John Kerry: The video game

In "Battlefield Vietnam," a new version of one of the most popular games in the U.S., you too can try to win a Silver Star saving your buddies in the jungle.

Topics: Gaming, Iraq, Middle East,

John Kerry:  The video game

The funny thing is, if John Forbes Kerry becomes the next president by winning a few key states with a few thousand votes, no one on his staff will know that the thing that helped put him over the top featured “Surfer Bird,” AK-47 gunfire, and loud blasts of Viet Cong propaganda.

“Battlefield Vietnam,” the new multiplayer tactical shooter from Electronic Arts (and a spinoff of the mammothly popular “Battlefield 1942,” re-creates a dozen-plus decisive battles from the Southeast Asian conflict, from pitched, close-quarter combat in Hue, to fierce infantry skirmishes beneath the chopper- and fighter-infested skies of Khe San. Other shooters set in Nam will soon arrive, and maybe this is, as some have suggested, a sign that the game industry has matured, now that it is finally willing to depict divisive historical topics.

But none of the other Nam games will come with the promotion or the built-in audience of E.A.’s franchise title. So none of them will have any chance at all of potentially influencing an American presidential election.

Yes, influence the election. How? Chew on this: A marketing firm called i to i research recently completed a survey of American young people, asking them to cite the source for their favorable impression of the U.S. military. (And the young are overwhelmingly pro-military, in numbers that far outstrip their trust in any other institution, public or private — one possible reason why Kerry’s team keeps the text to his anti-military “Winter Soldier” testimony on Vietnam before Congress on the down low.) When i to i asked kids why they admired the military, 40 percent cited recent combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A full 30 percent of them, however, named the computer game “America’s Army.”

Let’s restate that, to make sure it comes across in all its head-spinning dissonance: A third of the country’s young people have an elevated view of the Army, not foremost for anything it’s actually done lately, but because of the computer game they played, which just simulates it.



So there’s that. And if we’ve already come to speculate how Howard Stern might turn the election in Kerry’s favor, it’s really not that far a leap to think that the sequel to a title that has sold over 3 million copies may do just that, as well.

Because with Iraq and Afghanistan still savagely blood-spattered and un-democratized, Vietnam really is the psychic battleground, come November. Roughly put, if you already believe Nam offers a relevant object lesson to the current war on terrorism and the occupation of Iraq, then you’re likely to vote for Kerry. If you’ve already decided that Vietnam has little to teach us on either front, you’re more likely to vote for Bush. But who wins the election really comes down to the one-third of the country who remain undecided, and here is where the Vietnam of their imagination becomes so key. Because the most prominent depiction of that war in the popular culture — the only one out now, really — is this computer game. In November, millions of undecided voters will make their own deliberation, on the role of Vietnam in our lives. And in the next few months, hundreds of thousands of them are going to be playing “Battlefield Vietnam.”

Among these undecideds would be, frankly, me. I sure don’t want four more years of Bush, if only because I don’t look forward to scrolling past four more years of anti-Bush tirades on my favorite Web magazines. Then again, I’m sure not convinced Kerry’s considerable virtues as a face-saving internationalist are justification enough to switch pugilists in mid-swing. Whom to opt for, the one who scares the hell out of everybody, or the one who’d probably wind up giving the terrorist-enabling, student-mauling mullahs in Tehran and the nuclear-powered midget back East their first good night’s sleep in a long time? The jackass you know, or the jackass you know little of? (Except, of course, that the opposing jackass served on the spear tip of American foreign policy.)

To see if playing “Battlefield Vietnam” would push me more firmly into Kerry’s camp, I decided to review the game with that question right on the table. To go the whole way, I opted to be John Kerry, when I played it. “LtJohn Kerry” was the username I selected, when I fought online. I would be LtJohn Kerry when I commanded a PBR attack boat in the Mekong Delta, or fought as a grunt in the mean streets of Quang Tri, or played a Green Beret commando wading through the jungle heat of Lang Vei. For good measure, I even enlisted an actual Green Beret, to give LtJohn Kerry expert advice on his journey into the heart of high-poly darkness.

As in “Battlefield 1942,” victory in “Vietnam” is determined not by body count, or by accomplishing a series of mission objectives. Winning the peace in Southeast Asia is all about holding territory. Each map in the game has a preset number of control points, and each side begins the battle holding a designated number of them. (Everything from a small jungle base camp, to a barbwire-lined airstrip.) The meta strategy is to move with your team (up to 25 players on each side) into the enemy control points and hold them, while also protecting your own. To get to these, you double-time it on foot and scooter, by jeep and tank, by troop transport chopper and parachute drop, or much like John Kerry, via fast patrol boats, moving up the Delta. To coordinate your team’s movements, the game comes with an online chat system. Despite this, multiplayer games almost always devolve into free-fire chaos, from the start, quickly becoming a Cuisinart of brutality where gamers keep killing and dying and respawning to kill and die some more. And the chat function is used for little more than incoherent smack talk — at least when you’re playing as the future presidential candidate from Massachusetts.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

LtJohn Kerry arms himself with an M-16 and several grenades, and joins his comrades on the rolling hills of Khe San.

LtJohn Kerry: “I, John Kerry, will lead our army on the speartip of US foreign policy, to victory!”

Someone from the Vietcong side sardonically fires back with: “just what vietnam needs– a democrat”

Kerry emerges over the hill, and kills the Vietcong who is about to destroy an oncoming APC with a rocket launcher. Meanwhile, another VC contradicts his own teammate: “john kerry all the way bush is a cockmunching warmonger”

Later on, LtJohn Kerry is trying to maneuver his PBR patrol boat away from the shore, but he keeps crashing the craft into the dock. Even when he isn’t speaking, some of his fellow teammates are annoyed to see LtJohn Kerry’s name listed on their side.

“boooo on john kerry,” someone called Lt. Cowboy Boo types. “vote GB”

LtJohn Kerry protests: “but I fought in Nam!”

Lt. Cowboy Boo: “so what? he wants nato to have discretion over our troops”

Another U.S. teammate chimes in, with a sudden realization: “wasn’t john kerry in vietnam?”

“It’s a beautiful game,” my friend Jason observes. “The details are terrific.” Jason and I are playing on opposite sides in the Khe San map, while providing color commentary over our cellphones. And he’s right: While the graphics engine looks rather hoary, compared to a next-generation shooter like “Far Cry,” the maps are rendered with elegant, painterly care. Especially in the lush jungle and river terrain, with misty valleys in the distance, and ruined temples in the hills far ahead. If it weren’t for all the bloodshed and screaming, the graphics would actually be rather soothing — sort of like how John Kerry described the countryside, writing in his journal from the deck of his gunboat: “Simplicity characterizes everything around you and because of this an unassuming peace envelopes the fatigue.”

At the moment, though, Jason is too busy barreling down on me in a Sheridan tank, to notice the unassuming peace. Since I’m Viet Cong for this round, I lob three grenades at him, and duck behind a corner. They hit their mark, and Jason curses, as his tank goes up in flames.

“I’m coming after you,” he drawls into my earpiece, laughing, “and payback’s a bitch.”

The surrealism of the moment hits me, the moment I kill him, because some of the last guys to fight Jason ended up dead outside an Afghan village. As a Green Beret captain with Fifth Special Forces group, Jason Amerine led Hamid Karzai and his freedom fighters right into Kandahar, swatting the odd Taliban convoy out of the way. Right now, though, his combat mission involves chasing down a Bay Area geek who’s hiding behind a weedy berm in the burnt-out city of Quang Tri.

While we exchange shots, I ask Jason if his training in the military has any relation to what we’re playing now.

“No,” he says, as he pops into an F-4 to launch a strafing run. “[It's] too simplistic. It’s so arcade-ish, I don’t feel there’s a whole lot of accuracy to anything you do.” Jason’s talking to me from his apartment near the West Point Military Academy, in New York, where he now teaches international relations. “There’s really no subtlety,” he continues, while trying to wing the V.C. who is comically running and jumping in circles around him. “This is one of those brute force and ignorance kind of games.”

After a few rounds of combat and 24 hours of offline R&R, Jason tells me he’s pinned his finger on the arcade quality of “Battlefield Vietnam.”

“I concluded it had to do with the movement of individual soldiers in the game … the movement was so sped up, it didn’t seem like aiming mattered at all; you just had to aim in their general direction and hop around like crazy, like it was ‘Donkey Kong.’” This in contrast to the hyper-real graphics, and the game’s soundtrack. “I really liked the music,” he adds. “[It's] one of the best games audio-wise I’ve played in a long time.”

Classic ’60s pop songs, from Jefferson Airplane, Creedence, and other summer of love stalwarts, are constantly pouring out of vehicle radios and base camp loudspeakers. Like the “Grand Theft Auto” games that evidently inspired it, the overall effect of this music is to create an aural soundscape that complements the on-screen action in interesting, discordant ways. (Dropping a barrage of napalm on the enemy takes on a kinky hue, when Edwin Starr and his backup singers keep huffing “War/ what is it good for?/ absolutely nothing/ say it again!” in the background.) For extra ambivalence, you sometimes get to hear the forced morale-boosting patter of a DJ based on Adrian Cronauer of “Good Morning Vietnam” fame, and even more effective, a loop of Viet Cong propaganda, blaring through tinny speakers that echo through the blasted streets of Quang Tri, delivered by a girl in heavily accented English. (“Imperialists made you fight this war, G.I. They lied to you, G.I. They have ordered you to die.”)

This audio counterpoint enforces the intertext that introduces each map, providing a brief summary of the war’s historical background. They read like excerpts from a bad college term paper, most times, but they also set up the ambiguities of the coming battle. They even lean a little left, politically, asserting that “The Indochina conflict was a struggle for the independence of a people … ” at one point, and “The once heroic and romantic views of war slowly became tainted by the black and white reality of it,” for “until the ’60s, war was a fight for good vs. evil … that changed, and the enemy was not necessarily in the wrong.”

Taken together, this must make “Battlefield Vietnam” the first multiplayer action title to evoke a genuine sense of irony and historical complexity. (And by acknowledging the painful ambiguities of the war, this effect goes a long way to minimize any taint of exploitation.) In gameplay, it also creates a kind of reward-punishment roller coaster effect that some of the best Hollywood movies on the war ply the audience with. In films like “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” you’re allowed to enjoy the kick of intense action, but you always get snapped back to the cruel reality of the conflict.

Sly references to classic Vietnam movies abound in the game — as in Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” the soundtrack comes with Trashmen’s “Surfer Bird,” and as in Coppola’s film, with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” — but it’s the manipulation of expectations that “Battlefield Vietnam” has most in common with its Hollywood predecessors.

As a hardcore gamer in his off-duty hours, Jason tells me he’s more a fan of “Rainbow Six” and “America’s Army” for realism in multiplayer combat. But “Battlefield Vietnam” is set in a war that has haunted the U.S. military for decades, and numerous lessons at West Point are devoted to learning from its failures — and transcending them, with any luck. (“We’ve finally gotten past that whole Vietnam thing,” one high-ranking officer told me with satisfaction last year, shortly after the M1s came rolling into Baghdad — but before the brutal slog toward real peace began.)

According to Amerine, the game manages to convey some of these educational bullet points, but decisively fails, on others.

“One of the big lessons of Vietnam was that air power will only get you so far,” he says. “It was a revolution in terms of air power [but] in an insurgency, such air power isn’t everything, and won’t win you the day. [In] this game, to its credit, you can have a lot of fun flying copters and jets, but to capture points, you have to be on the ground. The air power is a support tool, but it comes down to being on the ground.”

But while Viet Cong players can plant pungi sticks and dig holes that become instant, V.C. tunnel spawn points, the unrelentingly fast-paced combat loses something, in the translation.

“[I]t’s a shame they didn’t capture some of the subtlety of a guerrilla war and an insurgency,” Jason tells me. The game also “misses the subtlety of hearts and minds … It would have been nice to have had tiny pockets of villages with civilians walking around [that have to be avoided]. The influence of civilians on the battlefield was huge. It particularly came to the forefront because the media was there showing what was happening in these villages. That was definitely a huge part of a stigma to the conflict.”

As for what lessons of Vietnam can tell us about Iraq, Amerine does not deign to comment, and despite my pleading, refuses to be drawn into the quagmire of discussing Kerry’s career in Vietnam, or his presidential campaign. “As a military officer,” Jason tells me, “my duty is to carry out the orders of the commander in chief, and to me, once the man is elected, I give him my full respect and undying service and loyalty. So I just don’t become involved in [talking about] the election.” He chuckles. “But nice try.”

LtJohn Kerry is still trying to get the hang of maneuvering his patrol boat up river, but he keeps sinking his craft, or getting killed by snipers offshore. None of the vehicles handle very well, at least in LtJohn Kerry’s hands, and the poor teammate who gets into a troop transport with him runs the risk of being trapped inside, when he tries to get it up a steep slope, and ends up turtling the unwieldy vehicle on the side of the hill.

At one point, LtJohn Kerry is attempting to fight his way into a temple complex, running point ahead of several of his Marines. But before he can reach the control point, he takes a bullet in the back.

“i killed john kerry — woot!” one of his own teammates crows.

“but you fragged me,” LtJohn Kerry protests.

“followed my gut”

“But I served in Nam!”

“so did my grandpa, he ain’t running for pres”

In another skirmish, the Americans are being vastly outnumbered and outplayed; their strategies have failed. LtJohn Kerry advises his teammates to surrender, asking, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

“i live near beacon hill but i’ll never vote for that ballmuncher kerry,” a guy named Boston Pitbull says. “gw is the best man for the job.”

“But I served in Nam,” LtJohnKerry responds, as he creeps up on two Viet Cong “campers” — players who stay out of the action, in a way that gains them an unfair advantage — and shoots both from behind. “Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I saw kerry toss his medals in the oceans,” seethes Pitball, “then he had some lackey go swimming to get them when everyone left.

“Ralph Nader 2004,” someone named Nate interjects, as a MIG fighter screams overhead.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Judging by my small sample gleaned as LtJohn Kerry, I’d say the players of “Battlefield Vietnam” marginally skew, like the rest of the country, toward Bush. But as the game goes on, with all its high-speed mayhem, unleavened by any hint of quagmire, maybe even the Republican players will begin to get the subconscious impression that Bush missed out on all the fun. By choosing to spend his time during Nam endlessly circling over Houston, George W. Bush must seem like the ultimate camper. If Bush played “Battlefield Vietnam,” you get the sense he’d be the guy who unaccountably ends up as team captain, and even if he’s got a high-stakes strategy that might actually work, he pisses off so many people with bad communication and needlessly asinine maneuvers along the way that the victory you had right in your hands slips through your fingers.

A few days after I played “Battlefield Vietnam” with my Green Beret friend and I submitted my first draft of this review, the real world intervened in the most inconvenient way. In that draft, I explained how the game vividly demonstrated all the ways that Iraq bore little resemblance to Vietnam. I pointed out how the game made plain that jungle warfare with an enemy backed by tanks and air support and the supply lines of two enemy superpowers was hardly comparable to a numerically tiny insurgency armed only with light weapons in a desert nation.

Then the street-to-street fighting broke out. In Fallujah. Hawija. Najaf. Kufa. Baghdad. And making those points suddenly seemed rather beside the point. The maps set in Hue and Quang Tri, urban zones turned into rubble, where there’s no such thing as winning clean, suddenly have relevant lessons of their own to impart. And for good or ill, many players of this game will find themselves open to them, in ways they wouldn’t have been only weeks ago.

“The facts of the war were difficult for the public to understand,” goes the on-screen text as Quang Tri map loads up, “and as such, they doubted the validity of the war.”

In “Battlefield Vietnam,” the Operation Game Warden map is set on the Mekong Delta, Kerry’s old stomping grounds as a swift boat commander, and in it, the Viet Cong come equipped with B-40 rockets (though they’re here listed by their alternate designation, the RPG-2). Though my own LtJohn Kerry never got the chance to do it, tens of thousands of players will end up reenacting something very much like the action that earned him a Silver Star, in coming months. And to the extent that “Battlefield Vietnam” sustains this sense-memory of Kerry, depicted not as grainy film stock, but as an immersive, interactive reality, you have to think its power will carry over for many of those who experience it. As something that keeps flickering in the back of their minds, as we close in on November, and the ballot booth.

And as it turns out, with things being what they are, the John Kerry that I want for president is actually a lot more like my computer game version than the one who’s currently out there on the stump. I can’t say I care much for his tortured, Möbius-strip statements on the Middle East and the terror war — even when, as Iraq teeters once more on the brink, his opposite offers little more than the leadership of smirks. Neither do I care for the John Kerry who seems to think that striding through the jungles with an M-16 somehow qualifies him to make the tough decisions on tax cuts and healthcare (as some of the ads on his site imply). In the end, the only Kerry I want for president is the one who hunted down the V.C. guerrilla who was about to take out his swift boat crew with a B-40 rocket launcher and capped the bastard with that M-16. He served in-country despite his growing skepticism of the enterprise, and when the failures of foreign policy took the concrete form of a guy who was fixing to make things more miserable for his people than they’d ever imagined, he got out of the boat, and leaving all those misgivings of his behind, did what needed to be done.

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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