Avid gamers love to recount their most exciting exploits in online play; especially their moments of greatest challenge, skill, and luck. These narratives often resemble stories that real soldiers might tell upon returning from battle. However, like the games that inspire them, which in turn reflect the depiction of war in film, they are devoid of the horrors of real war; instead, they convey themes of honor, glory, sacrifice, and intrigue.
First Person: War Stories from Gamespace is a collection of fifty such War Stories from the battlefields of the Internet. Fifty accounts of valiant struggles, glorious victories, and sometimes of overwhelming defeat. This is First Person.
Kent Sheely, the mind behind the First Person project, is a new media artist based in New York City. His work draws both inspiration and foundation from the aesthetics and culture of video games, examining the relationships between the real world and virtual ones. Kent’s investigation of these connections is multifaceted, with techniques that include image manipulation, software modification, machinima, interactive installation, and live in-game performance. Much of his work centers around the translation and transmediation of symbols, concepts, and expectations from gamespace to the real world and vice-versa, forming new bridges between simulation and reality.
Kent was kind enough to sit down with us to share his beginnings, his hopes, and his vision of what’s to come from the stories we create in our games.
Let’s start where you started. What led up to the creation of First Person?
Kent Sheely: The project started as an independent conceptual art piece on the backend of my website. I made a new blog framework and set it up so gamers could post “war stories” to it, with the intention of later turning the data into a book. The basic concept was to compare gamers’ “war stories” to the stories of real veterans and to the narratives in popular books, film, and television.
I had noticed that the language gamers use when swapping stories is a really strange and fascinating combination of the two, which would sound exactly like real events if not for the references to gaming tropes like “power ups” and “respawn.” Another common property is that the stories from all of these sources are filtered to be as exciting and uplifting as possible, leaving out the harrowing details of real warfare and focused on the heroic acts of the narrator and his/her team.
I was having trouble getting people to participate, so I made a post on Reddit asking gamers to tell me their stories. It was a tremendous success! After the thread had run its course, Kiaha approached me about creating a new sub-board (called a “subreddit”) on the site, dedicated to the concept, and signed me and MightyMofo on as admins. The community has since taken on a life of its own, completely independent from the original book project!
The book itself is a collection of fifty of the best stories from both the original thread and the dedicated subreddit. Before printing, I did a bit of editing to the grammar and spelling and used screenshots from each game to punctuate the narratives. There’s something very satisfying in picking up the book and actually flipping through the stories; it really makes them feel more real.
Most of the games featured seem to be inspired by player created events in open-ended multiplayer games like DayZ or Minecraft, as well as open single player games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls. Is it the openness that makes the games more likely to provide individually powerful and unique experiences, as opposed to more linear games that provide the story for you?
KS: All of the stories in the book are from games that feature some aspect of combat, whether the player is a participant or a commander leading troops into battle. I think it’s accurate to say that the more nonlinear and unpredictable a game is, the more interesting stories will be, simply because players have more freedom to act in ways that the developers could never have predicted. That’s one reason why I chose multiplayer games for this book. The other is that games in which all the characters are human-controlled tend to foster a greater sense of importance and intensity when there are real players controlling both sides of the conflict. The games that more accurately represent warfare birth the stories that are most interesting to me, because they most closely portray the conditions that would produce real-life war stories.
What has the response been like from real veterans? To what extent have the editors, mods or writers had experience being a soldier, or with war or combat in general?
KS: As far as I know, the people involved with the stories have no combat or military experience to speak of. I’m sure at this point that someone involved in the military has at least read some of the posts. I’d absolutely love to get that perspective, either from a contributor or a reader, considering the fact that the project is somewhat critical of the popular culture’s representation of warfare. If anybody out there fits the bill, I’d love to hear from them on Twitter @ksheely!
Cherno Journo is a YouTuber you’ve featured who plays DayZ as a journalist interviewing other players about their experiences in the game. Can you talk about what stories were included that didn’t deal directly with combat?
KS: Games like DayZ are somewhat unique, in that the gameplay doesn’t revolve solely around killing enemies to win the game. The stories from those games are not as frequently posted, but they’re always interesting to read simply because they are so different and generally more nuanced. I’ve seen others that weren’t about the narrator being directly involved with combat, but about getting a high score, or witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime event of some kind. These kinds of narratives are still valid, because they describe a memorable event that never physically took place; but I left them out of this book.
Outside of the common element of combat, what themes seem to prevail throughout these stories?
KS: I’d say the most recurring themes are usually about the narrator pulling off some kind of uncanny feat to win the match, an extremely unlikely turn of events that worked out in that player’s favor, or some unique strategy that had unpredictable (and usually beneficial) results. Surprisingly, some of the events cited by players as their most memorable were not of victory, but of defeat. These are actually the most interesting to me. A soldier who is killed in the line of duty in real life doesn’t have the ability to come back and write down what was going through his/her head, so I imagine that these kinds of stories from games are the best representation we’ll ever get.
How does fictional/simulated combat resemble true combat (based on your experiences or the experiences of other vets)? What elements remain the same, which are different?
KS: From what I’ve seen and read, game developers tend to pursue representations of combat that are as close to realism as possible; the developers of games like Call of Duty sometimes even employ consultants with military experience to provide feedback during production. The terminology, weapon and vehicle behavior, sounds, and other elements are all carefully considered to give the player the closest possible simulation of what it’s like to really be in combat. Sometimes players even report feeling intense emotion during play as a result of what’s happening on the screen, because the experience has been crafted to be a representation of real battle.
That being said, even the most realistic of simulations can never capture the true horror of combat. The war stories that emerge from games are always biased toward themes of honor, daring, and sacrifice, because they describe events that were always just interactive abstractions of real warfare.
Where will First Person and /r/storiesofwar go from here?
KS: This whole project has been exciting for me, just to see the overwhelming response from the community and from the people who have already bought a copy of the book. It’s really opened my eyes to the way war is represented in our various forms of media, and the ways we act it out when we play games that simulate it. If the book continues to be as well-received as it has been, I’ll definitely do a follow up, and I sincerely hope that the community continues to contribute to the Stories of War subreddit. I hope it creates channels of dialogue between real combat veterans and the people who have only played video games about war, and that it helps civilians understand what life is like for soldiers (not just American ones!) that have placed themselves in the line of fire for their respective causes. On another level, I hope the project makes people think about the power of simulation itself and the ability that games have to create fictional experiences that stick with us even after we shut them off.
You can pick up your own copy of First Person: War Stories from Gamespace on sale for a limited time. ePub copies of the book are available for free. Check out one of the stories featured in the book (inspired by Red Orchestra 2) here.