Is it like Call of Duty?


I have a memory from a firefight in 2008.  It’s blurred around the edges and foggy at parts, but there is a distinct sequence in which I bring the optic to my eye and fire at a man’s head. From there the memory fades out. Some say his head exploded in a pink splash, and others say the light machine gun next to me killed him, but I don’t think anyone really knows.

This event has stuck with me because for some reason it has attached itself to a question that I’m asked surprisingly frequently when my experiences in Afghanistan come up.

“Is it like Call of Duty?”

I attended a charity event with a friend of mine who had lost both his legs in Sangin, Afghanistan, and after an hour of schmoozing he was descended on by a group of six-year-olds who, after realizing he had lost his appendages in some sort of explosion, proceeded to ask what his favorite weapon was in Call of Duty and if shooting people in real life was the same as in video games. I stared in horror at their parents who sat unfazed in the background, but my friend just smiled and proceeded to placate the kids with some anecdote.

This question isn’t limited to six-year-olds, mind you. Last week I was asked the same thing by a twenty-something after my French class.

This question has persisted throughout the years because some people think that video games are a medium that edges closer to warfare than books or films.

This is not the case.  A film or a book might be less participatory than a video game, but they still contain the human element. You grow attached to characters and mourn their departures and tribulations. A video game in 2013, no matter how sexed up and cinematic it is, is just some iteration of Doom for DOS. You walk around and shoot people.

Combat is about relationships. It is about people. It is about how you see yourself as a person and how you treat your comrades in the direst of circumstances. Video games have tried to recreate the human element of combat through cut scenes and sophisticated graphics, but will always fail because they only ask one thing of the player: to shoot other people, or get shot and regenerate. No lingering doubts, no remorse, no cost—just bodies on a screen, blasted into oblivion.

Video games lack reflection and human response. Killing a member of your own species is the most intimate thing a human can do. It is an act that volumes are written on, with more volumes still to come. Yet, it is around killing that video games couch their mainstay. Everything in a video game is anchored in killing. It is the obvious, the thing you will do unquestionably; yet, in modern combat, killing is the pinnacle. It is the end of the road. It is where childhoods go to die and lifetimes are forever altered.

Combat veterans play video games because within them are specters of their old selves, a homage of sorts to the most enthralling moments of their lives in a sycophantic kind of way.  However, people who have no experience with warfare think that by playing video games they are getting some sort of glimpse of a life they could not even start to comprehend.

Video games are the sitcom of combat, quick and painless and wrapped up quickly. And just like sitcoms give us a skewed perception of reality, video games do the same for warfare.

And while this seems blatantly obvious, the question still persists.

“Is it like Call of Duty?”

That memory— the one I talked about in the beginning—is from my first firefight from my first deployment. It was the first time I experienced combat and that memory is there because in that infinitesimal moment before I pulled the trigger I distinctly remember thinking:

“I’ve done this before.”


This column is the second in series on how the warrior and civilian experience are portrayed through various media in the 21st century.  

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and a deputy editor at The Hoya.