Video Games as FICINT

A lot of talk about “FICINT” or ficitional intelligence lately. This is good. Things are moving so quickly these days it’s hard to make logicial conclusions about what’s coming next.

Long-time readers will know that I’m a gamer – it’s my hobby. More than any other medium, I’ve found inspiration to think, write, and reflect, through games. I’d argue that games have always been loaded with meaning and narrative, but it’s true that as the gaming industry and community has matured, the plots and topics embedded have as well.

I never really thought of games as FICINT, but over the years I’ve written a number of pieces pulling directly from games as a way to think about mental health, stolen valor, suicide (and here), the military’s role in a zombie apocalypse, the RPG elements of military service, the importance of “staying alive,” military deception, the absurdity of war, soldiers vs. warriors, decision making, and grand strategy. I’m sure there is more, but that’s off the top of my head.

And I’m not alone. There are plenty of writers who are finding the intersection of war, warfare, and gaming. See this recent article in WOTR on the video game Eve and what it may teach us about the forever war. One of my favorite authors in this space is Matthew Gault, who also is a part of the Angry Planet podcast.

I always get the impression that when folks write about gaming and its relevance to anything outside of entertainment, it isn’t taken as seriously as film or literature. Maybe that is changing, but it’s changing very, very slowly. There is still a bias against gaming, and to many, it’s still considered a thing for children.

The reality is, we’re more than thirty years into a still-growing field. Three out of four Americans play video games. The video game industry is expexted to surpass $181 billion globally in 2021 (compared to $34 billion for the film industry).

When I joined the military in 2001, most soldiers played video games. Sure, there was a cadre of older soldiers who had joined in the 1990s (or earlier) who weren’t really into it, but the shift was already taking place 20 years ago.

The men and women joining the military these days have only lived in an era of “next-generation” video game platforms. Even the original Playstation and Xbox were before their time.

We’re at a perfect point to leverage games to help us understand the world around us. It is relevant.

There have been plenty of FICINT-like pieces written using Star Wars or Game of Thrones as a frame of reference. Those are taken seriously.

Why not games?

As an aside, my original intent for this post was to lament the fact that I’ve only recently gotten interested in the gaming photo community. I was first introduced to it through Dead End Thrills, which captures gorgeous screenshots. As I was looking at relaunching CTG, I wanted to find a space to share more gaming stuff that wouldn’t clog the blog. That’s what I use Instagram for. There is a whole community of gamers who are sharing screenshots. It’s also another way to expand the reach of the blog and hopefully bring in folks who might not have an inroad to ‘critical thinking on war and warfare.’

And the reason for the lamentation is the fact that I’ve missed so many great opportunities to share. Fallout 4, Red Dead Redepmtion II, Death Stranding, the Last of Us II. All done, and games that I’m not likely to go back to for awhile.

Thankfully, the Mass Effect Trilogy remaster will be coming with a photo mode.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Taking care of our own

I said everything I need to say about this in the below tweet.

In this episode, COL Eric Kreitz, the 1st SFC(A) Director of Information Warfare sits down with the 1st SFC Chaplain COL Chris Dickey. They discuss COL Kreitz’s very personal story – one of fear, addiction, and hitting rock bottom…but also one of resilience, support, and overcoming adversity. 

The Indigenous Approach – Caring for Our Most Important Resource

The audio is a little off, but it’s worth it.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Mental health and suicide in the Army – A lesson from Mass Effect

Kelly Chambers. BA, Psychology.

Originally published in 2012.

This past week has seen a couple of sobering reports released by the Pentagon concerning suicide in the military. The first confirmed that in the first 155 days of 2012 there have been 154 confirmed suicides by active duty servicemembers across the force. 136 servicemembers were killed in Afghanistan during the same period.

On Wednesday, suicide was named as the second highest cause of death for servicemembers (after combat), outpacing car accidents, cancer, and other causes of death.

Suicide has been a growing problem for the Army over the past ten years. Understandably, people often point to the pace of deployment and the over-stretching of the all-volunteer force as the likely antagonizer. It makes sense to assume that deploying the same people over and over again might result in an increase in mental health issues (which it might). But in the Army’s 2009 study on suicide, 79% of soldiers who committed suicide had one or no deployments. So while the pace of deployments might have an effect on overall mental health, it does not correlate with the increase in suicides.

What this means is that we still do not know why this is happening.

For its part, the Army has worked hard to try to combat suicide. Even before I got out of the Army in 2006, suicide was already a topic that was treated seriously by commanders. If someone threatened to kill himself – even in jest – it was a threat that needed to be taken seriously.

I’ve been back in the Army for under a year, but I have already seen the introduction of some great programs that are intended to get ahead of mental health problems and ultimately suicide. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a program designed to build “resilience” in soldiers (and family members) to prepare them for the rigors of not only combat and military service, but life in general.

I have not taken the Master Resilience Trainer Course (yet) but I have taken some of the individual modules while at IBOLC. Without question, the program requires a “buy in” from the participant. Essentially, the person engaging in CSF needs to “want” to get better or become more resilient. In a military where a mental health stigma still exists, getting that “buy in” is the hard part. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to take the course before leaving Fort Benning. I’ve already bought in.

Anyway, like the title of this post hints, I’m going to talk about Mass Effect. Readers of this blog know that I take inspiration from fantasy – be it art, music, or video games. I’ve been playing the series for the past couple of months and recently began playing Mass Effect II. One of the things that stuck me was the presence of Kelly Chambers aboard the Normandy. Kelly serves as Commander Shephard’s Executive Assistant, but she also serves as the chief mental health officer. Her job is to monitor the mental health of the entire crew to ensure that any problems can be addressed before they come to fruition. It struck me as the kind of thing that would be helpful at the platoon, company, or battalion level.

Given the nation and the Army’s shortage of mental health professionals, it would be aspirational at best to try to implement something like that across the force.

Still, it made sense to me that there should be someone – a human being – monitoring the mental health of the fighting force over a period of time. Questionnaires and tests are okay, but they lack the understanding that a person who has been around for months or years would have. I think if CSF is implemented effectively across the Army, the platoon MRT might serve this role. While not a true mental health specialist, this would be preferred to the little that is in place right now.

Be it mental health specialists at the platoon/company/battalion level, effective use of the CSF program, or something we haven’t though of yet, it is clear that something more needs to be done to address suicide in the force. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but when I see something that I think might be helpful, I’ll bring it up. Thus, the vignette from Mass Effect.

Here is a great resource from the Army G1 on Suicide Prevention.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Afghanistan Post Mortem: Readjustment takes time

Stress over time: Fantasy
Stress over time: Fantasy

About three-quarters through the deployment, I could physically feel that my patience, or rather, my ability to be patient, had severely diminished. I found myself getting easily frustrated with things that I would have been able to manage much better earlier in the deployment. My patience had been eroded, but I was cognizant of it, and because I was aware of it, I was able to manage my own impatience (eh, some of the time).

Speaking with other leaders about this, they reported a similar phenomenon. The challenges of leadership coupled with the stress of deployment had chipped away at their mental stores.

And the deployment went on, and then we went home.

Despite the constant drum-beat during re-integration training that war has a significant effect on the psyche, the thought that “everything will be better when we get home” still lingers. While it’s true that the immediate danger is gone, the phsyiological changes that occured and led to our being easily frustrated probably takes time to reset. It’s hard to imagine that the cumulative effect of nine months of deployed life (coupled with the tough training that preceded it) is wiped away simply by crossing enough time-zones and setting feet down on American soil.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Stress over time: Reality
Stress over time: Reality