Over 3000 Australian soldiers are currently deployed overseas — in Afghanistan, Timor Leste — Corporal Ben Wolinski is just one of them. In this interview with Kotaku he discusses gaming in the field, Call of Duty and his precious Logitech G25 Steering Wheel.
"Hmm, it might be a bit difficult right now," sighs the nice woman on the phone, "things are bit tough over there at the moment."
Said 'nice woman' is a media officer from the Australian Department of Defence, and she's talking about Afghanistan. 10 minutes ago we heard, almost word for word, the precise same sentence. Only that time it was from the mouth of a nice man. By all accounts — things are a little tricky at the moment in Afghanistan.
Definitely too tricky for our trivial request: an interview with a soldier in the field about video games.
We wanted to ask: do soldiers, deployed in the field, play video games? And if so, what games do they play? Do they escape from the realities of war with a quick blast of Call of Duty Black Ops, or do games that attempt to replicate war irritate them to the point of rejection?
Such questions may be of interest to us, but really — in the grand scheme of things — are they really that important? We began to wonder.
Most of Australia's soldiers deployed overseas are in Afghanistan, embroiled in a conflict that bears the oppressive weight of a dark history in the making. As of June 2010 the campaign became the most drawn out war in America's history. 2,670 Coalition soldiers have been killed in action during the last decade, and 30 of those were Australian. The human cost on both sides has been huge. The civilian death toll - perhaps the most disturbing number of all — could be as high as 34,000.
We get the distinct impression that talking about video games with the Editor of Kotaku doesn't sit high in the priority list.
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It's always a surprise to get a phone call from the Department of Defence. The gentle, friendly tones of video game PR replaced with the coarse bark of a soldier — you're never quite prepared for it. Niceties are completely absent.
"We've got Ben on the phone for you." That's all you get. Anything else would be considered extraneous. The phone is passed.
Corporal Ben Wolinski is 30-years-old, and is based in East Timor. He runs the Mapping Attachment at his base, which contains over 100 soldiers. He spends a lot of his spare time playing video games.
"I'm 30-years-old, single — that's probably why I fit in more with the younger guys," he laughs. "I'm originally from Brisbane. It's what — October? So I've been in the army seven years now.
"This is my first deployment and, to be honest, I'm loving it. Being deployed overseas is pretty much what we joined up to do. Soldiers are normally happy overseas — that's what we've trained to do. This is where we get to do our jobs properly, instead of all the annoying tasks we have to do back in Australia in our units. Stuff like checking your equipment and training..."
Running the Mapping Attachment unit, along with another Private, essentially means that Ben makes maps for whoever requests them.
"In East Timor I'm just left alone to do my job," says Ben. "I make maps. There's two of us — me and a Private. I'm a corporal so I'm running the mapping attachment. So we just get tasked by all sorts of people from the task group and we just make maps. We also do multimedia stuff.
"I work in a headquarters environment, so I work normal hours. I've got the evenings to myself, and most people only work about nine hours a day. There is shift work, but not for what I do."
Ben is a part of Operation Astute, an Australian Military Operation designed to quell unrest stemming from the East Timor crisis of 2006.
"It's pretty peaceful here," claims Ben, "we're here in case something goes wrong again. There are roughly 400 soldiers — including the New Zealanders. There are four different bases, well five actually, and there are about 100 soldiers in my base."
For the soldiers, video games are a convenient way to help pass the time.
"A lot of the younger guys — we're all connected constantly," says Ben. "We all have our own rooms and each room has an Ethernet port, so we can all play on LAN together.
"Up until this point it's always been Call of Duty 4, mainly because it's an older game and everyone can play with older computers. That's what gets played on LAN."
Ben sometimes plays shooters with the rest of the guys, but mostly prefers racers. Compared to the rest of his workmates however, he's in the minority. In the field, FPS games are by far the most popular genre.
It's an interesting dichotomy, particularly for infantry. We wonder why soldiers on the front line are so attracted to video games like Call of Duty; games that attempt to replicate their day job — albeit in an extremely reductive manner.
"It's a difficult question," says Ben, pausing for thought. "I think some people join the army because they've got certain ideas of what they'd like to do there when they join.
"I think it's more of an infantry thing, but games, they work to our fantasies, don't they? The infantry guys would love to do the Call of Duty thing all the time, but if they did do that all the time they'd be dead! With Call of Duty they get to experience it from the comfort of their rooms."
It appears as though soldiers, even those involved on the frontlines, enjoy the reductive, streamlined version of war that appears in video games.
"It's just the fantasy," continues Ben, "because games are nothing like real life. If infantry were to get into a firefight in Afghanistan, it would last for five minutes, and for the next 24 hours they'd just be doing clean up and admin, all this kind of stuff — it's not fun like in the game! Games just glorify it.
"The scenes that people would consider 'cool' are presented in the games, whereas, in real life, no-one really gets to experience that."
Ben sometimes joins in on the Call of Duty LANs, but for the most part he prefers to play racers.
"Personally," says Ben, "I'm a huge fan of car games. At the moment I'm playing Dirt 3 and F1 2010. I'm just waiting on F1 2011 coming over."
Incredibly, Ben managed to bring his whole set-up, including a steering wheel, across to East Timor.
"I have my Logitech G25 out here with me," claims Ben, "the wheel and the pedals. I've got a second screen as well — I've got plenty of space up here and plenty of time to play.
We ask him how they hell he managed to get all that equipment up to East Timor.
"Well, I pulled cables out," he explains, "so I've got the pedals, the steering wheel, the gear stick part, I pulled it all apart into smaller parts. We're allowed to bring in a fair amount of gear in terms of weight. So some of it was in my truck, which came over in a barge, but the rest of it was in my suitcase. Pretty easy, really!"
"I've never really been without games. As long as I've got my laptop; that's all I need."
So much media is created in an attempt to replicate or represent the experience of being a soldier — movies, television, video games — so it always comes as a strange shock when those worlds collide, when we discover that the soldiers we seek to represent are consuming the precise same content that inspires us.
Of course soldiers play video games, it would be more surprising if they didn't, but what are we to make of the fact that soldiers consume games like Call of Duty — a game which attempts to reduce the experience of a soldier into one simple, easily repeatable mechanic? Why would any soldier be interested in that?
Three years ago, I interviewed a soldier, in Afghanistan — arguably the most dangerous area a modern soldier can be deployed. He had the perfect answer.
"There are people who spend all their time playing The Sims," he said, "a game about buying furniture. So why can't we play Call of Duty?"
Why not indeed.