VR gaming to combat suicide

I love this.

“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator at Travis, in a press release. “Actually saying phrases like ‘do you have a gun in the house’ or ‘are you thinking about harming yourself.’ We’ve seen over this week, even with squadron leadership, saying uncomfortable phrases like that, they actually say them quieter than other phrases that they’re more comfortable with. “ Dougherty said the training is helpful because it allows airmen to “get those reps” asking those questions so that they are more familiar if they have to ask them in a real-life situation.

The Air Force is using virtual reality to try to stop its suicide epidemic

This, in my opinion, is way better than simply being on the receiving end of another suicide awareness brief. Gaming has a role in training.

This generation is a generation of gamers. We have the tools and the technology to be more interactive. This is a step in the right direction.

Reps, reps, and more reps.

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“Toxic mentorship” through Boss and Snake

“The Boss” is Snake’s mentor, for those who know their Metal Gear lore. She is a legenedary soldier and the “Mother of Special Forces.

In a few of the early scenes in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this mentorship relationship takes center stage. It becomes the proximate drama that drives the story: a mentor who betrays her country versus her disciple sent to stop her.

What became clear to me, though, during these scenes, is just how “toxic” this mentorship has become.

Toxic leadership is a well-known phenomenon, especially in the military. Army doctrine (AR 600-100) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

Usually, we’re talking about toxic leadership in regards to a leader who has direct influence over subordinates in an organization. His or her toxic behaviors can be destructive to the organization. Effects can include lowered morale, decreased productivity, lower retention and more.

If you have served with a toxic leader, which I am willing to bet most people would attest, you know how difficult these periods can be.

But what if it is your mentor who is toxic? And worse, what if your mentor “wasn’t always that way” but has changed over time?

Our mentors are supposed to be the ones we go to for advice. Usually, our mentor is not our direct supervisor or even in the chain of command. It’s someone we can return to over time to check-in with, making sure we’re on the right path. The ones who can be honest with us and give us unvarnished feedback.

What does toxic mentorship look like? It’s hard to say. Conversations with mentors can seem different than conversations with your boss.

Many of us have experienced this. The advice given might seem a little more raw or cut-throat. Sometimes, this feels like you are being let in on a secret, or maybe as a mentee, you’ve reached a point where you can “handle” this level of advice.

Have you ever left a mentorship session or hung up the phone thinking, “Hm, that was not what I expected.”

And in truth, maybe the advice just is a little more raw. Maybe you are being let in on a secret.

Sometimes, though, people just change.

A toxic mentor – especially in a military context – might be someone who implores you to demonstrate loyalty to an individual as opposed to a unit or a specific mission. Or to engage in potentially destructive behaviors or practices that would otherwise be off-limits.

In the below three scenes, we witness Boss’ mentorship to Snake degrade from one of sage advisor, discussing the intricacies, contradictions, and challenges that professional soldiers face, to demanding individual loyalty from one of her “disciples.”

The Boss’ mentorship begins at 4:30.

Scene 1: In this CODEC call, the Boss is reintroduced to Snake. It is clear that they have a long-standing mentorship/mentee relationship and then offers some sage advice on patriotism, loyalty, and what it means to be a career soldier. To this point, it seems standard fare.

Toxic mentorship begins at 1:14

Scene 2: In this scene, the Boss states that she is defecting to the Soviet Union. She is also bringing two “Davy Crockett” nuclear warheads as a gift. Snake feels betrayed by his mentor, and to add injury to insult, she breaks his arm and tosses him over the bridge.

“What is it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me?”

Scene 3: Soon after arriving on the mission to eliminate Boss, Snake gets ambushed – by the Boss. For some context to the below, Snake is wearing the Boss’ bandana, which fell with him when she tossed him off the bridge. They exchange some words, and as Boss is leaving, Snake demands answers:

Snake: Why’d you defect?

Boss: I didn’t. I’m loyal… to the “end.” To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit, or your personal feelings?

You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you can’t defeat me either. You know me too well. Just look at that bandana. If you can’t put the past behind you, you won’t survive long. If we meet again, I’ll kill you.

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The “Mother of Special Forces”

Photo of Col. Aaron Bank (credit: arsof-history.org)

Hm. This was a bit surprising. The ‘Boss’ is considered the “Mother of Special Forces” in Metal Gear lore.

“Voyevoda.” Relevant conversation between Johnson and Kruschev begins at 4:06

Fiction, of course. The actual “Father of Special Forces” is Col. Aaron Bank, who died in 2004. Anyone who has gone through special operations training has spent time wandering the halls of the building that carries his name – Bank Hall – at Fort Bragg, NC.

I love how the front door to Metal Gear lore seems legitimate, and then once you step inside it just gets bonkers.

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An unrelenting desire to accomplish the mission

Isaac appears at the 1:30 mark.

I recently finished The Last of Us Part 2. It took me a half a year due to time constraints (moving, new job/routine). I probably would have written more about it as I did with part 1, but I didn’t relaunch CTG until October and wasn’t in the writing groove yet.

Anyway, while playing the game, I grew fascinated with the character “Isaac.” He is the commander of the “Washington Liberation Front” and a former Marine. I’m not going to get into the story, but you can watch the video above. He only appears in two cutscenes, although he is discussed at length in dialogue throughout the game. The scene above is the first of the two scenes, and the inspiration for this post.

What interests me about Isaac is his seeming resignation to his fate and the impossibility of his situation. It’s hard to tell, but he seems reluctant about everything he is doing. He is in command, but nothing he is doing is working. Truces, assaults, – they all fail. Yet he persists.

You initially find him seemingly torturing a captive for information. But Isaac himself seems tired of it.

“Don’t let him fall asleep.”

In the conversation with Abby, Isaac speaks with exhaustion, shoulders slouched. He has a plan and a way forward – he sees a path to victory – but he needs everyone on board. And everyone (Abby included) has their own personal issues that they need to take care of. Isaac knows his soldiers and knows he needs Abby to accomplish his mission. This is when he shows a little empathy to her and also appeals to her sense of duty to the team. 

“We need you.”

Just enough to get what he needs and keep the machine running.

That exhaustion and resignation coupled with an unrelenting dedication to accomplishing the mission strikes me because it’s something I’ve seen before. Commanders, good men and women, placed in impossible positions of leadership, trying to move heaven and earth to meet an objective. It’s a position that grinds you down and can make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – because of the mission.

I can’t tell, but the vibe I got from experiencing the game the first time was that Isaac was probably a good person. Before the outbreak, I imagine he was a good man. But this situation tore him down.

No grand discoveries here. Just an observation.

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War: Less like Call of Duty, more like Mass Effect

Originally published in 2014.

I forgot what prompted me to make this comparison. I think I had heard someone making the comparison of war to the popular game ‘Call of Duty.’ They may have been disputing the comparison, but the linkage was made. I remember shortly after getting out of the Army, a young boy’s first question upon learning that I had served in the Army overseas was to ask if it was like ‘Ghost Recon,’ another popular war game.

I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty or any of the ‘realistic’ first person shooters. They are flashy and visually stunning, but they are simple in their execution. For the most part, you navigate your avatar across a generally linear course, destroying everything in your path. Granted, I’m leaving out some things, but that is generally how the games work. Move. Destroy. Repeat until complete.

Those games reflect the exciting, but proportionally minute experiences of wartime service. Even out on the tip of the spear, the shooting war happens infrequently. I’ve never been in a Ranger or special operations unit – maybe their experience is Call of Duty-ish, but I’d venture it isn’t. A very tiny proportion of the American public experiences military combat, and the most visceral link the rest of the population gets comes displayed on an electronic screen in the form of movies and ‘realistic’ war games.

But if these games are zooming in and exploiting those tiny moments and expanding them to feature length, what then might serve as a better comparison?

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.

These nuances seem much more familiar to my military experience than anything I’ve seen in a ‘realistic’ combat game.

I don’t know, maybe I just missed out.

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The Keepers of the FOB

Originally published in 2015.

The other day, as I exited my room, there was an older man in civilian clothes with a clipboard putting a fire extinguisher back into its wall-mounted cradle nearby. I nodded to the worker and he barely nodded back. A few days earlier, there was a small fire and all of the fire extinguishers were used and then seemed to dissapear.

And now, a few days later, they were recharged and back in their original place. No coordinations were made.

Something I’ve noticed more on this deployment than previous ones is the level of maintenance and upkeep that occurs on the FOB (Forward Operating Base). While some of it is done by military personnel, much of the day-to-day life functions are carried out by private contractors and local workers. It all kind of happens in the background, wrenches turning, equipment moving, fire extinguishers being replaced, all without anyone ever really noticing or even asking.

It reminded me of the Keepers on the Citadel (from Mass Effect). We’re warned early on not to mess with them; their origins are mysterious, but hey, they keep things running so why mess with a good thing?

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Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

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Sniper-baiting: “The oldest trick in the book”

MGS1-Snake-Sin

This is essentially one of the nightmare scenarios that opponents of women in the infantry use to deflate the argument. In a mixed infantry, the argument goes, (some) men will be unable to control themselves when their female comrades are in harm’s way. Their masculine protective instincts will kick into gear, and they’ll be unable to perform their soldierly duties properly.

Somehow, Solid Snake manages.

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Metal Gear Solid and 1960s Green Berets

Big Boss Drinking canteen

I just started playing Metal Gear Solid V. I’ve always been really fascinated with the series. I was obsessed with it for Nintendo when it first came out. It was unique and interesting.

I played it again when it came out for Playstation. I really enjoyed reading through the military lore of that game, and uncovering the deep background of Solid Snake and unpacking what the hell was going on.

I kind of stopped playing after that one. I purchased the second MGS for Playstation 2 but never made it past the opening boat scene. A buddy bought me Snake Eater but that game remained in its wrapper. I was busy with work and just never had the time to get into it.

Despite not playing the past decade of Metal Gear, I’ve kept up with the trajectory of the game through the internet. I know the series has bounced around and has revealed a comically ridiculous plot line.

Still, if there is one thing I’ve enjoyed through the series, it’s Hideo Kojima’s reverance for special operations through the past century. Because the game bounces through time, and you always play some kind of elite soldier, operators from the 1960s are held up against operators in the 2000s. With the exception of some fantasy, a lot of the field gear is accurate. The picture of Big Boss drinking from a Vietnam era canteen (still used today, by the way) is what spurred me to write about this. In the same opening scene, Big Boss is wearing an old “butt pack” on his web gear, again, consistent with the timing of this game (mid-1980s).

With the game spreadout through time periods, and weaving in and out of different eras, it makes me wonder what the real differences are in special operators on one end, and typical soldiers on the other. Is a 1960s era Green Beret similar to Persian Gulf War era Solid Snake? What about the 1980s? My gut instinct says that special operators today are much more advanced in the realm of developing physical fitness with increased knowledge and availability of nutrition and training information, but I have no way of knowing if this is actually true.

And I never see old pictures of fat special operators.

What about field craft? My gut also tells me that old school operators probably practiced better field craft than modern operators, partly because they were not so beholden to technology, and partly because they came from a different generation.

The picture of Big Boss drinking out of a Vietnam era canteen spurred me to write this. Besides getting me thinking about comparisons between eras, Hideo Kojima has always been good at getting gear generally right. In this same scene, Big Boss is wearing an old school butt pack on his web gear. On the absurdity level, he had just finished escaping a hospital while being chased by a flame monster on a unicorn.

And since I’m on the topic of Metal Gear, there’s a part of me that thinks that the whole series is complete bullshit. That the original Metal Gear for Nintendo was a stand-alone military game that featured a prominent stealth option. When they made a second one, they bolted on more of a story and then again and again as each iteration came out. I just have a hard time believing that Kojima had this nearly century long timeline and idea thought out back in the late 1980s.

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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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