"Every soldier needed an escape."
Steven Beynon, a cavalry scout in the Army, said that starkly to me in an interview — but many of us know exactly what he's talking about. It's the relief that comes when we kick off our shoes after a long day, grab a controller, and then forget about the world. Just for a little while.
For Beynon, the fact that video games are capable of such a thing was invaluable while he was deployed in Afghanistan.
Steven can't figure out how he ended up in the Army, but he knows a couple of key things. He knows he loves games and that imagined writing about them ever since elementary school. Combine the fact that the army pays for school, along with feeling an impotent rage about 9/11 when he was a kid — these things came together and pointed him toward the army, somehow.
"There was a lot of news footage of men suffering combat, what gave me the right to sit back and eat Doritos?"
Of course, he couldn't quite imagine what he was getting himself into. The conditions in Afghanistan were harsh, but maybe not in the way you'd imagine. Yes, there were incidents, and yes, they shook him profoundly. There is one story in particular that Beynon will never forget, where he came face to face with a Taliban fighter after being separated from his platoon.
"I ran out of reachable ammo. A Taliban fighter emerged from the tree line. He pointed his weapon at me, yelling in Pashto (the language spoken in that Province). He looked scared, but I think he was trying to take me prisoner. I had ammo in my backpack, but I didn't believe he would give me the 15 seconds needed to reload.
"He walked slowly towards me. I grabbed my knife. I thought about my fiancee, friends, family, and everything in my life I haven't done yet. He was now only 8ft away from me. I heard a dozen gun shots and saw the Taliban fighter fall to the ground. My buddies found me.
"At that moment I had a rebirth. I truly appreciated everything. I don't believe in God, but was convinced I had a second chance. There was nothing stopping that guy from shooting me. Every breath felt like overtime."
Heart-stopping incidents like that happened, sure, but mostly, what got to him and his platoon was intense boredom combined with tumultuous home lives. Being a gamer, he decided to deal with it using video games — more, made it his mission to introduce everyone to video games. So the platoon got some crappy televisions, they made some makeshift tables, and they started gaming.
At first, it wasn't really to escape — things hadn't gotten that bad yet. The gaming was something that was simply "fun to do. It wasn't like we had bars to go to. Living inside a tent in a half-mile square doesn't provide a lot of entertainment."
Then things got worse.
"As time went by, more firefights, more mortar strikes, more injuries, more deaths, and a growing pile of at-home relationships falling apart strained the men naturally," Beynon wrote in a blog. "This forced them to explore outlets. No one was cowering under their bed from the scary Taliban. That wasn't the atmosphere. The actual fighting was part of the job and felt as natural as you clocking into work.
"The stress came from the girlfriends not following through with previously made commitments, the isolation from the outside world, and the reality of having zero control over the life left at home."
Despite that stuff, Beynon remained remarkably calm — and people wondered about his outlet. What was enabling to keep so cool?
It was video games. Slowly, people started playing more games as a result, started experimenting with different types of games outside of their comfort zone — instead of Call of Duty, people started picking up games like Skyrim. They got hooked, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
"The power games have to provide escapism is both good and bad. There are extreme cases like children being neglected because their parents couldn't stop playing WoW, and cases like mine on the positive side of the spectrum.
"Everyone has problems in their life that need to be forgotten about, but it requires a mature mode of thinking to properly play games while keeping reality in check. Plus, games are pretty rad."
Since Afghanistan is considered a U.S. address, Beynon was able to order a myriad of new releases — though they'd sometime take weeks to get to him. He also relied on support back home from the Giant Bomb community.
"A user started a donation thread, and a lot of fans of the site sent me games. I ended up with nearly 70 games and built a library on our Outpost for the guys to play. I ended up donating the games to a local VA Hospital here in the states."
Now Beynon is a student at Miami University, and he hopes to break into games journalism. It's a different world than back in Afghanistan for sure, but he still remembers it and the impact games had on his platoon.
"Games are special to me. Some of my best moments with games came out of my deployment. Not because of playing high-quality titles, but I appreciated gaming more. I valued every minute with my games."