It is said that the bonds forged during time of war are the strongest and most enduring of all, evincing a kind of fierce loyalty which often outlasts conflict. There's something about adversity which breeds kinship, not the sort, it has to be said, between randy GI's and feisty Blighty barmaids, but between fellow fighters in a common struggle.
But can the same be said of friendships forged online? Surely the dynamic is not this far-reaching? After all, geeks behind keyboards can hardly be compared with the true blood, sweat and tears of hardened professionals. Or can it?
The queue for the toilet got a bit fraught late at night.
In an attempt to find out, we ask avid gamer, ex-tank commander in the Household Cavalry and member of the ‘120mm’ Battlefield 1942 clan Tony "Grimmy" Grimshaw some questions :
- Glamour vs Reality. Was it the glamorous perception of war that made you sign up in the first place?
Since a boy, I always wanted to be a soldier. Hormones and testosterone took care of the rest! I just have this consuming love of tanks and vehicles. My first words to the army recruiter were “I want to be in a tank.” In fact, it was my geeky ambition to drive all the Action Man vehicles I was given over various Christmases and birthdays in real life!
- And Did you?
Apart from the Willis Jeep (an obsolete American vehicle) yes. The highlights for me were the “Ferret” Scout car and the Scorpion (fast, sexy, stick-controlled tank.) And of course my beloved “Chally” (Challenger tank.)
What was the reality? Bit of a shock, really. My romantic notions were quickly dispelled. Army life takes a bit of getting used to. As far as the training went, we used a mocked-up model hillside, with toy tanks, which despite having laser technology were tugged across the battlefield with ropes and pulleys!
- Was it really that low-tech?
It was in 1989. The gunning instructors would fire up ‘M1 Tank Platoon’ on an army issue Amiga because the existing GTS’s (gunnery training systems) were so antiquated. It certainly kept young recruits interested. Although the game was based on an American M1 Abrams, the laser guidance and equipment was much the same as the Chally.
I’m not wearing any pants, just so you know….
- So, your first time in a real tank, what was that like?
Absolutely terrifying! The sense of claustrophobia, the heat and discomfort, not to mention the constant physical and mental exertion needed just to keep the turret from hitting the ground. Tank gunnery consists of a joystick-style aimer grip-stick. It is so sensitive the gun turret can actually pulse in time with the operators pulse, through his thumb!
- Did videogames help you prepare for that?
Hell yes! Playing hours of ‘Battlezone’ in the arcades, (classic steam gunnery, with emphasis on ambushing the target,) and ‘Tanks’ on the Atari 2600. Then ‘ Battle Valley’ on the C64. It’s fair to say I was inspired to join the army by games, especially ones involving tanks. I was recruited and chosen for gunnery because of my sharp reflexes, which were honed from hours and hours of computer games. Ideal training, you might say.
- “Steam Gunnery” – What’s that then?
Basically, all modern armoured vehicles, especially tanks, are fire-by-wire, or laser guided. When those systems fail, you go back to basics with “Steam gunnery,” which involves manual targeting and range-finding, without any computerised assistance whatsoever. You have to be prepared to do without those aids, as they can’t be relied upon in war scenarios. The better you are at improvising with crippled systems, the more chance you have of survival. I always used steam gunnery, even on manoeuvres. It was frowned upon, because it showed a lack of faith in the system. But I preferred to rely on my own instincts and skill, to stay alive.
- How strong are friendships made in war circumstances?
It’s a bond formed by being in adverse circumstances, simple as that. Your mate might save your life, or you his. That puts you both on a special plane of closeness that doesn’t really have an equal. You can see an army pal after months or years and it’s like meeting a long-lost brother. You would do anything for each other, because you had that time and those hardships in common.
Eighteen and full of spunk. No women for 3000 miles. See Alanis? That’s irony.
- And does this compare with friendships made in the gaming environment?
It’s more similar than you might imagine. You experience the same highs and lows, victories and losses. It’s these extremes and how you handle them that knits you together as a unit, everyone pulling for each other. Gaming clans at their best are just like Army squadrons because you basically go through the same crap and nobody whinges when it doesn’t go your way. What also makes me smile is that, when real-life allied squadrons meet each other, there’s much swapping of trophies, weapons, rations and even clothing. When gaming clans get together, they swap configs and map tricks, maybe show off their gaming rigs. It has exactly the same intrinsic value, a bonding mechanism and a way of showing respect for each other.
- How does killing a real person in a real war compare with it's virtual equivalent?
I can only speak for myself. As a tankie it’s purely a technical thing. It is death from a distance, engagements at night using thermal imaging and state-of-the-art technology. There is fear, because after all, we are just as vulnerable to the same sort of attack. So it’s about keeping your head, and being first to the punch. That’s the cold reality. One depleted-Uranium-tipped, armour-piercing round and it’s all over. There are no second chances in a superheated metal coffin, and it would be a horrible death, trust me.
There really can’t be a comparison between that and shooting pixels with collision meshes. But, when you pull off a really good shot in BF2 it’s exactly the same feeling, the same rush, (but without the nightmares or the guilt.) The game puts you in that situation, kill or be killed. It’s the same game of chess, but with tokens instead of real people, a more preferable solution, in fact.
- How realistic are effects and vehicles/weapons in a gaming environment compared to real life?
The BF2 ones are some of the best yet. When a tank lets off next to you, the sensation and feelings, the shock of the noise and vibration, (minus the physical pain of your eardrums trying to implode, thankfully,) is bang on. I raved when I jumped in an M1 tank, and saw the graticle HUD pattern for range-finding for the first time in a computer game. It’s exactly as you would see in a real tank (albeit much simplified.) Overall, the physics side is very good. Tanks feel heavy and cumbersome as in real life. Small arms have good recoil systems. I would even go so far as to say that, if games like this were around when I was seventeen, I would never have joined the army!
It’s all smiles and handshakes till someone loses a flag.
Waiting for a clan match to begin/Waiting to go into real-life war - comparison? Adrenalin, expectation, anticipation. It’s exactly the same. The self-doubt, the questioning of your own abilities are identical. In both cases you’re totally reliant on skills and training, honed by hour upon hour of drills. There’s the pressure of not wanting to let either yourself or your teammates down too. It’s all in the pressure-cooker of emotion that typifies war. I was just eighteen when I went to war, I’m in my thirties now, and it’s still the waiting that’s the worst. Once you’re in battle it’s behind you. I get just as emotional and scream and shout in war games as I did back then for real. Then, an icy calm as your training takes over, that’s why it’s so important to have that discipline and regimentation on your side. It’s the difference between life and death, victory and defeat.
- Is there anything else real war gives you that it’s gaming equivalent can’t?
You should turn that question around, really. Clan war gaming sparked my old yearnings so much, I joined the Royal Marine part-time reserves to taste the life again, at 32, training with the army whilst holding down a full-time job.
It’s a compulsion, a drug. Any ex-squaddie will tell you the same thing. You are never quite a civilian again after the war experience, and that’s something only real conflict can do to you. But, gaming is a close second. The methadone, you might say, that keeps you sane and wired. It’s almost here already, but the day will come when real frontline wars are fought exclusively by twitch gamers with billion dollar joysticks. And I’ll be there man, in my wheelchair, with my Quickshot 2.
Way of the Rodent would like to thank all of the members of 120mm for their involvement with this article. 120mm were formed in 2002. It's members are gamers, with an enthusiasm for teamplay. They are also friends, brought together by a common obsession. It is a small, close-knit group, initially formed from work pals and acquaintances, going on to collect various personalities on the way. Today, it is perhaps a dozen strong and can be found on-line at http://www.designvoid.com/120mm2/ if you want to square up to Grimmy and the lads.
Links to more Iraq conflict picture galleries :
Just in case you’re inspired to lie about your age and enrol :-