass. In the circles I heard the claim, no one made a correction. No one said it was nonsense. It was read on the internet, disseminated, and settled.

A couple of months ago, when this article about the demise of Army leadership began making the rounds again, I was approached by a good soldier asking me why he should stay in the Army, because that article resonated with him.

Back in Afghanistan, I watched junior soldiers grow enraged over the ARCOM awarded to MSG Moerk because they saw a thousand memes on it. I could never imagine why a junior soldier – or any soldier – would be so interested (and outraged) at an award a senior NCO gets at a post, far, far away.

I’m not sure I’m shedding any new light on this. I’m sure in institutions all over the world social media is having a similar effect. I certainly see it in politics. It’s just something I’ve noticed a lot more in the military recently.

There is still this assumption that what happens online, stays online. That is an outdated understanding of the internet. What happens on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, interplays with conversations in morning formations. That funny picture I clicked ‘like’ on before PT becomes the actual thing someone references during the run. Only, out in the wild, removed from its original context of a funny thing on a goofy military site, it might not be so funny.

Related: The Military Meme Machine. I’m not a fan.

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The unexpected benefit of last week’s historic Ranger graduation

Shaye Haver, Kristen Griest

Only a tiny fraction of soldiers in the Army will ever attend Ranger School. Infantry officers and members of the 75th Ranger Regiment will most likely get a shot (or multiple) at going to the school. For the rest of the Army, depending on where and when you are, it can be challenging to get the opportunity to go.

And if that chance appears, it is even more challenging to get soldiers to volunteer.

Even in the infantry, where you might expect to find more eagerness, finding volunteers is not easy. The question “Who wants to go to Ranger School?” is often met with blank stares and laughs.

Everyone knows the school is challenging and “sucks,” and the idea of voluntarily thrusting yourself into that can seem anywhere from unappealing to masochistic to the soldier who already spends a lot of time away from home, deployed, training, or in various states of misery. At 30th AG at Fort Benning, where all infantrymen begin, just about everyone is committed to being an Airborne Ranger and being all they can be. Somewhere between laying on a cot at 30th AG, dreaming of what could be, and mile 23 of a loaded foot march under the hot Georgia sun, that eagerness fades away. The reality of what it means to “suck” seeps into the soldier, and the idea of what might transpire at Ranger School becomes understood.

The school carries its own mystique. In the book Black Hearts, author Jim Frederick accurately describes the deference afforded to the Ranger tab and the cult that surrounds it as “shamanistic.”

On top of that, Ranger School has always been a bit of a mystery. It’s all tales of privation, darkness, and pain. It’s about small camps in the middle of nowhere, cutoff from civilization. The high attrition rate frightens soldiers away before they ever even think about putting a packet together.

It’s certainly too early to tell for sure, but I think last week’s historic graduation might not just have an effect on whether the course ultimately opens up to women (and it’s hard to imagine how it won’t at this point), but I think there are likely a lot more men who are suddenly rethinking whether they might consider going to the school themselves.

Put simply, those who may have been frightened by the mystery or questioned their own ability are looking at Captains Griest and Hayer and thinking “Well shit, if they can do it, maybe I can do it too.”

While the past few months have been particularly embarressing in military social media in regards to the crazy, conspiratorial posts about the school, the one guy heard from another guy about lower standards posts, last week’s very transparant lead up to the graduation ceremony saw a significant change in what was being shared and discussed online. As more information emerged on what actually happened in the woods, mountains, and swamps over the past six months, the “haters” kind of faded into the background.

11872221_988415437887198_655607911683504486_o

There was a popular image that was floating around once it was announced the two female Ranger students had passed. It essentially says that Ranger School is now a different institution. The implication was that the only way they could have possibly passed was because the standards had been lowered.

As stupid as that image was, it was actually right in one regard. Ranger School will be different. More men will now be willing to raise their hand and volunteer for the school, simply because they’ve seen that a woman can do it. It’s not misogny that’s will drive them, but the fact that female Ranger students have so much more to overcome in order to pass the course, and despite their shortcomings, two were able to do it.

The Army wants more Rangers. The school wants to graduate as many Rangers as they can. It’s good for the Army. But Ranger School will not, rightfully, lower standards to do it. The best way to effect the net number of Ranger graduates is sending more, better prepared students.

Most men self-select themselves out by never volunteering in the first place. The fact that two women have made it through removes some of the self-doubt that prevents a majority of soldiers – both combat arms and support – from ever considering volunteering.

In conversations among infantrymen, I already hear men talking about Ranger School a little differently now.

“It’s pretty motivating that they made it through. Hmm…”

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Iraqi Security Forces and the Will to Fight

Iraqi Flag

Originally I wanted to write a longer post on the Iraqi film al-Qadisiya (القادسية). I’ve been fascinated by it since graduate school when I first learned it existed. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot written about it English, and most of the basic Arabic articles I’ve seen say similar things.

The movie was commissioned by Saddam Hussein himself sometime around 1979. He hired prominent Arab film-makers to make what was widely reported at being the most expensive Arab film ever made. The excellent score was written and composed by the late Walid Gholmieh who later would work with the Gorillaz shortly before his death in 2011.

I haven’t been able to find a version of the movie with English subtitles, but just by skimming through it, you can see the scale of the film. Lots of extra, lots of costumes. It was an epic.

The film depicts the battle of qadisiyyah between the early Muslims and Persians. The Muslims win and later go on to seize territory in both Persia and the rest of the Middle East.

Without question, Saddam chose this battle because of its resonance with Muslims and its tie-in to contemporary nationalist aspirations. This was the eve of the Iran-Iraq War, and while both Iraqis and Iranians were Muslim, only one side consisted mainly of Persians. Saddam wanted to stoke pride in the ability of his citizens, and those who served the nation by “carrying the gun.”

But there really isn’t much more for me to say about the movie without doing some serious research.

It did get me thinking about the will to fight, and the issues the Iraqi Security Forces have been facing. As a military, Iraq has been the butt of jokes, for seemingly fleeing in the face of a small force of religious zealots.

It’s easy to just write off the Iraqis as cowards, as plenty of people do, but it doesn’t tell an accurate story.

Service in the Iraqi Army just about guarantees combat. Training is accelerated to get soldiers to the front as soon as possible. Incentives and benefits are generous (steady work) to encourage enlistment, where just showing up to sign up can get you killed in a fiery car bombing.

And what is it that they are signing up for?

An Army that suffered through a terrible war of attrition with Iran that left indelible scars on the entire populace.

An Army that was demolished in the Persian Gulf War in days and sent reeling back to to Baghdad.

An Army that atrophied under crushing sanctions and airstrikes for twelve years.

An Army that melted away during the invasion of Iraq.

An Army that was told not to return after being disbanded in 2003.

An Army that struggled to rebuild itself in fits and starts throughout the 2000s.

And all to defend a state that suffers from severe corruption and can barely govern.

On the other hand, the enemy they face appears well-organized, motivated, and aggressive. Their ideology is rooted in familiar terms and promises much more than a steady pay-check. They are unafraid to die for their cause, and in fact, welcome it. They have a worldwide fanbase that injects them with the certainty that their cause is righteous.

A young Iraqi soldier signing up for the Army today was likely born in the mid-1990s. His youth was spent under sanctions and US occupation. His life, thus far, has probably been pretty shitty. He has few job prospects and is being encouraged to join the Army, to fight ISIS.

He will likely see combat.

If he should be injured, where and how will he be treated?

If he should die, will he go to heaven?

It’s very easy to sit on this side of the world and sling the word “coward.” It’s much more difficult to consider what is actually happening over there.

There are examples of successful Iraqi units, though. Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ Gold Division is touted as the most successful Iraqi force. But it’s small. And the training required is more intense and longer in duration than typical units. And there there is a risk of relying too heavily on one, well-trained unit to the detriment of others. This is what happened to the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. They eventually became a praetorian guard for the dictator.

From what I’ve seen, the only sort of appeal to to something higher from the Iraqi state has been the “othering” of ISIS through state-sponsored cartoons and propaganda. For all of its disgusting elements, ISIS remains appealing to a disenfranchised youth. Simply making fun of it isn’t enough. What alternative does the state offer? What motivates an Iraqi soldier to give his life in service to the state?

When placed in those terms, it’s easier to understand why a poorly trained Iraqi regular might drop his weapon and flee Ramadi or Mosul in the face of an approaching enemy. Where is the example of the stalwart Iraqi soldier?

Saddam knew.

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Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and Student Veterans

city-college-campus-in-harlem

There’s been a lot of slinging going on about trigger warnings and microaggressions lately. For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a kind of “spoiler alert” for those who might be affected by being exposed to something traumatic. For instance, this article on Life Is Strange makes the argument that the game might have done a better service to its players if it gave them a trigger warning because of the traumatic nature of the content. Others argue that by doing that, it robs the game of some of the suspense and surprise.

Microaggression is a term that I’m not sure really has a rock solid definition yet, but is pretty much a form of discrimination or passive aggressive hate.

“Oh you were in the military, huh? You weren’t able to get into college?”

There’s this back and forth going on about these things, with some people arguing that we need to be more sensitive to everyone else’s potential feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that. Marching towards a better world is a good thing, in my view.

But a lot of these conversations are very focused on students and especially students who may have faced some kind of hardship in the past. PTSD comes up a lot, and so naturally, it gets me thinking about student veterans.

I attended college between 2006-2011. The Iraq War was at its height both in terms of unpopularity and casualties. I was taking a lot of courses on the Middle East and international relations, and the Iraq War came up a lot. Professors spoke about the war as a self-evident failure. It was a joke and an embarrassment. Students nodded along and scribbled notes.

Not once did any of my professors ever ask “are there any veterans in the class?” It wasn’t even considered a possibility. Those who served were someone else, somewhere else.

For anyone that served overseas, especially in Iraq, it is likely that the experience was formative. It was for me. I was young and the work was extreme. My entire being is tied up with the name and the place, for good or for ill. And to have it spoken about so casually by college professors and students as a failure or a joke was painful as a new student, trying to make my way on campus, unsure of how I was supposed to behave.

Early in my college career, I’d challenge. I’d raise my hand and offer my perspective. I’d counter a student who stated categorically that American soldiers habitually raped Iraqi women. I’d correct misconceptions about the nature of military service and the rules of engagement. My jaw dropped when one student answered “about thirty or something” when asked how many soldiers had died in the Iraq War (the answer, at the time was more than 4,000). I felt like as one of the few student veterans on campus, I had a duty and responsibility to say something.

But it was exhausting.

I learned quickly that once you “out” yourself as a student veteran, that’s it. When people see you, you’re now the “Army guy.” It doesn’t go away, and whenever a topic that has anything to do with “the war” or the military comes up in class, all eyes fall on you.

Later, when I went to graduate school, I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell other students or my professors. I didn’t want them to see me as a military man. I wanted them to judge me fairly. When students or professors said off the wall shit, I kept my thoughts inside.

In fairness, it is an odd world where a war happens, soldiers fight it, and then come home and go to college while the same war rages on.

And in super-fairness, I went to the City College of New York and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – neither of them exactly right wing war bastions of death.

But, if we’re going to move towards a world that is more considerate of peoples’ past experiences, then that should include student veterans. Whether they are suffering from PTSD or not, if they fought overseas – or even if they didn’t – their minds and emotions are likely intertwined with that discussion. Veterans certainly don’t need a trigger warning – the idea of being warned before they’re offended is comical. But what they do deserve is a fair chance at being heard.

And an understanding that they exist.

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The Waffle Joke

Soldiers sitting on rucks

The Udairi Desert, Kuwait. An abandoned compound in Baghdad. The woods of Fort Benning. An MRAP on the road between Bagram and Jalalabad. A cemetery in Texas.

“Okay, so there’s a sausage, a piece of french toast, and a waffle, right? And they’re all arguing over who is the best breakfast food. So the french toast walks up to the waffle and says ‘hey, I’m the greatest breakfast food ever.’ The waffle doesn’t take no shit so he just beats the crap out of the french toast and that was that. Then the waffle walks up to the sausage and says ‘yo I’m the best breakfast food that ever lived’ and then the sausage grabs the waffle and throws him into the ocean.”

I’ll tell you a joke, but I promise, you’re not going to get it now, but it’ll get funny later

Soldiers’ attitudes change when they go to the field. There’s something that happens between the moments of loading the vehicles with MREs and gear and that last run to the Shoppette to stuff your rucksack full of candy, nicotine, and beef jerky.

It doesn’t really hit until you get to wherever you’re going, the vehicles’ engines shut down and then it’s just quiet. Everyone jumps out the back of the truck, moving gear, already wondering about what time chow is coming. The silence is noticeable, and I imagine it’s similar to what campers or hikers experience when they finally get out there.

In a world filled with noise and distraction, the sudden silence is deafening and often leaves soldiers cutting it with their own noise.

I learned very early that I get funny in the field. Where I might be more serious in garrison, being in the field makes me want to entertain others.

“Whose got a joke?”

Standing around in a circle, everyone’s hands in their pockets because it’s cold and the will to enforce basic standards has started to erode, a grizzled NCO will demand that someone tell a joke. The demand is usually met with silence as soldiers quietly rack their brains for something that’s funny, appropriate, and also not one that’s been used before.

“Seriously, whose got a fucking joke?”

Now it’s become a quasi-order.

These jokes are rarely good. Every now and then you’ll have a soldier who has an amazing depth of jokes saved up for these occasions. He’s a goldmine, because a well timed joke can wash away the grime and suck of the field for a moment.

One of the soldiers in our platoon used to tell absurd jokes that he seemingly made up as he was telling them. A week in the field will make people a little odd, and he was no exception. We’d be laying on our backs, heads resting on our rucksacks looking above into a star filled sky surrounded by darkness as he would rattle off a fifteen minute story-joke about soldiers crossing creeks naked, holding balloons. His jokes were never really funny, but he’d pull us along, all of us yearning for a punchline which never came. Eventually, he’d suddenly end the joke. There’d be an awkward pause, and then someone would say “That’s it!?””

“Yup,” he’d reply.

And then we’d be back in the field.

Watching him, I learned that joke telling in the field can be therapeutic not just for those hearing the joke, but even more so for the joke teller.

He’d tell awkward jokes. Jokes in which he would have pre-coordinated with one or two soldiers to laugh at an absurd punchline that makes no sense. When he’d hit the key-word, those in on it would erupt into wild laughter like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Soldiers who weren’t in on the joke would start laughing nervously, not wanting to feel left out. This in turn would cause the original joke-teller and those in on it to laugh even harder, watching as their buddies faked the funk just to fit in.

And then there was the waffle joke.

The waffle joke is the ultimate field joke. Once learned and mastered, it can be used at the right moment to keep a platoon of infantrymen’s minds focused not on how much it sucks to be in the field, but on trying to solve the riddle of a joke with no answer.

I’ve told the joke about a dozen times, and it’s all in the telling, not the substance. The context matters too. You can’t tell it on the first day of the field when everyone smells good and their uniforms are clean. You have to be patient. Guys need to be sucking. You have to feel it out, and usually, in the moments when you’re just sitting around, waiting for chow to show up, or you’re in a school resting before resuming the patrol, you stand up and ask “Hey, who wants to hear a joke?”

Tired faces look up and shrug. Someone says “Send it.”

You enthusiastically declare that this is the greatest joke they’ll ever hear, that you’ve been telling it for years and it always delivers, but you’re remiss to tell it, because it always ends the same way. Everyone in the platoon will hate you for telling it. The worst part of it is, no one will get it now. You might think you’ll get it, but you won’t. In a few days time, it will reveal itself and then you’ll laugh. You’ll either think it is incredible or the stupidest fucking shit you’ve ever heard.

Someone interrupts “Just tell the fucking joke!”

And so you tell it, suddenly stopping on the word “ocean.” You peer into their confused eyes, watching them search for the meaning. One or two soldiers laugh, thinking they’ve figured it out. The rest of them stand there, faces twisting in disgust and confusion.

For the next few hours, soldiers will come up to you with their solution or questions: “Okay, so it was the waffle that got thrown in the ocean, right? Was he unconscious?”

It becomes a topic of conversation. The topic of conversation. Some soldiers enthusiastically throw themselves into solving it. Others decide they don’t even like you anymore. The joke reveals everything there is to be human.

Days pass.

At some point, the time is right, and the joke reveals itself, as you promised it would.

One or two soldiers quietly chuckle. The rest stare angrily with the black face of death.

Everything you said was right.

And they all hate you.

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The Existence of Evil; or, being an asshole as a choice

NOBODY MESSES WITH ME BITCH

Continuing the theme of posts inspired by Life Is Strange, I’ve been thinking about the concept of evil, as in, the propensity to do bad things.

In the game, every single character is explored in depth. While she might seem like a bitch and he might seem downright evil, over time, their personalities are revealed to be more complex, and they all seem to be suffering or struggling with some internal struggle. Or, they are the product of some outside influence that kind of makes you go “Hm, I guess I understand why he’s such a dick after all.”

By the end of episode four, I was left really disturbed by some of the things that were taking place in the game. The game gets really dark, and because it does such a good job of exploring people’s backgrounds and explaining or hinting why the “bad” characters do the things they do, I was left a little unsatisfied.

The bad characters can come off as victims of their own circumstances, and even though they are doing terrible things, you wind up showing them a little too much empathy.

For a few days after finishing Episode 4, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I felt frozen, unsure of what was right.

It relates to the way people often talk about ISIS. On the one hand, it is easy to look at them as a group and see the things they are doing and simply cast it as evil. They are evil and there is only one way to deal with them; elimination.

On the other hand, there are real circumstances that lead men and women to gravitate to a group like ISIS. They can be seen as victims of circumstance.

I am left very unsatisfied, though, at simply explaining every terrible thing that is done by people as a symptom of poverty, mental illness, social upbringing, peer pressure, or whatever. While these things all play into actions, by constantly searching for the “why” we are robbing people of the real agency they have over their own actions.

Ultimately, people make their own decisions, and what you are left with is the sum of those choices.

And while there are certainly exceptions – the truly mentally ill, for example – many people who choose to do wrong know exactly what they are doing. They know it is wrong and they do it because they choose to.

In this instance, empathy doesn’t really have a place. People need to be held accountable for their choices.

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Some random thoughts on suicide

I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately.

Mostly, it’s because I’ve been a bit obsessed with Life Is Strange these past few months. If you haven’t played Life Is Strange, and you intend to, there are spoilers below.

Kate Marsh Roof Journal

In the game, one of the secondary characters – Kate Marsh –  kills herself by jumping off the roof of a school, with her fellow students watching. It’s her choice. You watch her jump, and it is terrifying.

One of the game’s dynamics allows the player to rewind time to make different decisions or use the knowledge you have about the very near future to go back and do things differently. Here, the game allows you to rewind and then essentially stop time so that you can get to the roof and intervene in the suicide. Once there, it becomes clear that you have exhausted your power, and whatever decisions you make, you’ll have to live with. There’s no going back, and since you know what’s about to happen because you witnessed it, the emotional tension is heightened.

Depending on choices you’ve made previously, how much you’ve payed attention to the details about Kate’s life, and the things that you say on the roof, Kate will either go through with her suicide or decide against it.

When I played it originally, I saved Kate. I felt great for it.

My wife played through the game recently, and she wasn’t able to save Kate. She felt terrible.

A few minutes later, as the episode ends, statistics are displayed showing what percentage of players managed to “save” Kate and what percentage were not. For a game as emotionally charged as Life Is Strange, it’s like an extra punch in the gut. Not only were you unable to save her, but others were, meaning, you are somehow shittier as a person.

It’s suicide as a game mechanic. It’s emotional, tense, and a little strange. It also puts the player in the unfair position of being responsible for Kate’s suicide.

For anyone who has been around suicide, the emotional toll that remains for the family and friends left behind is incredible, and they will forever wonder if there was something they could have done. Laura Dale tackled this exact topic in Polygon back in April.

All that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with suicide as a game mechanicIt was part of the story, and it was handled in a delicate, but realistic way. It’s been done in other games, as well. And it is certainly better than “Press X to Pay Respects.”

More importantly, it has people talking about suicide.

For members of the military and veterans, it couldn’t be more relevant. While we are still a nation at war, suicide ranks as the top cause of death for members of the military by a wide margin. And it’s estimated that some 22 veterans die everyday by suicide.

Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about an old Army buddy who took his own life or another Army buddy asks for prayers for the loss of one of his.

Over the past few weeks, probably because of Life Is Strange, I’ve been reading through a lot of the suicide articles that maybe I’d normally scroll past.

It started with a front page look at campus suicide in the New York Times which eventually led me to this longer piece about Madison Holleran, whose seemingly Instagram-idyllic life ended dramatically with a rooftop leap.

Last week I read about Stephen Akins, an Army veteran who killed himself in an apparent overdose.

Just a couple of days ago I read about the family of 24 year old Army veteran Ian Michael Curtis who killed himself last year. They are still trying to figure out why he did it. His wife thinks it was simply a chaotic moment of darkness, a spasm of anger.

There’s the dark story of Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe who killed himself and posted the pictures to Facebook as he bled out. The gruesome photos were left online for two days while the family struggled with Facebook to have them removed.

Related is this article in Vice that chronicles the intersection between suicide and the internet – something that is likely to become more important in attempting to get help to those who need it.

Normally this would be the part of the article where I attempt to tie everything up neatly and provide some sort of synthesis, some greater idea that puts everything together neatly. After reading through all of these pieces, there really isn’t much for me to offer. As much as we know about suicide, it’s still a personal mystery, unique and difficult to understand.

The only thing I would add is I’m starting to think there is a greater role that youth plays in all of this. If you read through these articles, the underlying symptom is depression – mostly gone untreated, or at best, self-treated through drugs and alcohol.

Something I’ve recently begun to notice – and this might be one of the benefits of being the oldest platoon leader around – is my junior soldiers (~25 and younger) tend to fluctuate wildly in their moods. That is, one day they may seem happy, jovial, energetic. The next day they look down in the dumps and bummed out. My senior NCOs (~25 and older) tend to be more consistent in their mood. External pressure doesn’t push them too hard in one direction or the other. I think it’s easy to dismiss this as simply an effect of training and experience, but we now know that the brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s.  Yes, it’s true that at 18 a young man or woman can join the Army and go fight, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled internally.

Thinking back to when I was a junior soldier, I could fluctuate wildly as well.

While I’m not offering anything here but anecdotal conjecture, I think there is a lot more we can learn about depression and suicide, especially as it relates to the military community, if we take a harder look at youth and emotion. While simply getting older doesn’t eliminate the risk of suicide, there is evidence that shows it is major youth problem.

Add the risk of youth suicide (of which young military men and women fall into) with a generally pro-firearm environment (firearms are the most common method of suicide for American men) and an “accomplish the mission” attitude likely instilled through the process of militarization, and the problem of military suicide becomes more apparent.

If video game developers can integrate suicide as a game mechanic, and do it in a way that treats it seriously, then we can at the very least talk about it seriously, understanding that it is not simply a thing that happens to other people. It happens to us.

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Life Is Strange: Learning to make better decisions through gaming

Reflections

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, mostly on very early mornings on the weekends, you know that I’ve been playing Life Is Strange. I learned about the game back when I was in Afghanistan, a time when the prospect of being an 18 year old female hipster in the Pacific Northwest seemed very, very appealing. I caught up with the game and recently finished Episode 4 (The Dark Room) and one Episode remains. The game is beautiful and highly emotional, and I’ve been convincing as many of my friends as possible to play it, mostly to make them as miserable and depressed as me.

I’m currently working on a longer post about one of the game’s seconday characters, David Madsen, who’s a combat veteran. I actually have quite a few posts in the works that will be coming out related to the game, mostly because the game tackles a lot of important issues (suicide, youth, emotions).

In the mean time, I wanted to comment on one of the interesting features of the game, or rather, one of the interesting side effects that I think the game has. I recently wrote about how through playing narrative-based games, like Life Is Strange or even Mass Effect, the game forces the player to grapple with difficult dillemmas, and that these in-game interactions have actually made me think about the way that I engage with real people. Following up on that idea, what I’ve started to really think about is the way that the game allows you to sit back and really think about what decision you are going to make before actually making it, and the inherent training value this has.

I remember when I was playing Mass Effect, there were times that I would get to a critical decision point and actually get up, pour myself some more coffee, and then sit there, face twisted in thought as I contemplated how my decisions might affect the fate of the galaxy.

In Life Is Strange, the stakes are usually smaller, but often feel more personal (and seemingly real). I’ve been playing the game – as I do most non-linear games – the way that feels right for me. That is, I’m making the decisions as I think I would make them. There are times where I feel like the game is pushing me in one direction over another, like in the scene where I choose whether to make fun of Victoria or comfort her. Seeing those options, I knew that comforting her would be the right thing to do, but I also didn’t think I would actually do that in person. Victoria, to this point, has been a total pain and this was my opportunity to get revenge. I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Mass Effect was much more deliberate in this regard. Decisions colored red pushed you towards being a “renegage” whereas decisions colored “blue” pushed you towards being a “paragon.”

The point is, these in-game conversations, and more importantly, the agency the player has over choice, potentially has real value outside of the game.

Months ago I reviewed a game for iOS that works in this regard (Together Strong), using narrative-based interaction to help prepare veterans and their family members to recognize and effectively communicate with veterans or military members who may need help. Although I thought it was good as a training simulation, I wasn’t that interested in “playing” it again because it never really felt like a game. It felt like effective training. I really ought to revisit it.

I think there is real value in this kind of computer based interaction. Game design has advanced to a point where these types of games can be used to help better prepare people – especially veterans – for facing the tough conversations all of us will undoubteldy find ourselves in. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, anger, PTSD – if you’re in the military or around veterans, these are things you are going to see. And as much lip service as we give to making people “aware” of these issues, very little of substance is done in terms of actually arming ourselves with the tools to help someone.

We like to play games. Instead of another class on recognizing signs of suicide, maybe we simulate a conversation with someone who is really struggling in a context that is comfortable for us – games.

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