Old Gamers Never Die: Confessions of a Digital Armchair General

A screenshot from the new tactical level wargame Regiments, developed by Bird’s Eye Games and MicroProse and released today.

Childhood Dreams vs. Cold, Hard Reality

When I was nine years old and my mom allowed me to dream about careers that were realistically out of my reach because I have cerebral palsy, one of my “I want to be X when I grow up” roles that I wanted most was “professional military officer.”

Photo by Diego Ramirez on Pexels.com

Even though in 1972 the Vietnam War – which was, from the U.S. perspective if not the Vietnamese one, winding down as President Richard Nixon sought an agreement with North Vietnam at the peace talks in Paris – had turned off many Americans from anything related to the military, I lived in a bubble where such notions were alien to me. During that turbulent era, my mindset was ridiculously naïve and would have delighted many of today’s conservatives, because back then I believed fiercely that:

  • The United States, land of my birth if not my heritage, could no wrong
  • America only used its military power with “just cause” and was never the “bad guy”
  • If North Vietnam was America’s enemy at the time, then surely it was in the wrong, right?
  • America would not lose in Vietnam, and it was a shame that those long-haired hippies called the GIs who served in Southeast Asia “baby killers.” (The last part of that tenet – the “baby killers” epithet, is still something that I do take issue with in regard to the anti-war movement.)
Department of Defense photo

In my defense, I was only nine years old then, had not mastered the English language, and had not read any books or magazine articles about the war in Vietnam. At that age, I lacked the maturity and knowledge to separate facts from opinions.

Anyway, back then and for many years after that, I really wanted to be either a pilot like my late father – even though he had died in a plane crash in 1965 – or an officer leading my troops into combat. I wasn’t particular about which branch of the service I joined – sometimes I wanted to be in the Army, sometimes I wanted to be in the Marine Corps. At other times, both the Navy and the Air Force also looked appealing.

Of course, when I realized that no, I have a physical disability that prevented me from joining the military, I decided to accept reality and followed the sometimes long and winding road to becoming a writer. I’m not sure how old I was or what triggered the creative impulse, although the release of Star Wars back in 1977 was a factor in my decision.

A screenshot from Order of Battle, a turn-based strategy game from Slitherine Games and Matrix Games.

Nevertheless, even today, with my 60th birthday looming in the not-too-distant future (in March of 2023, ladies and gents), I am still interested in the military, and even though I am less naïve and know way more military history than I did in 1972, I still regret that I was not able to serve – either as an enlisted man or officer – in my country’s service.

A Keyboard Warrior

Early in the game, you will only have Supply Depots to replenish your divisions once every 24 hours (in-game time). (C) 1985, 2022 MicroProse and Atari

I have played computer war games ever since my father’s brother Sixto gave me my first home computer – an Apple IIe with a color monitor and an Image Writer dot matrix printer – in the spring of 1987 during a brief rapprochement – which was sabotaged by my meddling half-sister – after an unexplained lack of familial contact on Sixto’s part after Dad’s death in 1965. The first game I bought for that computer was a World War II naval simulation, Destroyer (Epyx Games, 1986), in which you were in command of a Fletcher-class destroyer during the Pacific Ocean campaigns against Japan.

Destroyer was more of a shoot-them-up game than a true warship simulation, although the game had some elements of actual ship handling and damage control decision-making. It had nice graphics for a game of its generation, and more importantly, it was fun to play – at first, anyway.

Later, though, I began buying different types of war games that ranged from submarine simulations that were far more detailed than Destroyer to map-and-symbols games like Fighter Command: Battle of Britain and Crusade in Europe.

Am I a good digital armchair general, aka “Keyboard Warrior”?

Strategic Command: WWII World at War is one of the few “grand strategy games” that I am reasonably good at. (C) 2018 Fury Software/Slitherine Games
The start of the Axis campaign begins with the invasion of Poland in September of 1939. (C) 2018 Fury Software/Slitherine Games

I’d like to think I am, but it depends on the type of wargame, its focus (tactical level vs. strategic; operational vs. grand strategy; vehicle simulator vs. small unit simulation of ground combat; naval strategy vs. submarine sim, etc.) I’ve bought lots of computer games with military overtones since 1987, and I have discovered that:

  • I tend to favor either “operational strategy games” at the theater level (Crusade in Europe) that are historically exact but are not insanely complex to play or “vehicle/aircraft/submarine” simulations
  • I don’t do well with real-time tactical games such as MicroProse’s Regiments (a Cold War-turns-hot game that depicts a Soviet-led invasion of West Germany in 1989) or Eugen Games’ Wargame series, which includes Wargame: European Escalation and Wargame: Red Dragon
  • I do better with World War II-set games than I do when I play those that are set in the American Civil War
  • When I find a software company whose games I like, I tend to keep buying from it. In the 1980s through early 1990s, MicroProse (which died in 2003 or so but was revived a few years back by a new leadership team) was my go-to company to get games from. They just released Regiments, and I bought it, even though – so far, at least – I am not good at it. I might improve, though, if I practice
  • I get overwhelmed by games that are so detailed-oriented (such as Gary Grigsby’s War in the West) I need to win an appointment to a service academy or take a Military Science course in college just to move my units, much less conduct operations with them

The short answer is, of course, “it depends on the game or how it is designed.

Another screengrab from Regiments. Game elements (C) 2022 Bird’s Eye Games and MicroProse

I am, of course, aware that war, real war, is destructive, cruel, and clearly not something to be romanticized or idealized. I don’t think it should be the go-to solution for diplomatic disputes, nor are there good wars or tidy wars. (There are “necessary wars,” such as World War II, but never “good” ones.)  People – civilians, mostly – suffer greatly because of armed conflict, and even the toughest warriors come home scarred. Some scars are physical and visible, while others are scars of the psyche, invisible to most people but as painful and traumatic to those who suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder and “survivor’s guilt.”

Cold Waters‘ cutting-edge graphics capture the strange mix of beauty and life-or-death drama inherent in war at sea. (C) 2017 Killerfish Games

And yet, like many people throughout the world, I am strangely drawn to military history and the intellectual challenges of war, as well as the inspiring accounts of courage that have come down to us in books (fiction and non-fiction), movies, comic books, documentaries, and dramatic TV series.

A Soviet attack against NATO forces has bogged down, so I called in an airstrike to support my Red Army armored force. (C) 2022 Bird’s Eye Games and MicroProse

And let’s face it; the intellectual aspect of war – plotting stratagems, selecting the troops and equipment, and testing your tactical acumen against another person’s or – in digital wargaming – an artificial intelligence – is seductive. Plus, there’s a visceral visual appeal that nothing else but war – especially 20th and 21st Century armed conflict – offers, especially when it’s simulated, and no one is killed or hurt.

So, yep, even though I hate real war and would not want to fight in one, no matter what nine-year-old me thought half a century ago, I still like the sight of simulated napalm in the morning…or the afternoon, for that matter.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

%d bloggers like this: