Experiencing The Parts of War that Movies Don’t Show You in Arma 3

March 30, 2020
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General William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “War is Hell.” Although the nature of conflict has changed since the American Civil War, Arma 3 offers a rare glimpse into this hell that’s unfolding across the globe.

Arma 3 is a first-person shooter that sells itself on its realism. It presents a punishing set of rules for infantry players, advanced simulations of vehicles and the ability to call in player-controlled fire support. This results in missions that often feel like a chore to play, but missions that a certain type of player have come to relish.

Within Arma 3, the majority of the community plays inside of “units.” These are groups that use real military structure and tactics to take full advantage of Arma 3’s realism to undertake difficult missions.

It is during these missions that civilians such as myself, as well as non-combat military personnel, can experience modern combat from the safety of our bedrooms.

Arma 3's helicopters are one of the things that make the game so realistic and something that few other games have.

The first time I went along with one of Arma’s units, I felt like I was in The Hurt Locker. Minutes after our mission started, the soldiers I was with were ambushed. As a rocket whizzed over our heads, I ducked into cover, but the soldiers immediately returned fire. They unloaded magazine after magazine into the hills where the enemy had originally fired from, all while shouting obscenities to anyone within earshot. They moved from rock to rock, covering one another as they moved and dragging anyone who got wounded to the back of their firing line. They treated their wounded, smoked virtual cigarettes and shot hundreds of rounds into the hills.

Ten minutes later, everything stopped. The enemy stopped shooting at the soldiers, so the soldiers too stopped shooting. The soldiers didn’t know if they had killed their targets or not, but it didn’t matter to them. Everyone took a smoke break, reloaded their weapons and started to move towards their objective like nothing had just happened.

Arma 3 allows players to go on missions at night which adds another layer of realism and confusion to the already chaotic combat.

Although there’s no shortage of movies and documentaries about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that they almost always fail to capture is the strangeness of combat that I experienced within Arma 3.

“In real combat, there’s a sort of organised chaos. Everyone knows what they’re doing and wants to follow the book, but you never know if there’s a bad guy around the corner,” said S. “Rob” Robinson, a former U.S. Army soldier and now Arma 3 unit leader. “There’s a lot of cussing, a lot of yelling, and a lot of indirect insults. You’re shooting the bad guys while yelling “fuck you” at them.”

Robinson’s experiences in war, which mirrored what I had seen when playing with him, is not the only unique part of combat that Arma 3 showcases. With a different unit, I experienced a side of conflict that no movie or game has ever exhibited.

After a thorough press briefing, I found myself sitting inside of a virtual recreation of a briefing room for the 5 Rifles Regiment. Here, soldiers listened to their commander give a detailed plan for their mission, their rules of engagement for the day and how to remain safe around the vehicles that they would be using that afternoon.

An hour later, I was in the back of an armoured personnel carrier when a lone bullet dinged against the vehicle. Without hesitation, everyone dismounted and formed a perimeter around the vehicle. Ten minutes later, we learned that the lone bullet had come from a now-dead sniper, but that we would be staying at our position to eat in case we didn’t have the time to later.

There's a huge emphasis on weapon and optics simulation within Arma 3. This is the element that keeps many players come back to the game regardless of how rarely they're actually able to use those weapons!

According to 2nd Lt. Glen, who heads the virtual 5 Rifles Regiment and serves in the Royal Army Medical Corps, this boring experience is realistic. 

“If you’re on an exercise, 99% of your time is not fighting. You spend your time doing logistics like planning, eating, digging holes and moving around,” said Glen. 

For Glen, Arma 3 is more than a game, however.

“If you look at the Arma community, there’s a huge proportion of people that are actual military,” Glen said. “Current military guys are able to train and hone skills without going out and getting cold and wet, and for the ex-military guys it’s a way for them to get back into it, to get back into the coordinated environment.”

Glen is not alone in using Arma as a training tool. VBS3 is the non-commercial version of Arma that is used by the U.S. Army to simulate combat exercises without having to go into the field.

“I remember playing VBS in basic training and thinking holy fuck I’m getting paid to play a video game,” Robinson noted.
One of the first things players inside of Arma 3's units learn is how to properly clear buildings.

However, Arma is not without faults in its attempt to depict modern combat. Both Glen and Robinson agree that Arma 3’s wonky physics engine makes for many unrealistic moments.

“You’ll pick up something in game, turn around and whack your mate with it and they’ll die,” said Glen. “I mean, most people don’t die when they get smacked with a phone. It’s really the most immersion-breaking element.”

But even with this in mind, Arma 3 is one of the few games that allows its players to experience the true nature of modern conflict. No other game forces people to sit through a lengthy briefing before going and shooting at the general location of enemies. This may not have been the hell that General Sherman originally described, but it is the unique hell of modern combat that Arma 3 allows its players to experience.

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.