In the science fiction novel "Ender's Game," the best and the brightest kids were gathered up and taken to a special military training camp where they learned to play a video game against an invading force. All the while they were told this was just training, just a game in preparation for the war. In the end, of course, the training was fake and the game was real. Unbeknownst to the kids they were leading Earth's counterattack against the invading Bugger army.
If you've read the book (and if you haven't you should; no book worth reading becomes unworthy just because the plot twist is given away), the world of today's soldiers may seem awfully familiar. In an article in the Washington Post today, Jose Antonio Vargas reports that for a generation of young men who grew up on shoot 'em up video games, real war is as natural as picking up joystick.
Here's Sgt. Sinque Sales, 29, remembering a fire fight in Mosul:
"It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! . . . The insurgents were firing from the other side of the bridge. . . . We called in a helicopter for an airstrike. . . . I couldn't believe I was seeing this. It was like 'Halo.' It didn't even seem real, but it was real."
That kind of mindset - almost not knowing or caring whether you're looking at people or pixels - has not escaped the attention of military trainers.
"The technology in games has facilitated a revolution in the art of warfare," says David Bartlett, the former chief of operations at the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office, a high-level office within the Defense Department and the focal point for computer-generated training at the Pentagon. "When the time came for him" -- meaning Swales -- "to fire his weapon, he was ready to do that. And capable of doing that. His experience leading up to that time, through on-the-ground training and playing 'Halo' and whatever else, enabled him to execute. His situation awareness was up. He knew what he had to do. He had done it before -- or something like it up to that point."
How deep does this change in psychology go? At the very least, gamers are familiar with the real-world weapons the Marines or Army will hand them and they have developed some sort of "situational awareness" -- a predeliction to keep the eyes moving, look for small movements, etc. But Col. Gary Anderson (Ret.) goes further:
"Remember the days of the old Sparta, when everything they did was towards war?" says Anderson, now a defense consultant. "In many ways, the soldiers of this video game generation have replicated that, and that's something to think about."
And here's another solider Alfred Trevino:
"You just try to block it out, see what you need to do, fire what you need to fire. Think to yourself, This is a game, just do it, just do it, " says Trevino, 20, the baby of the group, recalling his first shot at a human enemy. He lives in Virginia Beach and works at nearby Bradco Supply, running a forklift. He's a hard-core gamer like Crippen, plays "anything that races," he says, "anything that shoots."
"Of course, it's not a game. The feel of the actual weapon was more of an adrenaline rush than the feel of the controller," he continues. "But you're practically doing the same thing: trying to kill the other person. The goal is the same. That's the similarity. The goal is to survive."