David Litwack – Role playing games and the trauma of war @DavidLitwack

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Role playing games and the trauma of war
I’ve always been fascinated by how we perceive reality, each bringing our own experiences and biases into play. But it’s when we’re ripped from our normal lives and placed in extreme circumstances that our reality becomes fragmented. Such is the case with hospitals and war.
A couple of years ago, I became engrossed in the online game, World of Warcraft, thanks to my son. I’m on the east coast and he’s on the west, so we’d meet every Wednesday evening in the virtual world of Azeroth, where our avatars would go on quests together. I was struck by how immersed I became in the game as we wandered through castles and crypts, solving riddles and vanquishing demons.
The fantasy gaming experience has a dream-like quality to it. And I began to wonder: how would this experience affect the dreams of someone whose reality has been fragmented by war? These concepts—war, hospitals, and the fantasy world of online gaming—came together in my new novel, Along the Watchtower.
I researched the effects of war on returning veterans. I learned that 30% are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress. That means after six months they’re still dealing with flashbacks, disturbing dreams, depression and difficulty re-assimilating into their former lives. And that doesn’t account for the others who are able to adjust but continue to deal with inner turmoil. The war experience changes them all forever. Many struggle with dark thoughts and have difficulty forming relationships, unable to “turn off” the normal flight or fight syndrome, leaving them suspicious in crowds and always on alert.
And then, there are the physical injuries. One of the ironic successes of these recent wars is the advance in battlefield medicine. More wounded are saved, but more come home with debilitating, lifelong injuries. And 68% of the wounded have some form or brain trauma from the blasts of IEDs.
To learn more about brain injuries, I read In an Instant, the story of Bob Woodruff. Woodruff had just been named co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight. Then, while embedded with the military in Iraq, an IED went off near his tank. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him. The book recounts how fragile the human brain can be. At one point, the erudite Woodruff could rattle off all U.S. presidents but couldn’t remember the names of his own children.
I read about post-traumatic stress. One of the best books is Achilles in Vietnam. Written by a Vietnam War era PTSD counselor, it compares his notes from patients with the text from Homer’s Odyssey, showing how humans have dealt with war across the millennia. He shows how war fragments our sense of reality, leaving re-entry into normal life as an agonizing experience.
Playing fantasy games and going to war both have a surreal quality that takes us out of our normal reality. But for war veterans, the sense of normality doesn’t return without a struggle.
The Wounded Warrior Project states their mission as: “To foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.” How successful we’ll be at achieving that goal will tell a lot about who we are. It’s one of the most important stories of our time.

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Genre – Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy
Rating – PG
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