Video games provide a safe haven

Many veterans play video games to manage stress upon returning home, and the U.S. military is beginning to use video games as training tool for soldiers.

By Angela Lewis


Photo by Zach C. Cohen
Miles Kamson, an Army veteran, plays ‘God of War’ on his PlayStation 3 in his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He says he and many veterans use video games as a way to relax.

Veterans may criticize and joke about the comparisons between military video games and their own experiences at war, but that hasn’t stopped veterans from appreciating video games of all types.

Veterans often connect with the games as a form of relaxation, training and therapy.

Some veterans have played video games their whole lives. Robert Russell, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran, has played video games since childhood and continues to enjoy popular first-person shooter games like the “Call of Duty” series.

“I’m a fan of the online game play and the shooting is fun,” Russell said.

Others, such as Roger Deming, an Army veteran and law student at the University of California Los Angeles, found their love of games later in life, after joining the military.

“It was really hard for me when I first joined up,” Deming said. “[Video games] let my brain calm down and reset. Video games are a way to lose yourself. It released a lot of stress for me.”

Playing games in the military

Deming’s arsenal of video games expanded to “more realistic” games, closer to the type that the military would use in its training.

According to a 2010 article in Foreign Policy,  the military has taken note of the popularity of video games and turned that enthusiasm into a tool for its training, continuing to expand the usage of games.

While most video games that the average person plays are for entertainment, the U.S. military created “serious games” or games that aim to teach something and serve a purpose other than to merely entertain.

Roger Deming

Photo courtesy of Roger Deming
Army veteran Roger Deming says playing video games allows him to relax. The U.S. military is increasingly using games for training and therapy.

The U.S. military spends about $5 billion per year on simulators like the “tactical multiplayer first-person shooter” called “America’s Army.” A game that anyone can download online, “America’s Army” features programs to expose players to training in cultural sensitivity or various wartime scenarios.

Deming, who enlisted in the Army in 2004, had weapon simulation training when he first entered the military.

“They would put lasers at the end of the rifle, and you’d sit there with a giant screen in front of you,” Deming said. He described the simulation as “kind of like an advanced version of ‘Duck Hunt,’” an arcade shooting game from the early 1990s.

“There was this one scene where there was this guy holding something in his hand and he starts speaking in Arabic,” Deming said. “We weren’t sure what to do. So one of the other guys shot him in the hand and the screen went blank, explaining that what was in his hand was actually a trigger detonator. It then explained what we should have done next time.”

Modern warfare versus real warfare

Veterans, while using simulations based on mainstream military video games, understand that titles like “Call of Duty” are not realistic.

Evan Mills, 24, left the Marine Corps in February and is about to begin school in August at American University as a film and media arts major.

“Being in Afghanistan for real, you don’t just run around and shoot everybody like you do in ‘Call of Duty,’” Mills said. “You might go on an eight-hour patrol and not do anything but still be stressed out because you’ll be in a part of town where you’ve been shot at before.”

Deming cited a video from “The Onion Network” that parodied the constant battle mode that is featured in military video games. Conversely, Deming said that “The Onion” presented a more “realistic” look at time during war.

“It was really hilarious,” he said, laughing. “But it was partially accurate where you’re just sitting up in a tower for hours and hours, staring at the desert with nothing going on.”

The glorification of war in games has been a topic of discussion among psychologists for the last two decades. While some researchers say that there is not enough evidence to confirm that there is a correlation between violent video games and desensitization, some soldiers and veterans do agree that those who don’t experience real war don’t understand the full picture.

“It’s kind of like saying how real it is to play “Madden” and then actually go play football,” Mills said, referring to the popular NFL video game series. “It kind of looks the same, but it’s hard to say it will give a realistic view of things.”

However, Deming said, “it’s very clear from the first day of basic training that no video game on the planet can simulate what you’re about to be going through.”

Video games as therapy

Video games can also be used to manage stress. Some findings reveal that playing video games decreases levels of cortisol, a stress-producing hormone. The difference is that video games in official treatment have been tailored to allow soldiers to relate to their experiences in a safe space.

An article in The Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics featured patients who had physical injuries using more casual, athletic games to aid in regaining strength and ability. The journal’s article, “Gaining from Gaming,” used the example of the Hines Veterans Affairs hospital installing a Wii for their spinal injury unit in 2009.

The military also uses virtual reality therapy as an effective system for treating soldiers with psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers will revisit a situation that occurred while they were deployed and go through the experience again, helping them cope.

“They’ll recreate a scene like driving down a road when an IED [improvised explosive device] goes off,” Deming said. “However, they’ll recreate the environment in a safe space and try to get the person to detach from the experience and understand it.”

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

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Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

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- Was it hot?

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