Video games have come a long way since Atari's 1980 Battlezone, credited as the granddaddy to today's military-themed first-person shooters. Popular video games like the Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, and Medal of Honor franchises have bolstered the first-person shooter experience, combining authenticity with entertainment. Today's war-themed video games feature interactive real-world military weapons and real-life combat situations. Not surprisingly, many military advisors have found their niche in the lucrative video game industry, ensuring the games are as realistic as possible.
“Initially, I did not think I wanted to work with video games,” says Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey, USA (Ret), who has worked as an advisor on the well-known, $8 billion-plus Call of Duty franchise. “But when I visited the developers in LA, I was impressed with their passion for getting the equipment, dialogue, and tactics as authentic as possible.”
Keirsey served for 24 years and was on active duty during the first Gulf War. He then taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., until retiring to work as a consultant. He has worked on the Call of Duty series, published by Activision, since the first game came out in October 2003.
“The result I felt was that they were teaching a generation of gamers who knew little about World War II history by indirect approach,” he says. “Likewise, when the studios shifted to more modern scenarios, I felt they were honoring the lads in the current fight. You can't play the game without having some respect for those that might have to do such things in real life.”
“The developers are wickedly smart and driven folks, but they have not been on the ground in a combat engagement or, in some cases, worked with actual soldiers, so sometimes their dialogue is off, the equipment is wrong, the tactics wrong,” Keirsey adds. “Advisors that are former soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines can help to steer the game a bit closer to the mark.”
“Of course, making the game fun to play is foremost, but a lot of the gamers are sophisticated enough to know when the game strays too far into a fantasy world,” explains Keirsey. “They want to see a degree of authenticity. Are the Japanese bunker systems accurately portrayed on Peleliu? Is the right tank assaulting Omaha Beach? Do the Blackhawk helicopters look right when they land on the [landing zone]? When the sergeant calls for artillery, does the radio procedure sound correct?”
Marine Corps veteran Sgt. Major James Dever, who owns 1 Force Inc., a company that provides military advisors to the entertainment industry, has served as a military technical advisor on “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and “Call of Duty: World at War.” Dever worked with stunt men to teach them tactics and proper weapons handling. He also made sure the World War II-era Japanese men portrayed were wearing the correct uniforms and used tactics and held weapons the way a Japanese soldier would have. In addition, he advised on how weapons would fire and on the position and tactics of the men.
“I think it is important to use knowledgeable military advisors on these military-themed video games, even if they may be geared toward the general public, because making sure that all aspects of the game are accurately portrayed makes for a more exciting, action-packed game,” Dever says. “And there will always be military folks who also play these games, and we want them to be as close to the real thing as possible.”
Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret), is another military veteran lending his expertise to the video game industry. Dye did three tours of duty in Vietnam and served in Beirut and Central America. After retiring in 1984, Dye founded Warriors Inc., a company that trains actors for accurate military depictions in war-related movies.
“Our company's mission is to teach civilians what it's like to be a man or woman in the military profession,” Dye says. “We'll do that through any media that's available, because each kind of storytelling brings a different audience. Games allow us to reach a generally younger audience, and we love to work on games that allow us to add education and information to the fun and excitement of the story and the game-play experience.”
Dye is most well known for working as a military advisor for film legends Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone and on some of Hollywood's biggest films like Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, and Born on the Fourth of July and HBO's Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and others. He's also acted in over 70 movies (he played Tom Cruise's dad in Knight and Day). When Spielberg set out to create a military game called Medal of Honor for his video game division Dreamworks Interactive, he refused to proceed without Dye on board as his military advisor.
“Most of what we did with Medal of Honor was set during World War II, which has differences from my wartime experiences, although of course my time in Vietnam and Beirut influenced my understanding of the combat experience,” Dye says. “I use my own experience, plus those of other veterans on the Warriors Inc. team, in order to instill the game experience with emotional truth.”
Making the game as realistic as possible is a team effort among military advisors and game developers. Electronic Arts, the company to which Spielberg sold his game division, has worked closely with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society to ensure accuracy. Dye even has appeared in some of the games and voiced characters, including character Jack “Gunny” Lauton in “Medal of Honor: Rising Sun.”
Many of these military-themed video games are a huge hit among the general public. Each edition of the Call of Duty series has topped the sales charts. Every one of the four previously released games produced more than $1 billion in sales. “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” reached $500 million in just the first 24 hours.
Some of the games' biggest fans are often servicemembers. Dye said they have received “excellent responses” from military veterans.
“One story I remember was when we went with a team from 'Medal of Honor Rising Sun' to the battlefields of the Pacific along with a group of veterans who had fought in those battles, including Guam and Peleliu and Iwo Jima,” Dye says. “On Iwo, we were escorted around by active duty Marines. They were so excited. They brought copies of older Medal of Honor games that they said they played constantly aboard ship for me to sign, and [they] were thrilled to be a little part of our quest to make 'Rising Sun' as realistic as possible.”