Fear and Gaming: Soldiers of Boredom

Playing a first-person shooter set in Vietnam, Jonathan Gourlay learns that he doesn’t have to take any responsibility for war, just like Senator Mitch McConnell.


“Why are you stuck on that?” my daughter asks me as I spend my Christmas break becoming slightly less sucky at Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam, a multi-player shooter from gaming behemoth Electronic Arts.

I stare at the screen, concentrating on blowing up an enemy tank. I say in a zombie monotone, “I don’t know.”

But I do know. It feels good to kill in an amoral virtual jungle. It supplies temporary meaning to my life. Like a monk lost in contemplation, I forget the troubles and pressures of Samsara. I dive into the game for the same reason a monk dives into religion: because I dread my own freedom. Kierkegaard wrote, “He whose eye chances to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.” The abyss is freedom: moral freedom, the freedom of “I could…” as in “I could show my junk on Chatroulette.” The abyss is there in the corner of my eye each day that I strap on my seat belt to head to work (I could drive the car into a ditch) or wait in line at the grocery store (I could jab this plastic spork into that old lady’s neck) or really any time that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing — which is why BFBC2V is such a release. The game is just kill kill kill and no consequence.

Thanks to my genuine Vietnam experience, I look back now with nostalgia to my 0th year of life, 1970. The music was angry, the populace was riled, and I happily farted in public. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon presided over an unpopular, nasty war that featured unprecedented (and never to be repeated) press coverage and forced enlistment of any male unlucky enough to be in their late teens. (In fact, as I learned via early synthesizer and freaky looping in the ‘80s, the average age of the Vietnam soldier was n-n-n-n-nineteen.)

Today’s most jowly villain is no Nixon. He’s glassy-eyed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sen. McConnell might be a dick, but he isn’t particularly tricky. He’s right out there in public, widening the income gap in America to something approaching Czarist Russia. But the serfs will not riot nor mock; will not protest nor strike; will not sit-in nor die-in. The working poor of McConnell’s state of Kentucky, of which I am a member, are content to patiently suck on cancer sticks and gaze at the apocalyptic death-scape created by removing entire fucking mountains. The occasional toxic mud slide sloughing off of what used to be a hill doesn’t move me from my usual weekday meal of Kentucky hot brown, Ale8, and squirrel cracklins. While I escape into Bad Company’s faux-Vietnam, our sons and daughters sign up to escape into Afghanistan and Iraq. Is the bad economy a kind of de-facto draft of the poor and under-educated? As Sam Harris writes, “Just how much inequality can free people endure?” Indeed.

Is it the lack of a draft that has caused our current wars (I’m sorry, “conflicts”) in Iraq and Afghanistan to seem so abstract and impersonal? No time to dwell on this. I’m deep in the jungle and Charlie is everywhere. Or maybe they are American GIs. Unlike real life, in Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam, I find it hard to understand if I am Vietnamese or not. With the bullets flying, helicopters on the prowl, and tanks rumbling through burnt-out villages, there is little time to stop and look in the mirror. As a nod to multi-culti fairness, there is no functional difference between being Vietnamese or American in BFBC2V. And after each round of the game, you are forced to switch sides so as not to bear a xenophobic grudge for too long. But I signed up for a morally repugnant experience. I want to wallow in it. I want to experience how far off the grid of good taste a game can go and what I get has all the balls of an Elmo tooth-brushing game?

I can torch thatched huts with my flame thrower. This is a pretty sight but is fleetingly glimpsed before — thwonk — a sniper snipes my head clean off and I am dead again. What happens to me in BFBC2V is that I die. Repeatedly. BFBC2V is a massively multiplayer team-based shooter. This means that when you fire up your first game, you may find yourself surrounded by 14-year-old boys who should be doing their homework. Said boys have spent about 1,000 more hours than I have (what with my job and family getting in the way) learning every nuance of the game. I died over twenty times before racking up a single kill. But that kill was sweet. Sweet as a first kiss or a lilting aria. And now, I wanna kill, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill, KILL, KILL!

Kill is what I mean to do as I crouch in the upper tier of what were once the beautiful cascading steppes of a mountainside rice field. An enemy tank is tearing up a muddy road, grinding gears as it lumbers up the hill in an attempt to capture our flag. I want to concentrate on the game but am haunted by a photograph of the monstrous cavity that is Mitch McConnell’s nostril. There is the abyss again. Up, up, we go, out of the game and inside Mitch McConnell’s head where there is no right or wrong.

It is difficult to accept that a man like Sen. McConnell, a not entirely dumb person, can actually believe saving ga-jillionaires from even modest taxes somehow “helps” the average Kentuckian. Therefore, McConnell must be an “aesthete,” a man of no fixed principle who changes his moral judgments on self-serving whims the way, to use Kierkegaard’s metaphor, a farmer rotates his crops. Nixon, in contrast, had a guiding moral principle in his life: he was racist. It may be a repugnant principle but at least he never had to ask himself, “How should I act?” Jews — immoral bastards. Negroes – live like a bunch of dogs. Indians – if some get shot, that’s too goddam bad. Nixon ate his breakfast as a racist. He masturbated in his nightgown as a racist. He made a choice to live his life according to a moral code and everything else in his life flowed from that choice. He was, in short, a principled asshole as opposed to McConnell who is merely a plain asshole.

In Kierkegaard’s scheme McConnell is like most of us. We are people who grow bored easily with one pleasure, and change to another, from greed to sex to drugs to God to Xbox to typing “First!” in the comment box to wearing rabbit costumes in a sexual way and on and on, our boredom causing “infinite momentum for making discoveries.” At some point we may, like Nixon, choose to have a guiding principle or perhaps we’ll just die, still grasping at the last pleasure, still running from boredom.

“Daddy, I’ve got nothing to do,” my daughter proclaims.

Life, friends, is boring,” I say.

“Daddy, c’mon! Are you still stuck on that?”

Yes, I will be in BFBC2V for at least a week. While crouched in the virtual bamboo clutching my machine gun, the world has set rules and few choices. My purpose is to point and shoot. My kill-to-death ratio is now up to about .25, meaning that I die four times for each kill I make. This, I think, is important progress in my life. I don’t have time to be bothered by children.

When the game hiccups and dies because of a still unexplained and possibly sabotage-related internet outage, there’s the abyss again. It creeps, if an abyss can be said to creep, like the toxic ooze that sloughs off Kentucky’s mountains. BFBC2V, with its skimpy offering of five playable maps, will not distract me for too long. I must set up the next distraction; must stave off a reckoning with the abyss. I could, perhaps, live my life with the guiding principle that income equality is the most important feature of a stable democracy. More income equality, even a little bit more — like taxing the wealthiest at, say, the same rates as in 1970 — would mean more flourishing for all Americans; better lives. You may not agree but it is at least a guiding principle and one, I think, better than racism. Or I could fire up the next distraction. I could trust that Noah’s ark might save us from our current flood of poverty and despair. If Vietnam is not in poor enough taste to rile me, perhaps I could play as a Taliban in Medal of Honor.

Is it a bad thing to pretend to be in Vietnam as represented by BFBC2V? Does playing it somehow diminish or desecrate or lessen the human toll of the actual war? Is BFBC2V the wrong way to spend an afternoon? I don’t think so. It’s fun. It’s artful. It’s a balanced game that never feels like anything but a game. Yet I can’t get over the feeling that as we scamper through this virtual war my fellow squad members and I are being pwn3d in reality. We are pwn3d by Mitch who is pwn3d by corporations who pwn our democracy and rack up the kills while we flail about like nOObs.

I plug in the internet router that mysteriously and of its own accord became unplugged. I re-boot Vietnam and amidst the whirr of bullets, I press the j key to talk to my fellow players. I type: “Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked?

“WTF?” they reply.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.