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Medal of Honor: The Gamification of a Controversial American Hero

Medal of Honor: The Gamification of a Controversial American Hero

On Tuesday, President Obama will bestow the country’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, on U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson, the first Army officer to receive the distinction since the Vietnam War. Swenson is being recognized for saving several of his wounded companions in battle — or, as the Army puts it, "conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his own life and well beyond the call of duty." But the unemployed, divisive Swenson isn’t your stereotypical Medal of Honor recipient — and the rollout for his award is pretty remarkable as well.

Swenson, who completed one tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan, served during his final tour on Task Force Phoenix as an "embedded trainer and mentor" for the Afghan Border Police. During the Battle of Ganjgal in 2009, Swenson and his colleague Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook were leading Afghan troops on a routine patrol when they were ambushed. As the Army tells it, "Deadly, accurate fire hit the formation on its way to the village. An estimated 60 insurgents had infiltrated and maneuvered into Ganjgal from the north and south through unseen trenches as heavy fire spewed from houses and buildings." As U.S. and Afghan troops withdraw, Swenson coordinated the recovery of the wounded, which saved several lives, including Kenneth Westbrook’s. "Negotiating 50 meters of open space, Swenson, Garza and Fabayo quickly covered ground, zig-zagging and returning fire as they raced for Westbrook," the Army notes, references some of Swenson’s fellow soldiers. Despite these efforts, Kenneth Westbrook died a month later.

As the Washington Post reports, it took four years and a lot of effort to honor the 34-year-old Swenson, whose initial account of the battle diverged from the Army’s. He questioned the decisions of his commanding officers, who, according to Swenson, ignored his requests for air cover and artillery support. According to the Military Times he told U.S. investigators after the incident that he was "being second-guessed by [higher-ups] or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned" office. "Why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?" he asked. "Let’s sit back and play Nintendo."

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what the Army wants you to do (well maybe not while you’re on the battlefield). To learn about Swenson’s heroics, you can either delve into the Army’s detailed, 2,000-word narrative on the battle of Ganjgal, or you can check out a flashy Call Of Duty-style rendering of the Battle of Ganjgal.

The "gamification" of Swenson’s heroism, complete with CGI images of Black Hawk choppers, Humvees, and a Sim-like Swenson who bears almost no resemblance to the original, is no new Army tactic. Aside from producing these "battlescapes" for Medal of Honor recipients, the U.S military has been using "America’s Army," a "tactical multiplayer first-person shooter" modeled on commercial counterparts, since 2002. According to MIT researchers, the game has been the most effective recruiting tool for the Army — more effective than all other advertisements combined. During the Iraq war, photos surfaced of U.S. troops winding down after exchanging fire with actual enemies by shooting some virtual ones in games like Halo.

The Army encourages such form of leisure, since research has shown that gaming improves actual battlefield skills. As Greg Appelbaum, a professor at Duke University, told the Daily Mail earlier this year, "Gamers see the world differently. They are able to extract more information from a visual scene."

But games also simplify real-world events. The Army’s Ganjgal "Battlescape" boils down the combat to catchy (though lengthy) captions, but omits the controversy surrounding it.

You can watch the Medal of Honor ceremony below: