Friday Night Fights: conversations with desk chair warriors

Note: because of the nature of Arma and Friday Night Fight the audio accompanying this article is occasionally explicit and contains gunfire and explosions.

Under cover of darkness, a black-clad special operator advances on his objective. The mission: to capture or kill a high-value target. The only noise that carries through the desert night is the sound of his feet shifting the sand. Finally it’s time. Flashes of gunfire light up the night from his bullets and incoming fire snaps over his head. In less than two minutes, the firefight will be over and the mission will be complete. But this special ops soldier and his brethren aren’t in Afghanistan or Iraq. He, and every one of his “battle buddies” are sitting at their computers.

Online gaming is here to stay. The Entertainment Software Association found in 2016 that 63 percent of US households had at least one frequent gamer and those who play online spend an average of six and a half hours per week playing with other gamers. 54 percent of gamers play regularly with friends and family. Because of this, many vibrant and active communities are built up around particular games.

Members of the Arma 3 community gather every Friday night to test their skills and mettle against their fellow gamers. The virtual venue? Friday Night Fights, a weekly PVP (“player-versus-player”) event for tactical wargaming enthusiasts, which has attracted new combatants every week of its so-far three years of continuous operation. These groups of like-minded players spend much of their week training and practicing for the events, honing their skills together and against each other for the weekend action.

For attending gamers, the player-versus-player event is the ultimate test of the training, coordination, and preparation for each individual team. Universally, the participants interviewed lauded the event as a challenging test of their skills.

Specialist Peterson, an active duty Army infantryman, is one of the many active and former service members who make up the backbone of the Arma community. 

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Specialist Curtis Peterson (left) on a training exercise in the Mojave desert

He leads a group called Section 7, and admits player versus player gameplay is unforgiving.   He says “we spend a lot of time developing individual skills here, and a lot more time developing team and squad level skills. The AI doesn’t react or take all the advantages possible to it, so it’s very easy to outmaneuver it.   Players, on the other hand, are much more crafty.”

“Bishop” a registered nurse from Ohio who shared a similar sentiment.   “You’re fighting a different kind of enemy, I think that’s what it is. [The computer] just fights differently. When you’re fighting humans you’re fighting a human mind.”

What is striking, however, is that the scenarios depicted in the Friday Night Fight gameplay would not be out of place in an article about the fighting in Afghanistan, Ukraine, or Iraq.  It is an oddly unique example of gaming imitating life.  And some very dedicated combatants go to great lengths to recreate certain historical battles or their conditions.

 

The platform

Arma is an interesting scene. The tactical simulation game was first released as Operation Flashpoint in 2001, and now on its third title, it doesn’t blend neatly into the typical ranks of the military shooter genre. More popular peers like Battlefield and Call of Duty favor fast-paced arena style action, cinematic gameplay, and snap shooting. Arma takes time and planning. Games are played on gigantic maps, some larger than 200 square kilometers, with a huge cache of equipment and vehicles.   Arma thus lends itself to a more complex level of combat, where extensive planning, situational adaptation, and coordinated player movements are vital to success.   Players move in groups ranging from small fireteams (1-4 people), to platoon or even company sizes (30-100 people). Arma enthusiasts frequently modify their hosted game servers to add additional uniforms, weapons, and features.

Preparing for battle

Before each match, the teams are first divided up by group and slotted into either BLUFOR or OPFOR. These are military terms referring to a country’s own forces, and the opposing force respectively. Delegates from several Arma communities are then given the option for platoon leadership and slot players into dedicated roles.  As in a “regular” military group, special consideration is given to specialized roles, like the platoon medic, or pilots.

Once these steps are done, the teams are taken to an overhead map of the entire terrain with markers indicating the “AO,” or Area of Operations. In this ‘overhead’ phase, the basic intent of the mission’s creator is described, along with any special considerations or challenges for each team to be aware of.   It’s only after this “briefing” that the teams are taken into the game world itself, and the platoon leaders become free to draw up strategy for the match.

This planning phase is incredibly important. As the Helmuth von Moltke adage goes: “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” A team without a cohesive framework for the operation is doomed to fail. Because of this, each platoon leader winds up playing at least a small game of Blind Man’s Bluff.  He or she has no idea what the opposing team is planning.  The OPFOR’s platoon leader only knows the objectives his adversary must complete, so he must adapt to the methods BLUFOR is using to accomplish its combat goals.

For this reason, good combat leaders make use of reconnaissance and robust communication to learn the enemy’s plans and movements. The United States Army is fond of the phrase “every soldier is a sensor”, and a good leader realizes he has not only his own eyes, but the additional thirty plus pairs attached to the members of his platoon.  Every one of them is needed to understand and master the battlespace.

War logs

In mission one, I followed BLUFOR. Their objective was to capture camp Coldblood from OPFOR. Specialist Peterson is in charge of the BLUFOR contingent.

The plan he outlines is to head North into the trees, pushing past two linear danger areas— areas the team must cross without available cover or concealment— and make it to the “ORP,” or Objective Rally Point.  That’s where his players can meet safely before the element can start pushing or advancing on the objective.

From there a weapons team, equipped with medium machine guns, is to head South, through the treeline to set up a machine gun position, where BLUFOR can better observe OPFOR’s movements.  Then the team would lay down covering fire so the other team can move to attack Camp Coldblood.

In theory, it was a solid plan.   But in practice, BLUFOR quickly learned its flaws. Increased enemy contact from the Camp Coldblood objective and the inclusion of BRDM-2s, (Soviet-era armored cars equipped with heavy machine guns) tore up the BLUFOR troops as they advanced to Coldblood. Meanwhile, a smaller independent element began flanking BLUFOR from the northwest both on foot and in a commandeered humvee.  The resume was a massacre.   The whole BLUFOR contingent was eliminated, removing them entirely from the battlespace. The OPFOR and Independent teams still standing began to skirmish.   And despite the triumph against BLUFOR, Independent was eventually eliminated by OPFOR.

 

 

On the second mission, I followed OPFOR’s efforts. The mission was to defend at least two out of three weapons caches, located in the fictional town of Paraiso. Objectives one and three were the point where the platoon decided to make its stand. Again, the machine gun team was deployed in a supporting position to provide covering fire.

At the outset, the majority of BLUFOR assets were concentrated in the northern part of Paraiso. BLUFOR and OPFOR quickly engaged, whittling down the numbers of the squads. The fire support position came under fire by the flanking Delta Squad, but by this point, OPFOR was merely prolonging the inevitable as both weapon caches soon blew up. The doomed OPFOR continued to skirmish with the numerically superior BLUFOR, successfully holding down the final weapons cache, located inside a church.

 

For the third mission, BLUFOR was to track down a sniper codenamed Blackbear, posted up in a heavily defended airstrip in the Northeast of Chernarus, a simulated Eastern European country, modeled after real areas in the Czech Republic.

Blackbear would be carrying a cell phone and sensitive intelligence for BLUFOR to exploit. OPFOR had control of the Airfield and were heavily emplaced with anti-air artillery and a number of Earthen fortifications. BLUFOR was split up into three groups a ground element a mechanized element and an air assault element.

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Jeff “Grounder” Wooldridge, cargo pilot and virtual rotary wing aviator

Flying the air assault team was Jeff “Grounder” Wooldridge, a commercial shipping pilot who describes his real job by saying “[if you] click on something on Amazon that says ‘ship to you in two days’, I’m the guy that does it.” When he’s not flying cargo, he de-stresses by flying aircraft in Arma in his spare time: “I like gaming, it’s a nice little unplug from the stressful world.” Today, Grounder would be flying transport and recon, “there’s always the threat of air to air missiles, shoulder mounted stuff, what they call MANPADS, or vehicle mounted or turret mounted AA, and that’s a major threat to some of the birds that don’t have a defense for that.”

Quickly the ground element came under fire by a small OPFOR recon force, disaster struck when the vehicles tried to respond to the contact and inadvertently ran over three members of their own team.

With the machine gun team either overrun or fatally wounded by the tires of the armored vehicles, the only friendly forces left on the field were the mechanized infantry in the armored vehicles and the deployed Air Assault Squad, Alpha, who took cover near the flight line and attempted to infiltrate onto the airfield.

BLUFOR’s fate was sealed when Grounder’s UH-60 Blackhawk was shot down by enemy anti-air, alerting the enemy to the presence of the Air Assault Squad which was quickly eliminated.

During the fourth and final operation, the server had dwindled down to only 50 players from the initial 80. This mission would take place on Zargabad, a fairly accurate reconstruction of a dense Afghan urban area.

INDFOR’s (“INDependent FORce”) mission was to locate and kill an HVT (“High Value Target”) and to destroy three weapons caches in the area. The OPFOR team was tasked with keeping both the principal target and the caches safe.

At the start of the mission, the INDFOR helicopter, again piloted by Grounder, immediately started taking fire. Quickly the transport section came under fire as well, losing half of its personnel. Rallying forces, an INDFOR unit performed a self-proclaimed suicide charge to seize the Villa compound and neutralize the high-value target.

The secret formula

Friday Night Fights has become one of the most popular group events in the Arma 3 community.    The credit for that success goes to the leadership and expertise of the Friday Night Fight staff. Ethan Fritz, a software engineer at IBM from New York, and the current community lead for Friday Night Fights, told me that despite teething pains, the organization essentially runs itself now. “The biggest challenge is getting people to actually show up.  Getting people to come out for the first time is really the most important bit, because as soon as they experience it and see what it’s like, they keep coming back.”

In the face of these challenges, FNF flourishes. Its many positive factors come together to great effect, the community’s playerbase and retention consistently improving year over year. The community’s staunch focus on its own efforts have created a melting pot of command talent and playstyles, each session playing out uniquely, unpredictably and keeping a very large group’s regular interest at a high level.

Friday Night Fights has become one of the most popular group events in the Arma 3 community.    The credit for that success goes to the leadership and expertise of the Friday Night Fight staff. Ethan Fritz, a software engineer at IBM from New York, and the current community lead for Friday Night Fights, told me that despite teething pains, the organization essentially runs itself now. “The biggest challenge is getting people to actually show up.  Getting people to come out for the first time is really the most important bit, because as soon as they experience it and see what it’s like, they keep coming back.”

In the face of these challenges, FNF flourishes. Its many positive factors come together to great effect, the community’s playerbase and retention consistently improving year over year. The community’s staunch focus on its own efforts have created a melting pot of command talent and playstyles, each session playing out uniquely, unpredictably and keeping a very large group’s regular interest at a high level.

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