Don Gomez is an officer in the United States Army and an unapologetic gamer. He has served as both an infantry non-commissioned officer and infantry officer, completing multiple combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Outside of the military, Don has dedicated significant time working on behalf of veterans at both the local and national levels. He has written dozens of articles on veterans, war, and gaming that have appeared in various publications, to include the New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Vice Magainze.
Don is particularly interested in the intersection of the military and video games and writes about it frequently on his blog Carrying the Gun. On his last deployment to Afghanistan, Don’s platoon was the recipient of a “supply drop” and experienced first-hand the important work that Operation Supply Drop does in “bringing fun where there is none.”
Don is from New York and has an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School ofOriental and African Studies in London and a BA in International Studies from the City College of New York.
Justin Sloan: I am happy to include you, Don, since hearing how someone who is still active has been involving himself into the gaming world. You have some great writing out there, and I look forward to discussing this. However, let’s first discuss your military time. Why did you join and what has been your experience so far?
Don Gomez: Really, I joined the Army for the adventure. I was not the best student in High School and I was attending community college for Business because I figured that made sense. I wasn’t happy and I was always fascinated by the adventure-aspect of military service. I quit school after a semester and a half and enlisted. I shipped out a week after walking into the recruiting station. I remember actually really freaking out about the decision to enlist, and this scene from Final Fantasy VII (On that Day, Five Years Ago) kept coming into my head.
The Army has been fantastic to me. I really lacked discipline growing up and the Army straightened me out. I enjoyed my experience while in and I was able to deploy to Iraq twice while enlisted, during the invasion in 2003 and then again in 2005. I jumped out of airplanes, led soldiers, and worked directly for a general. It was my formative experience, for sure.
JS: What went in to your decision to stay in (or rejoin after college)?
DG: When I got out, I always had it in the back of my head that if I ever really missed it I could go back. As I got close to finishing graduate school, I had my eye on what was going on in the Army at the time. The Army was downsizing, and it was getting harder and harder to get back in. The maximum age requirement for Officer Candidate School went from 37 to 29 over the course of a year. I was 29 at the time, and it was clear to me that if I ever wanted to go back into the Army, I had to do it now or risk forever losing the chance. So I submitted an OCS packet with the understanding that if I hated it, it was only a 3 year commitment and I could leave. But if I didn’t try to join, the chance may have been gone forever.
There is also a real annoyance I felt over the five years that I was out of the Army, reading news articles about young platoon leaders leading men in the middle of nowhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were 24 and 25 year old, out there doing hard work. I felt like I still had more to give and while the war was on, I should be there.
JS: How do you feel your time has affected you as a person?
DG: It has completely defined me. I love the Army and I love being around soldiers. It’s hard to imagine where I might be if I had never joined.
JS: As for playing games, have you always been a gamer? What got you into games and what keeps you going?
DG: I’ve always been a gamer. My first gaming system was an Atari 2600 and I’ve had just about every system that has come out since. Things really solidified when I discovered RPGs, though—I love getting lost in an RPG and exploring other worlds. I’ll play shooters and sports games, but I love narrative and a story more than anything. I especially like games that give the player agency; choice and consequences.
JS: How have you seen games change over the years, aside from the obvious in graphics? Is there a trend toward more story, or is it just different (or not different)?
DG: I think there is trend that is working in both directions. Some games are just the same things we were playing 20 years ago with better graphics. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still just the same game. Move from point A to point B and kill everything in-between. On the other end of the spectrum, games are growing up as we grow up. I recently played through the first three episodes of Life is Strange and I can’t remember a time I was so emotionally affected and sucked into a game like that. It’s not easy to lose myself in a game anymore, between work and real life, so for a game to do that says something. I’m of the mind that there really has never been a better time to be a gamer—the problem is finding the time to play them!
JS: I loved an article you did about a scene in one of the old Final Fantasy games, that you referenced above, about the sense of dread and the bombing and how the music stopped at the right moment and whatnot. Can you tell us about this article and some other great moments in games that you have analyzed over the years?
DG: Yeah, this was about a scene in Final Fantasy IV when you’re defending the castle of Fabul from an assault from the Red Wings. I’m not sure what spurred me to write it, but it’s just a tiny piece of the story where the production is fantastic. Watching the video of it, and remembering back to playing it, I remember feeling like my actions really mattered and it was super important that I win all the battles. It’s just one of those great moments in gaming that captures a feeling and I wanted to share that.
There are tons of great moments in games, and they usually revolve around some kind of twist, like Aerith’s death in FFVII or the ending of Life is Strange episode 3. What is great about that sequence from Final Fantasy IV though, is that it was just a small part of the game.
While deployed to Afghanistan this past year, I also took the time to write about Tactics Ogre, which I was replaying on the PS Vita. There is a scene in the game where one of the main characters might commit suicide based on the way you respond during a conversation. Normally, I like to play a game like this “naturally,” that is, choosing the responses that I think I would actually choose had it been me. Well, the choices I made resulted in the character killing herself, and it really bothered me. I reset the game and played through it a couple of more times until I got the outcome where she didn’t kill herself. I felt like I was cheating, but I didn’t want to be responsible for her suicide.
JS: Is there a strategy involved in your current involvement in games? Do you have a career goal in mind that you are working toward, or is it more for fun? If more for fun, what would cause you to make it a career?
DG: I wish there was, but there’s not. I’m in the Army and love it, so there are no plans to try to jump into game design or game writing. I’m involved with Operation Supply Drop—a charity that donates video games and systems to deployed troops and wounded veterans—simply because it’s a great organization that directly impacts the morale of soldiers. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized just how much I enjoy video games and am more unapologetic than I may have been even when I was younger. As far as career, I’m just kind of doing the things that come up and make sense and seeing where it takes me.
JS: What advice do you have for other veterans who may be thinking about getting a blog on games started or trying to find their first gig writing for games?
DG: Writing is a great outlet, and having a blog has been super beneficial for me personally. I think the veteran perspective on gaming is unique and interesting, because there are so many intersections between the military and gaming world. I’d recommend any veteran looking to start writing on or about games to check out Front Towards Gamer, which is a blog that sits right at that intersection between the military and gaming worlds. A veteran could pitch a piece to be published there. There’s nothing wrong with starting your own blog either, but it does take a lot of time to get an audience.
JS: What have you done to learn the craft of writing, if anything? Or has it been more about playing games and just learning by doing?
DG: Honestly, I think a lot of it came just from having good college professors. That, and lots and lots of practice. Writing on a blog and tweeting a bunch actually improves your writing, I’d argue. You have to try to find something that’s interesting first, then write about it in a way that is engaging, and in the case of Twitter, get it down to 140 characters. Without question though, if someone wants to get good at writing, having a blog is a good way to go. Write, solicit feedback, and keep doing it.
JS: Has your view on the military changed at all because of your experience with games, and especially games related to the military?
DG: I’m not sure that my view on the military has changed because of games at all. It’s been interesting to see the way gaming culture seeps into the military world, though. I’ve highlighted this on my blog through my ISOF GOLD posts, where there is this weird tendency for modern soldiers to wear skull masks inspired by Call of Duty.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately though is the way that narrative based games, that is, those games where the player is given lots of choices in which to respond to either dialogue or action in different situations, and those choices have consequences, have actually influenced the way that I behave in different social situations. Because I’ve been playing so many narrative based games, like the TellTale games, Life is Strange, or even Mass Effect, I’ve felt a hyper-awareness when talking with other soldiers. I’m aware that the things that I say in conversation might have really huge consequences. Of course, there’s a “no shit” common sense aspect to this, but the fact that I’m more aware of it affects the way I respond, I think. It’s something I’d like to explore further.
JS: How about your view on games. Has your time in the military affected your view of games?
DG: Yes, definitely. Mostly in regards to shooters and any game that exploits modern military action. I wrote a post about the whole “Press X to pay respects” prompt in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. My military service has made me much more skeptical of military related games. It’s a cartoon version of military service. The Onion ran a great video on what a truly realistic military game might look like. I think that captures my thoughts on that pretty accurately.
JS: Thank you again, Don. Before signing off, what last piece of advice can you offer your fellow men and women still in the service as well as veterans that have a passion for games but don’t yet know how to pursue it?
DG: If you’re really passionate about games and gaming, and want to get involved in that world, reach out. There is a huge chasm between the military world and just about everyone else. I’m not saying that by simply sending an email out you’re going to get a job in gaming, but put yourself out there and connect with as many people in the field as possible. That, and keep playing games. Make the time.
These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers.
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