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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The Chattanooga Shootings and the Era of Persistent Conflict

Forever War

Forgetting we are at war has become very easy. Although we still have troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it feels as though those two conflicts have been tucked in, put to sleep, and we’re tip-toeing out the door, trying not to wake them up.

For those who have served, last week’s shooting in Chattanooga did not come as a major surprise. While the media quickly shifted to searching for the “why,” looking for rock-solid connections between this or that terrorist group and the shooter, many veterans instinctively knew it was tragically just another SIGACT in the Global War on Terrorism, to resurrect that dying phrase.

In 2008, when I was in New York City attending college, a bomb was thrown at the Times Square Recruiting office. Just another SIGACT.

I remember waking up early one morning when I was attending school in Egypt and reading the news about the Fort Hood massacre, where MAJ Nidal Hassan murdered 13 people at an SRP site at Fort Hood, Texas. In the same year, there was an attack on a recruiting station in Arkansas that saw one soldier killed and another wounded.

Then, as now, I didn’t wonder about the motive.

The term “era of persistent conflict” has been thrown around a lot in the past decade, and honestly, I’ve mostly ignored it as another buzz-phrase that’s shuffled out to further obscure whatever it is we’re actually talking about. A throw-away line in a speech that keeps the timer ticking down to zero. That, and I wasn’t sure that we really were facing an era of persistent conflict.

It sounds, dreary.

Then, the other day, I read this piece by David Kilcullen. As a refresher, Kilcullen is the former Australian Army Officer who wrote “The Accidental Guerrilla.” He advised General Petraeus in Iraq and is one of the important figures in devising the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. He’s not infallible, and he has his detractors, but it is hard to argue he’s not an important voice on violence in the 21st century (Given their penchat for preaching that the world is getting safer, I’d be curious to think about what the folks at On Violence are going to think of this post).

We’re living in an era of persistent conflict. This isn’t my insight – you can read it in the latest concept documents of half a dozen western militaries. But it doesn’t seem to have hit home, for the public or some policymakers, that the notion that this can all end, that we can get back to some pre-9/ 11 “normal,” is a fantasy. This – this instability, this regional conflict surrounded by networked global violence, this convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, this rise of a new aggressive totalitarian state from the rubble of the last war – is the new normal, and it’s not going to change for a very, very long time. There are no quick solutions: we need to settle in for the long haul.

For some reason, this opening paragraph resonated with me. I think it’s the idea of returning to “some pre-9/11  normal” that got me. I can’t even imagine what that would be like anymore. It does sound like fantasy. So maybe, it’s just time to accept that we’re really in it for the long haul.

But the truth is, that doesn’t mean it has to be miserable.

As Kilcullen says, there is a convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, and that is the new normal. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that the shooter in Chattanooga felt like he wanted to belong to something greater than himself, and by attacking members of the military – who are symbols of the state – felt like he contributed to something global, something cosmic.

It happened, and is happening, and if we’re to belive Kilcullen, will continue to happen. The policymakers, in their talk about “persistent conflict,” are aware of it. On an anecdotal level, despite the slowing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the operational tempo remains high. Train, Fight, Reset. Over and over again. Even in 2015.

Generally speaking, I think what’s important is that there has to be some expectation that these things are going to happen. Not every event can be predicted or prevented. The critical element is how we react. Do we over-correct and batten down the hatches? Or do we mourn and resolve ourselves to presevere our way of life in the face of unknown threats?

I know that for a military that is struggling to find the next mission, understanding that nothing is over, and that we are indeed in an era of persistent conflict, provides a training focus going forward. In the face of budget cuts and a shrinking force, it’s sometimes hard to see what the purpose is.

But if you’re looking through the wide lens, you can see it.

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The Faces on the Wall

I love Army breakfasts. During my enlistment, just about every battalion had its own Dining Facility (DFAC). Generally speaking, I ate most of my meals at our battalion’s DFAC, which was conveniently located in the same building as my barracks.

After awhile, it became a fun treat to explore other DFACs across the Brigade, Division, and post – to see how the other side lives. If we were feeling especially adventorous, we might even drive all the way across post to the Air Force side to eat in their DFAC. After finishing a wonderful lunch, I remember standing up with my tray to bring it to the turn-in when my much wiser comrade gently placed his hand on my tray, pressing it back down to the table. “The Air Force waiters come for it. There is no work for you here, brother.”

Maybe it’s cheap nostalgia, but I feel like our DFACs today just aren’t like they used to be. More likely, I’ve become more picky as I’ve gotten older.

At Fort Hood, I’ve searched for a long time to find a great DFAC. While I haven’t tried them all, the one I prefer the most is the OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Memorial Dining Facility. It’s over on the 1st Cavalry Division side of post, and as the name implies, it is in honor of 1st Cavalry Divison soldiers who died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Inside the main cafeteria, the walls are lined with photos of the fallen. The pictures are mixed; some are official Army photographs displaying stoic faces, others are candid shots from deployment, the soldier usually smiling widely, the picture slightly pixellated.

They completely surround the room, hundreds of them.

Soldiers go on enjoying their breakfast.

Eating there a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit struck by how far we’ve come from the heyday of that war. The deaths, deployments, and knocks at the door.

It all kind of just slipped away. And the Army goes marching along.

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End of War: Post-Deployment Nostalgia

We just hit our 3-month mark of coming home from Afghanistan.

First there was the honeymoon phase and joy of being back in America.

Then there was the long block leave period and the slow yearning to be back in a rhythm.

Then the madness of a unit reset into the gradual resumption of business as usual.

Now, I’m starting to see, hear, and feel the beginnings of post-deployment nostalgia. Guys are starting to talk about being “back on deployment” with a tinge of longing. Four or five months ago, we cursed the very ground we walked on. But now, it exists in our memories as a vacation from the drudgery of garrison life.

Soldiers stand around in groups and tell stories, words going back and forth between them, weaving a bond through every telling and re-telling.

“Fuck this place” is slowly becoming “Remember that time when…”

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End of War: Adjusting to Garrison Life

6TAyfuE

Reintegration, block leave, initial reset.

A huge source of reintegration frustration comes from transitioning from an environment where leaders at every echelon have more autonomy and control over their formations than they do back at home. What you actually have to do on a day-to-day basis seems to be more tightly controlled at home station than it was forward deployed.

The quicker a leader makes that realization, the quicker he or she can stop raging against the machine and get on board for the big win.

At the platoon level, you go from being able to see the platoon – actually, physically see them – on a daily basis, to losing them to a never-ending stream of details, appointments, and mysteries.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

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Should an Infantry Platoon Leader already have a CIB before deploying?


War in 2014/2015 was very much about just trying to get outside of the wire. It wasn’t easy. In 2003, a quick check in with the CP via ICOM was enough to get you to at least leave the wall of your firebase to investigate something just outside – alone. Now, the massive CONOPs produced for a mission are sent up days and weeks in advance of SP, and scrutinized by just about everyone in the chain of command and beyond before getting the ok. To get outside of the wire feels like a victory in itself.

And to engage the enemy, a blessing from above.

During this last deployment, I watched with interest as other lieutenants jockeyed to get on a mission – any mission – mostly so they could score a Combat Infantryman Badge. In other deployments, firefights were more prevalent, and entire units would get blanket CIB orders. Today, there’s a bunch of paperwork that has to get done, sworn statements, PowerPoint slides depicting the fight, and drone footage if possible. The requirements at times become forensic!

So to get to the point I led with in the post’s title, young infantry platoon leaders who didn’t have a CIB tended to position themselves however they could and within the scope of their influence to get on missions. This, in turn, usually meant a mission for the platoon or at least a part of the platoon, putting them out there and at risk. In plainspeak, the eagerness to get “after it” and earn combat badges acts as a significant influence on a leader’s motivation to volunteer or otherwise try to get outside of the wire and on mission.

On the other hand, as a platoon leader who already had a CIB from a prior deployment, I felt no urge to volunteer myself or the platoon for any unnecessary missions just to get us out there and perhaps have a chance at getting the award. I often wonder how my behavior might have been different if I didn’t have a CIB. Would it have resulted in me jockeying the platoon to get out more? What might have happened?

In saying all of this, I’m not putting a value judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing. Maybe we want young PLs to be trying to get out as much as possible (although I tend to think not). And even with all of the jockeying, I didn’t see any PL needlessly put his soldiers at risk for some metal – although the point of this post is to say that it is precisely that which is possible.

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Mad Max, ISIS, and the Psychological Aspects of War

MAD_MAX_FURY_ROAD_sci_fi_futuristic_action_fighting_adventure_1mad_max_apocalyptic_road_warrior_1624x900

I saw Mad Max over Memorial Day weekend. The reviews do it justice, and it was a fun movie. The whole film is an ode to our baser desires; adrenaline, rock and roll, and killing.

There’s an egregious amount of skulls on display throughout the film. Skulls are used as ornamentation on the grills of cars, as masks, and as the chief symbol of the War Boys.

The movie prodded me to write about something in a more forward way than I have before. I’ve always been interested in the question “why we fight.” I’ve tackled it before and have always hinted at the fact that some people (lots of people) do it because they like it. They want to do it because it’s fun. This is a psychological aspect of war that is often ignored or dismissed.

Seeing all of the skulls in the deserts of Mad Max reminded me of my ISOF GOLD posts, especially the ones where the operators are wearing skull masks. If you scroll through the pictures on the ISOF Facebook page, you’ll notice they’re trying to project an image of their military that isn’t simply professional; they are attempting to instill fear into their enemies. There are no FRG updates or holiday BBQ plans – just war. The skull mask imagery is all over the place, and it’s not uncommon to see an ISOF soldier wielding an axe or machete. On some of the “unofficial” ISOF pages – and occasionally on the main page – you’ll find pictures of ISOF soldiers posing triumphantly over the dead bodies of supposed members of ISIS.

A recent article about American forces in Iraq assisting with training highglighted the phrase “kill Daesh” as being the chant used by Iraqi recruits as the de-facto motto, the thing they scream when they’re called to attention or stick a bayonet into the chest of a training dummy.

The skull mask, the chants, wearing an infidel patch – these are all small aspects of the psychological draw to war that are stymied by the modern profesional military. Which, by the way, I think is a good thing. Emotion in war leads to war crimes. The professional military is clinical, and emotions are supposed to be controlled. Others have tackled this issue by highlighting our own military’s obsession with referring to ourselves as warriors instead of soldiers. They argue (and I agree) that to think of ourselves as warriors is unprofessional at best, and dangerous at worst.

But the thing that draws a professional soldier to urinate on the dead bodies of his enemies, to slap an infidel patch on the front of his body armor, or pull a skull mask over her face before a patrol comes from a real place in the human psyche. It’s part of the same base emotion that has us cheering when the opposing side’s star quarterback is carted off the field with a game-ending injury. It’s emotion and absence of mind.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently attributed the Iraqis’ inability to hold Ramadi to a lack of will. He said “What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force.”.

The psychological aspects of war, having a reason to fight, even if for the most base reasons, might be necessary if you lack a more sophisticated reason for getting in the arena.

Having introduced this topic on the blog, I’ll try to come back to it from time to time when something comes up. As always, I welcome your comments.

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Afghanistan Adventures

I imagine a time when this intersection was always busy.

With post-deployment leave over, I thought I’d wrap up the end of war with a single post, pulling in whatever was significant over the past year, and some thoughts that seem relevant.

Of course, the actual deployment started long before actually deploying. Once the word came down that we were going, there’s an instant gravitational pull to start reading and studying. I began the End of War Reading List as an attempt to get a grasp on what one might expect as the end of a war nears. Before deploying, I wrote about how strange it was to be preparing to deploy to a war that we knew was coming to and end, all while other officers were being handed pink slips and the writing on the wall told of a coming smaller force.

Pre-deployment musings generated this popular post on “why we fight.” The answer: force protection.

Keeping with the Game of Thrones theme, the Battle of Castle Black seemed remarkably familiar to what a deployment to a small outpost can feel like.

And then, the deployment actually began.

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to post while overseas. My last deployment was in 2005, and I quickly learned that things had changed significantly and war in 2014 comes with a 3G data plan for your smartphone (not really, you have to pay for it). I had my own room and I had nearly 100% reliable WiFi from my quarters. And if I didn’t, there was always a green line somewhere nearby. It became clear, rather quickly, that the standard model of soldier morale (chow, mail, pay) was changing.

I read a lot about Major Gant.

I also read about the careful balancing of humanity and iron discipline in maintaining a lethal force.

After almost 20 years, I finally finished Tactics Ogre, and continued to pull amazing lessons from it.

Working for 9 months straight confirmed to me why deployment experience actually matters, and why it is so valuable.

The M9 continues to serve as the Army’s vanity weapon (I’m not saying I didn’t have one, I’m just saying).

I published a longform version of the Battle of As Samawah after it was rejected somewhere else.

9/11 in Afghanistan was like any other day.

FOBs are kept running by an unseen, mysterious bevy of small green insect looking creatures.

I thought a lot about drones – and how they are our Magitek Armor.

I tracked down Richard Johnson while passing through Bagram, and he graciously drew a sketch of me, which was rapidly corrected.

I got seriously good at PowerPoint.

The absurdity of war continued to fascinate me. The axiom “pics or it didn’t happen” became ultra-apparent, and I was pleased to learn that the Taliban follow the same general guidelines.

Nostalgia floweth over.

I discovered my new favorite military force, and pondered the role of “hate” in war.

I got really, really sick and then the war ended (over and over again).

The platoon leader is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do. 

American Sniper came out. I still haven’t seen it.

We all feared the reaper.

As the deployment came to a close, the Universal Truths of Relief in Place were once again, confirmed.

We waited and waited. And waited.

And then we came home, and the adjustment period began.

Last week, the May-June issue of Military Review was released and a piece that I co-authored was published there highlighting some of the steps our platoon took in operating resiliency at the platoon level.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, our NTC experience and all of the troubles and gripes that accompanied it, was actually validated by the deployment. Of course, we were only at NTC for a month, but it did a good job at replicating a lot of the problems we would face in Afghanistan. In many ways, it was easier to accomplish some things in Afghanistan than it was at NTC – which is good.

I’m not sure it’s all over. There are no clean breaks.

Leave is over, work begins, and everyone is still adjusting.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Moments of Dread and Waiting

Not much to say on this, other than there are often moments during a deployment where there is an event, there is a report, and there is a lot of time spent waiting for the other foot to drop. What is going to be the result of this? Who is going to get fired?

What may have seemed like a big deal in the moment may be ridiculously insignificant by the time it makes its way up the flagpole. Other times the lamest things become huge deals.

The recent infusion of the immediacy of communication in a deployed zone heightens this phenomenon.

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Afghanistan Post-Mortem: Adhan during a mortar attack

Oh puh-leaz.

Early one morning, sleep was interrupted by a mortar attack.

Generally speaking, the scariest part of an indirect fire attack is the adrenaline spike that occurs as a result of alarm – something I experienced during the Scud attacks of early 2003 as well. The speed in which someone needs to launch a mortar attack while also avoiding being killed in a counter-attack – usually – prevents any reliable accuracy.

So the alarm goes off and you kind of wait for the boom, and imagine for a half-second what it would be like for a fist sized piece of shrapnel to come flying at your neck.

I was already awake, getting ready to go to the gym. The mortar exploded with a dull thud far from our area, and the platoon went back to sleep. I started walking to the guard towers to check on the guys. As I was walking, I heard the the low melodic sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, drifting through the still night from a nearby mosque.

I remember physically laughing at how cliché that was.

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