Fate and Happenstance
I am finishing up Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Currently, I am steeped in The Battle of Borodino, which was the bloodiest conflict in military history up to the Battle of the Marne in 1914. Prince Andrei’s cynicism reaches peaks that transcend his first forays into battle, the one that wounded him beyond full repair. His anger matches Kutuzov’s, the appointed General by the people, over an assumption of the German leaders that all strategies can be proven right if only they were precise enough. If all factors of military tactics were brought to bear on the experience of combat, and all discussed, planned, and settled at the war table, perhaps victory would be all but guaranteed. But Tolstoy, using many of the men who feature in these conflicts, come to realize that there is no changing that large word known as “destiny.” Fate is what will happen, and there exist in battles such miniscule changes that only the soldiers on the ground can appreciate and dread. Prince Andrei’s fatalist approach to war reaches its apex:
“And tomorrow I shall be killed, perhaps not even by a Frenchman but by one of our own men, by a soldier discharging a musket close to my ear as one of them did yesterday, and the French will come and take me by head and heels and fling me into a hole that I may not stink under their noses, and new conditions of life will arise, which will seem quite ordinary to others and about which I shall know nothing. I shall not exist….”
War & Peace, Book X, Chapter XXIV
The talk of war has satisfied the Russian aristocracy as long as it was some place far away. But with Borodino, it is in their backyard; Napoleon is on Russia’s doorstep. And even Pierre, a rich and drunken socialite, feels the patriotism of defending the fatherland.
It is in the context of the Borodino battle in the novel that I would like to talk about armed conflict in video games, of all places. In the past week, as I have listened intently to Tolstoy’s sweeping narrative, I have become addicted to watching tactical videos on YouTube. Most of these have now centered on Arma 3.
Method or Madness
Arma 3 was a military simulation first person shooter that came out in 2013. Thanks to an almost unhealthy dedication to the game, expansions and mods have modernized the old engine as best they can. A player can be part of the boots on the ground as infantry, or a medic, or a weapons carrier of LATs or HATs, or Stinger missiles. The player can operate light and heavy vehicles, planes, jets, and boats. On maps like Altis, huge playgrounds over a 100 square kilometers in size, whole operations can be carried out. And thanks to modded gametypes like “Liberation” where a team plays a persistent server, the game becomes this living and breathing war, where players take on a brutal and unforgiving AI. It is a game that can do things no other game can, even eight years later.
Sure, there are other, flashier games to fight in. But they lack the robust behaviors of these systems for it to feel authentic. When I watch these YouTube campaigns, which function more like seasons of television for me, it follows the “hurry up and wait” mantra of intense conflict, followed by even longer hours of preparing and recovering. Similar in pace to, I suppose, Escape from Tarkov, the player shooting their weapon is only one aspect of their interaction in these massive “Liberation” public events.
What they do most often is talk. Communication is vital in these games. Where some games have opted to removing the necessity to talk as much as possible, like in Battle Royale games like Warzone or Apex Legends, the explicit tools for pinpointing are not nearly as complex enough in Arma 3 to make the talking avoidable. Every moment is filled with hypotheses from grunts and generals alike, and the carrying out of orders from Actual to their Squad Leads that can lead to elation and frustration. The benefit of this system is that everyone matters. In Battlefield games, or Call of Duty games, the scoreboard at the end of each round is a partial lie. One or two people become the whales of the round, soaking up kills, while the other members of the team support the Chad in his epic conquest. In the Liberation events I have watched leaders perform CPR. I have seen heroism not in incredible acts of charging the line, but in the quiet moments of doing logistic runs as day turns to night and IEDs lie scattered along the MSR. If anything is to be accomplished in these huge operations, humans will have to do it, and talking is the medium to carry it out.
Thanks to this talking, I find watching these videos to be just as addicting as they do playing them. I cannot stop watching these massive operations, with helicopters flying overhead and boots on the ground responding with “Copy” and “We’re Oscar Mike” and “Go for Actual” that becomes this incredibly immersive stage play. No big budget film can ever really capture what is going on in these organic, fluctuating simulations. While Arma 3 has been around for a long time, I needed a gateway player with a focus on communication to bring me into the strange world of military simulation. Right now, that content creator has been Karmakut.
I started watching Karmakut on YouTube with Squad videos back in 2017. The content creator says now, after recently becoming addicted to playing Arma 3’s Liberation content, that Squad feels in hindsight like a disorganized mess. Could Karmakut be feeling that same feeling as Andrei, pressed as he was with the decision of whether combat was a puzzle or simply madness? I believe that many games lean somewhere on the spectrum. Battlefield exists more as a spectacle simulator for war, and is easily the most mad. Arma 3, with its experience allowing for cooperation and teamwork, provides a more fixed war for players to respond to, thus shifting the balance more towards the German war table. But Liberation is ALSO willing to throw curveballs. Kill too many civilians, or blow up too many buildings, and the theater of combat begins to turn on the players. There are ambushes, IEDs, not to mention an upscaling of enemy resistance. When Karmakut plays, the deepest fear among the troops is enemy aircraft, like Hinds, as they strafe without guilt or remorse and unleash massive casualties. Just because Karmakut finds Arma 3 to be far more immersive and approachable with plans, strategies, and tactics, does not mean that it is as clean as the medical operation table.
Arma 3 has recently seen a resurgence thanks to a new DLC expansion called S.O.G. Prairie Fire, a total conversion that seeks to recreate the feeling and terror of the Vietnam War. People are buying Arma 3 and skipping the modern setting entirely to go back into the past to hear classic rock while shooting an M60 from a helicopter. Napalm and flares illuminate the night. Cries from the Vietcong in the jungle spur soldiers on, forcing them to maneuver before they are overwhelmed. And the density of the jungle has been enough to melt many of even the high-end PCs that we’re all praying stay together until the price of parts (and their supply) come back to reality. For myself, when I play Arma 3, I drop the resolution to 720p and get huge gains. But I only play singleplayer. Watching Karmakut receive 20 frames while streaming because there are 100 players on Altis is enough to make a grown man cry. When soldiers pray to God, they do so not in order to stay alive, but for their game not to crash (or for Arma 4 to be released).
Had I been alive in the 1800s, when absolutism was at its height, and war and conquest became a cyclical and constant occasion, I doubt I would have been alive for very long. Able-bodied men like myself would have likely fought against the French or the Russians in armed conflict, and I could have been bayonetted, or decapitated by cannon fire, or disemboweled by grape shot. I could have died from malnutrition or disease, not even on the field of battle. I could have been an amputee. All of these outcomes seem likely. Now, after decades without a major conflict, what are men to do? Some would say that the hot blood of war still pounds within us, and we all have a desire for destruction. I will not go so far as to say that. What is most revealing about Tolstoy’s dissection of combat in War & Peace is that the medium of war need not take place at all. The men seem irrationally excited, not about the fight itself, which never goes as planned and is terrible in its destruction regardless of victory or defeat. It is more rather the chance for men to work together in solving a problem, and to therefore matter. In 2021, men in the developed West are having a tough time finding large enough scale problems to sink their teeth into. To find meaning. If it is too large, it is handled by the federal or state levels of government. If it is below that, it is purchased for a price by a private enterprise, who use a series of bureaucratic tools that men simply follow. Is there no place for the combination of art and science, for the intense problem solving, that war used to be, for men to engage in and feel rewarded for thinking about?
For many gamers, meaning is derived from massively complex games like Eve Online or Arma 3. The future of gaming, as the world faces the results of decisions made decades ago in finance and the environment, may begin to revolve around these “Glass Bead Games”. Games, like Herman Hesse envisioned, that require deep amounts of research and skill, all for the sake of playing simulations, in order to stave off the hunger of not mattering in the modern world. Thousands died in these battles in the 1800s, and many of the soldiers were poor peasants or sharecroppers, with nothing to do but to die anyway. The promise of death by combat was more exciting than a long slog on the farm with dad. And with the promise of the afterlife, what did it matter? As long as the world continues to dismiss men’s needs to create and collaborate, games like Arma 3 will be successful. As I write, there are over 20,000 players playing. Granted, there may be some women in those numbers. But I suspect that the world of Arma 3 supplements the desire for men to matter in a space where they used to and ended up dying wastefully.
I have spent dozens of hours watching Arma 3 content. Why not play? I could answer by referencing the fact that I chose not to take part in military service when I could have. I wanted other things. To jump into Arma 3 is really to dive in, and I lack the resolve and the willpower for simulation games in their totality. Sure, I may play the Arma 3 campaign, in order to taste what it is like. But I am sure that my experience, and the experience of those soldiers playing in these Liberation servers, is night and day. But I am content watching the multiple acts play out on the YouTube screen, like I suppose Pierre does as an onlooker in War & Peace.
The beauty of Arma 3, going back to that German war table reviled by Andrei and Kutosov, is in the meditations made in an emergency. In the latest video by Karmakut, he orders a platoon to land in a salt flat, which, on the map, looks to be snow. The terrain is devoid of cover, producing one of the most original pieces of attrition combat I have seen to date. Could we possibly prove Andrei and Kutusov more right than with this evidence? Some players are Altis map veterans, as this is the vanilla map for the game that it came with in 2013. But under orders, and with the size of the operation, no one was willing to warn leadership. The blunder becomes larger than any man, and thus becomes history. It becomes fate. Even in such attuned simulations like Arma 3, where players work collaboratively to defeat a digital enemy, the truth of armed conflict transcends itself and draws a conclusion about life itself. Most of what occurs to us is largely accident. What is more impressive of the salt flats landing is not that it occurred, but that Karmakut and the platoon managed to work through it, bounding and building trenches until the job was done. Instead of real death, and sending notes home to families, all that remains is a story. With all the laughing that occurs later, like with an incompetent humvee column, it is all literally fun and games, rather than dire misery. For this alone, we soldiers-turned-video-game players can be thankful.
Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on May 12, 2021.