War becomes more than a game

Posted: Oct 19, 2006 12:01 AM
War becomes more than a game

When my mother saw her first telephone she was a little girl growing up in a tiny village in rural Canada, 90 miles west of Toronto. Hers was the first family to own the newfangled contraption with a small earpiece and a round black speaking spout attached to a box. When her father, out in the wild buying skins from trappers, called home she was mystified. She asked her mother: "How could Daddy fit into that little box?"

That was then. Now the young size up prospective dates and mates by watching their videos, stroll down the street talking into the air and send instant text messages to friends three continents away. When I was a little girl, I never thought anything in my life would sound as primitive to the next generation as my mother's experience with the telephone sounded to me. But when I tell my grandsons, ages 7 and 10, how my family sat around a radio as tall as they are, listening in the dark to scary stories on "Inner Sanctum" and "The Shadow," they think I'm from a pre-historic tribe.

They can't believe that once upon a time television wasn't 24/7 and all you could see after midnight was a test pattern that never moved. I became a living embarrassment when they learned that I tuned into YouTube for the first time last week after I read it was worth $1.65 billion to Google. I understand the narcissism of those who want to spread themselves across a computer screen, but I don't understand why anyone wants to watch them.

I was about to lose all credibility until I gave my grandsons an electronic war game they persuaded me was "educational." The game features graphic violence, with blood spilling across the screen as men kill each other. But it's blood with a point, all about World War II. It can't be bad when it gets us all, parents and friends and friends of parents, talking about real history.

They learned how the Allies gave Field Marshal Erwin Rommel -- "the Desert Fox" -- a hard time in North Africa when the war was not going well for the Allies anywhere else. The game describes the crossing of the Mediterranean into Sicily and then on to Italy. They learn how foolish Hitler was to invade Russia: "Didn't he learn anything from Napoleon?" Then we went to the library to take out books describing strategy, tactics and weapons. The boys quickly became fascinated with Douglas MacArthur and Winston Churchill, so we found biographies written especially for children. Their curiosity expanded exponentially.

Now they easily recite the names of the five invasion beaches at Normandy. They understand the difficulty of Gen. Eisenhower's decision to go forward with the invasion despite a less than perfect weather report: "It couldn't be a full moon, which would be too bright, or a new moon, which would be too dark."

Dramatic anecdotes punctuate our discussions of Gen. George S. Patton's infamous slap of a soldier heard 'round the world, of Rommel's miscalculation of the timing of the Normandy invasion that began while he was in Berlin delivering shoes from a Paris shop to his wife for her birthday. These incidents are not in the game, and a little extra reading humanizes the leaders.

The game enables them to take pride in the bravery of our soldiers as they move electronically up the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. This is the war up close and it's not pretty, no matter how detailed the background pictures are, but the game makes more sense than those animated comedies and comics where danger and death are reduced to a brightly colored cartoon.

Interspersed between the game's violent scenes are footnotes to the meaning of war, of Robert E. Lee's remark at Fredericksburg as he watched the mighty armies of the Blue and the Gray gathering below Marye's Heights: "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it."

Video games can be mindlessly escapist, desensitizing children to blood and gore, and must be closely monitored lest children play only games instead of thinking about the world they inhabit. But some of the new war games rely on facts and context as well as dexterity. The U.S. military uses video games to train soldiers in specific skills, the careful handling of weapons, in critical thinking, the importance of teamwork, of knowing when, and when not, to shoot.

Process is as important as content. The games require patience and an appreciation for delayed gratification. It ain't chess, but it ain't bad.