The FV433 Abbot SPG isn’t a tank. Tony Borglum reminds me of this four or five times during my day at Drive A Tank, the accurately named business he runs in Kasota, Minn. “SPG” stands for self-propelled gun; it’s still a large, armored vehicle on treads with a long barrel poking out of the front, but instead of firing forward, it arcs its shots upwards, like a mortar, shelling long distance targets that are usually out of its line of sight. It looks like a tank, though. I’d never know the difference if I hadn’t gone to Tank School.
Tank School isn’t its real name, unfortunately. I wasn’t at Drive A Tank to learn, per se, but to spend a few hours driving tanks and shooting guns and, oh yeah, playing a videogame. Yes, it’s a game about tanks—World of Tanks, to be exact, which recently released a new expansion called Mercenaries. World of Tanks prides itself on its huge roster of real-life armored vehicles—it has almost 700 that you can fight your own war with—and on this muggy day on a mud-covered patch of rural Minnesota we got to see how some of those tanks handled not just in the game but in the real world.
We also crushed some cars.
World of Tanks occupies a unique niche in the games world. It’s a free-to-play tank battle game that’s not especially accessible—in striving to capture a relatively faithful impression of how it feels to drive these complicated machines, with all the lurching and awkward maneuvering that entails, it largely lacks the arcade ease of the major first-person war shooters. And yet it has a massive and dedicated player base. Its developers at the Belarus-based Wargaming boasts of over 130 million World of Tanks players, largely in Russia, where it’s apparently something of a phenomenon. The North America numbers lag behind Russia and Europe (although almost nine million players isn’t something to scoff at), and that’s where Mercenaries comes in. The new expansion, developed by Wargaming’s American studios in Chicago and Baltimore, is a more story-based game, set in a world where World War II dragged on for years, fracturing the world order and leading to a rise in paramilitary mercenary groups that quickly came to dominate warfare. You know, alternate history videogame stuff. As Mercenaries narrative designer Darold Higa explains it, “The prolonged war has discredited nationalism, so because of that the mercenaries come up as a viable way to fight wars.” With that backdrop Mercenaries hopes to capture a North American gaming audience that’s often looking for some degree of narrative, even in its multiplayer games.
The mercenaries theme extended to the Drive A Tank event itself, which was framed as a training session for future mercenaries. Mykel Hawke, a Special Forces veteran and former mercenary who boasts of having “nine conflicts under his belt,” and the star of various survival programs on the Discovery, Travel and Outdoor Channels, was the host. He strode confidently through the Drive A Tank complex with a knife on his ankle, a pistol on his hip, and a bandolier around his chest, like he was a forgotten G.I. Joe figure come to life. Ingo Horn, Wargaming’s communications director, and a German native, called Hawke a “marvelous US man,” and he definitely had the cowboy swagger that outsiders might expect from a stereotypical Yank. As our “trainer,” Hawke delivered a few short speeches throughout the day, and oversaw a “graduation” ceremony at the end where I received my (not entirely legal) mercenary certification. He was also really excited that we got to shoot off a M1 Garand rifle.
Before that ceremony, though, I spent several hours driving tanks through the mud, flattening dead cars into the earth, and awkwardly firing guns towards paper targets that I only occasionally hit. Everything involving a tank was amazing, except for the bruises—they did not have the comfort of our brave soldiers in mind when they designed these hulking metal monstrosities. The guns made me deeply uncomfortable in a different and more vexing way, though—I reflexively tensed up with every ear-splitting round when somebody else was shooting, the problems of the real world piercing through this ridiculous getaway with every rapid spurt of a machine gun. This wasn’t my first time at a shooting range—it was my second time—but there were decades in between the two, and during that time this country’s relationship with guns took a disastrous turn.
I tried to stop thinking about that by driving some more tanks and playing some more videogames. When my mind turns, though, it can be hard to turn it back. This game, this whole event, basically valorizes mercenaries—the kind of private military contractors whose extrajudicial, paramilitary nature and questionable conduct in the field have raised valid concerns about their legality and lack of accountability. I asked Higa if Wargaming intended to address the morally nebulous nature of private military contractors in Mercenaries.
“There was a long debate about that,” he said, but it was complicated by the short run time of the game’s cut-scenes. There’s not a lot of room for story here, even if it’s more story-driven than the main game. He said they started to explore that idea in their last story expansion, Spoils of War, though. “With Spoils of War we tried to introduce the idea that sometimes soldiers have to make difficult moral choices, and those moral choices could have ramifications. I won’t say that we’re professing to be really in-depth with this, but it’s not like we’re not thinking about some of these issues and the role of PMCs… the tension between the real world implications of mercenaries and the little bit of the mystique behind them.”
Other than the discomfort of the shooting range, and the futile war we all waged against Minnesota’s raging hoards of mosquitos, there wasn’t much of that kind of tension at Drive A Tank that day. There’s a reason Borglum’s able to charge large amounts of money for people to spend small amounts of time driving Shermans and T-55s: people love tanks. For the vast majority of us, driving a real, actual tank is basically an impossible dream. We’re raised to love the idea of war—we play army man on playgrounds and in videogames, we watch movies about World War II heroes, we have multiple cable channels fully devoted to the role war has played throughout history—but the vast majority of us will never get close to the tools used to wage it, and so to have that opportunity, no matter how opposed to war I might be as an adult, was remarkably powerful. The tanks we drove that day in Minnesota might all be outdated from a military standpoint, but those are the tanks our culture knows and loves, the ones we see in those movies and those toy lines, and the power we felt driving them—both the physical power chugging beneath us as we put our feet on the pedals and pushed those levers forward, and the emotional power of experiencing something we never thought we’d experience—transcended this one afternoon. It felt like we were communicating with the past, both the men who drove these vehicles during actual conflicts, and the boys we were when we’d play with toy tanks and soldiers in our backyards. And after feeling two cars crumple like paper beneath me, as rain poured down from above and the Minnesota mud sloshed around in my shows, I felt like I could do anything, for better or worse.
And so I went to the Mall of America and ordered the biggest margarita and fried shrimp platter they had at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. God bless the USA.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections and also writes about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.