Toy Soldiers

Computer game designers in Bedford re-create the greatest generation online

Such displays give weight to the gamer polls conducted by WWII Online itself, one of which suggests nearly half the WWII Online community values the friendships they develop with other gamers more than the game play itself.

"There's a culture that grows inside this game that's phenomenal," Corey says. "You take Internet cultures, which are pretty established at this point, and then you put them in an environment where it's person vs. person or person in concert with person against another person, and it just blossoms. We have a pretty deep community going on, and we didn't have to do anything. We just basically gave them a sandbox to play in."


Madurai's finest hour came at sea; odd, as he usually fights on the ground. On this day, during an amphibious end run to the Axis-held Dutch port in Bergen Op Zoom, everything came together with unusual precision.
At top, the map of the Western European theater that makes up WWII Online's virtual battlefield, which is modeled on a one-half scale (every actual mile equals a half-mile in the game), meaning it would take you several days to walk across Europe; below, the game offers fighting by air (the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire MkI), land (you choose which side your soldier fights on) and sea (the Brits' Fairmile B Type Motor Launch).
At top, the map of the Western European theater that makes up WWII Online's virtual battlefield, which is modeled on a one-half scale (every actual mile equals a half-mile in the game), meaning it would take you several days to walk across Europe; below, the game offers fighting by air (the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire MkI), land (you choose which side your soldier fights on) and sea (the Brits' Fairmile B Type Motor Launch).
PlayNet/Cornered Rat exec Chris "Mo" Sherland, above, doesn't let his World War II model airplanes distract him when he's flying virtual sorties; below, associate producer Dana "Gophur" Baldwin says he wants you to play his game...so long as you don't act like an FNG.
Mark Graham
PlayNet/Cornered Rat exec Chris "Mo" Sherland, above, doesn't let his World War II model airplanes distract him when he's flying virtual sorties; below, associate producer Dana "Gophur" Baldwin says he wants you to play his game...so long as you don't act like an FNG.

Madurai piloted his wooden Fairmile B Type Motor Launch (sort of a slow PT boat without torpedoes) in a convoy up from the Antwerp docks; he was escorting several troop-carrying boats. It was early morning, plenty of light for enemy aircraft to show up, so tension was high.

Soon enough, one attacked. Madurai was on his game that day, successfully repelling an air attack with the ship's 20mm guns. But in the narrow canal between Antwerp and Bergen, German boats were waiting on the northern end. The boat ahead of Madurai's took blasts from close range, but meanwhile Madurai and his crew sank three enemy ships. Now, with Bergen in sight, Madurai shelled the town from close range, doing doughnuts in the bay to keep the defenders' attention fixed while the transports rolled up unscathed and unloaded their troops. Mission accomplished in two hours 13 minutes, no casualties, with only a few bullet holes in the ship's plywood.

Madurai--in the real world known as Stephen Blount, who recently moved from Dallas to Oakland--counts this mission as his greatest success in the nearly two years he's been playing. This for a lifetime military buff who knows the difference--and similarities--between virtual and real battlefields. Blount had two uncles who flew in Vietnam. He himself was in the Navy during the first Gulf War. "Other kids went to rock concerts," he says. "I went to air shows. We all came back hard of hearing with a new T-shirt."

He, like most of the gamers and the staff at Cornered Rat, have opinions on the current war in Iraq and the odd reality of playing a game with tanks and airplanes doing battle while a real one rages in downtown Baghdad. They stress that there are as many differences as similarities, even in terms of planning and tactics.

The greatest similarity, in fact, may be in the French-bashing that goes on--more good-naturedly in the game than in many areas within the United States. And it's not new. During early game-design talks, Chris Sherland recalls fielding the suggestion that they model the French resistance so players could join it. "And we had to remind them, hey, in our game, the French haven't lost yet," Sherland says, laughing. "They get another shot at it. Don't give up so easy!"

"But there are things about our game that mirror real life more than other games," Baldwin says. "In our game, you get a rush just standing in a field with no one around. You're alone, and when you're alone in this game, just like in real life, that's when you're most scared."

It takes only a glance at the current cover headline of Business Week ("The Doctrine of Digital War") to see there is more than a cursory overlap between the virtual and real battlefield. As noted this week in The New York Times, "The possibilities of networked computers, combined with an increasingly remote-controlled military like the one Donald H. Rumsfeld has vowed to build, has spurred increase in adapting the architecture of multiplayer games like Everquest and Ultima to create a 'persistent world' for training and perhaps more." In fact, this is already going on, to an extent. The makers of Operation Flashpoint, a competitor to World War II Online, helped turn the game into a simulation used by the Marines called, elegantly enough, Virtual Battlefield System 1.

The crossover between the military and video-game worlds is increasingly thorough. Examples are legion: There is the free-to-download Internet game America's Army, an $8 million effort created by the U.S. Army to aid in recruiting that has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times; since February, the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, has been using a game called Full Spectrum Command to teach infantry captains; recent game releases include SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and Conflict: Desert Storm; the controls of the real Navy SEALs' new Mark V boat closely resemble a video-game joystick; and the controls for the Stryker, an autonomous robotic vehicle being tested at Fort Bliss, Texas, were designed to be like those of a video game, so they would be easy for young, computer-savvy recruits to operate.

But 4th Infantry Colonel John Antal says the usefulness of video-game-like training in virtual battlefields is useful, but military or gaming enthusiasts who suggest its importance is increasing don't understand real warfare.

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