Flying low above a pine forest, the two U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters suddenly broke formation. From my seat at the open door, the view tipped straight down for a moment before we leveled off. In the distance, backlit by a sky purpling with the dawn, I could see Alpha squad beginning to descend, their rotors kicking up a huge cloud of dust.
Our pilot pulled us into a shallow valley and I lost sight of both the other chopper and the sunrise. In the darkness I began to notice that my palms were sweating.
I’d played Arma, the complex military simulation series, before. I had plenty of experience in how to use the various small arms in the game, how to aim and reload and adjust them for range. I'd spent hundreds of hours learning to navigate across its environments on foot; through jungles with a map, over deserts by compass and once, while at sea, by using only the stars. Over the years I'd struggled with, and mastered, its bizarre user interface.
I had spent more than 400 hours in this game world. But this time was different.
I was in Shack Tactical now, an elite Arma gaming group, embedded with them as a new recruit. To keep the experience pure I withheld my true identity as a writer. I was there to document a kind of role playing experience that can’t be found anywhere else, and I didn't need someone showing off or holding back because I was there to observe them.
I joined ShackTac to find out what kept these men and women fighting, together, two nights a week for nearly eight years. I was here to experience their style of play, and also to feel what they felt.
Our Blackhawk was packed with nearly 20 people. Sitting around me were both fireteams from Charlie squad, our complement of leadership and medical support staff as well as pilots and gunners.
We had crossed an invisible line on the map. We were in enemy territory now.
Someone was trying to cut the tension with a tired old Predator joke, something about a Tyrannosaurus. As our craft dropped lower the crew began traversing its door-mounted machine guns left and right looking for threats.
"Thirty seconds," called the pilot. The chopper went silent.
Charlie squad poured out both sides of the Blackhawk in seconds and took up position in a circle, eyes and weapons facing outward just as we’d been taught. This was a training mission, a simple search-and-destroy. It was my chance to learn the ropes. Time to shut my mouth, keep my head down and prove I could handle this kind of gameplay.
"Charlie is clear," called our squad lead over the radio. The chopper immediately started climbing, moving backwards and sliding to the right, further up the valley. As the dust settled we got our orders to move out; into the pine forest, tactical V formation, auto-rifles to the left and medics in the rear.
I’d be dead within the hour.
But in the battle that played out that night, I would finally see into the heart of ShackTac, and learn what keeps its community alive.
Covering our landing zone from the air was ShackTac’s leader, Andrew "dslyecxi" Gluck. Before approaching him with the idea for this story I knew him only from his YouTube channel. It was strange to know that I was in one of his videos now, that tonight he was circling me alone in his tiny AH-6 "Littlebird" helicopter, straining his eyes to look for signs of the enemy in the darkness while he recorded.
From his home office in Texas, Gluck was physically immersed in that Wednesday night game to a point that may seem excessive. With his hands on his mouse and keyboard, his feet were working realistic rudder pedals below his desk. His head turned side-to-side so that a system, called Track IR, allowed him to fly in one direction while looking in another — just like a real pilot would.
Everything in that room is there to increase his situational awareness. He was our eyes in the sky. Our protector.
Gluck spends 10 hours or more in that virtual cockpit every week. He spends even more time behind the scenes at ShackTac; on the message boards, in the communal Skype channels and chat rooms. With around 300 people to wrangle, things can get a little hectic.
But what makes it all worth it for Gluck are the game nights. Your average Arma group might have a dozen people who get together online once or twice a month. Every Wednesday ShackTac has more than 50 members online, and during the regular Saturday sessions, that number regularly climbs over 120.
Arma, the series of games that binds this group together, is a remarkably complex infantry combat simulation from the developer Bohemia Interactive. It's goal is to model the experience of a soldier on the ground in a war zone, and to do that it goes to extraordinary lengths. Weapon ballistics are realistically modeled for small arms, but also for helicopters, fighter jets and tanks. Damage is modeled to a player's individual limbs so that a wound to your legs makes you slower and a wound to your arms makes you unable to hold your weapon and fight. The environments the game takes place in are modeled to be authentic, open spaces where rivers flow as they would in the real world and where light and shadow are genuine features and not merely window dressing.
Like other military games there are single player, story driven campaigns. But many fans of the series play cooperatively online, working together to complete missions as diverse as United Nations peace keeping scenarios to high-risk airborne infiltration and reconnaissance. The guts of the game are so realistic that militaries around the world use a version of it to train their active-duty troops.
Gluck spends 10 hours or more in that virtual cockpit every week. He was our eyes in the sky. Our protector.
The way ShackTac plays is different from the military. Those differences have a lot to do with the weapons they choose to fight with (usually Cold War era, analogue weapons), but also the missions they create and play (like traditional meeting engagements, but also highly thematic scenarios like hostage rescues that require acting skills). There are rules and hierarchies; all of the players in ShackTac have a rank — from pFNG (pre-Fucking New Guy) to NCO (Non Commissioned Officer). But unlike the military, ShackTac doesn't have fixed units — players can fight alongside whoever they like from night to night. Certain roles, however, are off limits to all but senior members. Pilot slots are reserved for only the most skilled players in the group.
But what makes ShackTac truly unique are the length of their games. Whether fighting against computer-controlled opponents or other members of the group, games are grueling, hours-long affairs. Sessions can last five hours or more, and each individual mission often ends only when the last member of ShackTac has died.
This is what ShackTac means when it calls its play style "serious fun."
Gluck has been with the group since the beginning. He started playing military simulation games in 2001, when the precursor to the Arma series came out, a game called Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis.
"I had played CounterStrike and Quake 3," he told me later during an interview, "all this other stuff that was just your typical first-person shooter. But the demo of Flashpoint presented me with a scenario. 'Here you are,' it said. 'You’re in charge of these troops. Here’s what you need to do. Here are the assets you have. Make it happen.'
"That was just such a wild change from what every other game was like at the time that it really hooked me."
Gluck didn’t get much time to play the game when it came out. That year, he joined the U.S. Marine Corp. He hoped to join the infantry as an anti-tank specialist. Instead, he was given a role as a "small systems computer specialist," Marine-speak for IT guy.
The only enemies he’d be directly engaging over the next four years would be computer viruses. But that didn’t make his first few months in the Marines any easier.
The guts of the game are so realistic that militaries around the world use a version of it to train their active-duty troops.
"I was in boot camp on September 11," Gluck says. "That was a big deal. I was in San Diego, literally next to the San Diego airport.
"All throughout training we had aircraft taking off and landing continually, day and night. When they shut down the airports ... that was the first time since we’d been there that it was quiet.
"By the time I got into combat training, they were changing the schedule. ... It was a surreal experience. The tone shifted dramatically. It got a lot more serious."
His time in boot camp bound him to the infantrymen in his class, Marines who were shipped off to the Middle East. In his role as an IT specialist, he felt apart from the battles that his fellow Marines were fighting. But the remoteness of his role didn’t lessen the burden of responsibility for Gluck.
"In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq," Gluck says, "I worked in the base [communications] center of Camp Lejeune [in North Carolina]. We spent the invasion watching TV of the Marines going in. Because of our status as the base comm center, we would have these things called PCRs, which are Personal Casualty Reports. So any unit that was over in Iraq that took casualties that was based out of Lejune, we got messages about them and we'd have to call their unit."
"By the time I got into combat training, they were changing the schedule. They were making it more serious. It was a surreal experience."
Gluck grows quiet remembering that time.
"It's just very odd to sit there, that removed from everything and watch, from our perspective, the 'real' Marines out there doing that job.
"I wouldn't say I feel guilty about it. Everyone plays their part. But I do take what I have, the fact that I got out and the fact of an uneventful enlistment and ... I appreciate it. It adds more weight to your life after that."
When he got out of the military, Gluck began to look for a gaming group that matched the seriousness of war as he had experienced it, but that had a kind of playfulness and was willing to explore the growing capabilities of computer simulation.
Along with that was a need to find a community that had respect for warfighters and the difficult work that they do.
He dove back into Operation Flashpoint and later found the sequel, Arma 2. Gluck was lucky enough to find a community of players that shared his temperament, a motley crew inside the message boards at a gaming website called ShackNews. He was there the first time that community played Arma together online. He couldn’t get enough.
In 2007 Gluck founded Shack Tactical.
Boots on the ground
Joining ShackTac isn’t like what I imagined joining a virtual army would be like. There’s no virtual boot camp for new recruits, no imperious officers that demand loyalty. But there is a sense of decorum. It's not a bunch of snot-nosed teens running off at the mouth. Instead, the bulk of the member are mature adults, people with careers and families. And they take their gaming time very seriously.
It’s an incredibly tight-knit group. Inside the private message boards, the members of ShackTac are required to use their real photographs, and many choose to share their real names. Gluck and a small group of moderators uphold one rule: Treat everyone there with respect.
That respect has attracted men and women to ShackTac from every corner of the world. Many are in their 20s and 30s. A few are in their 40s, while some are even older. At least one active member is currently eligible for Social Security.
One thing that connects them all is a respect for the military.
Many members of ShackTac have served their country, while a precious few are current active duty service members. Right now, one of those members is John Wayne McFarlin, a U.S. Army officer stationed in Japan.
At ShackTac people just call him "Mack."
"We've got a pretty big alliance with the Japanese," McFarlin says. For security reasons he has to be fairly oblique about what exactly his role is in that country. "The U.S. military has people in all variety of positions here to provide liaison work, and so that's what I do; I provide a connection between our headquarters so that we can articulate the U.S./Japan security treaty."
Over his more than 20-year career McFarlin has toured Iraq twice. His most memorable deployment was a 15-month stint in West Baghdad. There he served as a cavalry troop commander responsible for more than 130 soldiers.
"The portfolio I had during that deployment was to partner with the Sons of Iraq," McFarlin says. "That was one of the Sunni insurgent groups that turned over to our side in 2007. [I was responsible for] partnering with them, and organizing them. For getting them integrated into the Iraqi security forces, and into the Baghdad police. There was a lot of political and administrative dealing there — trying to smooth things over. A lot of diplomacy was involved. It was a very interesting bit of work."
Several members of ShackTac are active duty military. McFarlin is a U.S. Army officer stationed in Japan.
All of that work took place inside a war zone. Once, when he was a captain, he was involved in a serious firefight. During that engagement he was struck in the head by an enemy round. Had the bullet landed just an inch lower he would have surely lost his life.
That firefight isn’t something he likes to spend a lot of time talking about. But McFarlin will say that he misses leading soldiers into difficult situations. He sees ShackTac as a way to bring some of that experience back into his life.
"I have a great love for what I call the business of managing forces on the battlefield," McFarlin says. "That's the heart of operations and tactics at the company level." A company is a unit of about 150 soldiers — just about the size of ShackTac. "Finding a game community that respects that environment — and that sort of gameplay — while not being a slave to form and formality was something that I was really happy to find. I really chanced into it."
But on Saturdays, during the main play sessions, McFarlin isn’t one to take command of the entire force as Platoon Leader. That’s more along the lines of what he does during the work week. Rather, he likes to take the role of a lowly fireteam leader; someone responsible for only five other people.
"I like the small team leader roles better," McFarlin says, "because in a large game what'll happen is at some point leadership will collapse. Players will get killed, and I’ll have to pick up a broken organization. That's the real challenge to me.
"It’s easy to take a full organization that's all healthy and good-to-go and make a plan and move those pieces around, but it's something else to grab people up, go around on the squad radios from channel-to-channel, collapse 'em onto one channel. To gather up the ragged remnants of a once proud organization and make it able to do something."
McFarlin compares the ShackTac style of gameplay to the famous Mel Gibson movie, We Were Soldiers. It’s the true story of Vietnam’s Battle of Ia Drang, an engagement that earned American forces dozens of commendations. It’s a battle that cost many young men their lives. McFarlin talks about the movie’s depiction of the battle with reverence.
"They're basically surrounded," McFarlin says. "They’re down to scrounging ammunition off of dead soldiers, and they're just collapsing back down onto themselves. But they're still organized, and they're still fighting — all the way down to the last remnants of the organization. They maintain cohesiveness all the way down to the end.
"That's the goal," McFarlin says. "That's what I seek."
It’s not something he’s likely to find behind a desk in Japan. But on Saturdays, fighting with ShackTac, he dependably can.
McFarlin fulfills an intangible role at ShackTac, and not just because he’s an officer in the U.S. Army. While he once had a dangerous firefight in Iraq, he’s had hundreds in Arma over the years. And because of that he’s a great in-game leader. He’s the the kind of player you want in your foxhole late on a Saturday night.
ShackTac is full of great leaders, and experienced members like McFarlin are helping grow today’s new recruits into tomorrow’s commanders.
McFarlin was involved in a serious firefight in Iraq. Had the bullet landed any lower he would have surely lost his life.
After we left the landing zone we headed east into enemy territory. We met little resistance over several miles, and engaged scattered enemy patrols, and then only at long ranges. Working together, the two fireteams in Charlie squad reached our objective without losing a single player and with plenty of ammunition.
We linked up with Alpha and Bravo squads, dug in atop Hill 124 and waited for further orders.
When the counterattack came, I wasn’t the first to die.
There was a burst of gunfire from the west. Our fireteam leader’s radio transmission cut off mid-sentence. We began to take casualties steadily over the next few minutes. Our medic was only 30 feet away when the tree in front of me exploded into splinters.
My screen went red, and then black. After an hour absorbed in the simulation I had a sickening, almost out-of-body feeling as the camera pulled back and panned across the map to show me the computer-controlled enemy that had ended my life.
He wasn’t alone. Behind him were three full squads — nearly 40 enemies. And there were more on the way.
Over the next 10 minutes ShackTac’s ground force went from 50 living players down to 30. Then to 25. More than 150 enemy AI, supported by helicopters and main battle tanks, drove the two dozen survivors from Hill 124 to a remote landing strip not far away. There the remaining elements of ShackTac were pinned down and running out of ammunition.
Andrew Gluck and several other pilots tried to land and pull them out. Three choppers were shot down in quick succession. Calls for orders — pleas for help — all went unanswered. Most of the leadership was already dead. One fireteam broke. They just took off in a disorganized mass running north.
But there, inside a hangar surrounded by wounded and dead players, a 23-year old woman from Australia named Rachelle "Jamball" Wastell held her ground. She gathered up the remnants of three different fireteams, got them all on the same radio channel, and then she gave them orders.
She ordered them to stand and fight.
Wastell gathered up the remnants of three different fireteams, gave them orders and led them to safety.
Then, when the enemy fire outside the hangar had subsided, it was Wastell who led the team out of the compound and got it moving toward the coast — toward rescue.
She would end the game with the fourth-most enemy kills of any player in the game. But that’s not a number that’s ever been important to her.
"The leaderboard only tells you about the people who make kills," she told me later. "That's not winning.
"Winning is knowing you did a good job. Winning is knowing you saved a recruit who was bleeding out behind a bush because no one checked him. Winning is getting your squad mates onto that helicopter and back to base. Winning is not how many people you kill.
"Winning is not dying. Winning is what you do when you're alive, and the people you help to keep alive. That's winning."
Wastell has been part of ShackTac for a little over a year and a half now. She says the group has changed her life.
"I had heard of ShackTac from friends. I wanted to be a part of it, and I was always very pessimistic about my chances of getting in."
ShackTac accepts applications from the public at its website, but only a select few members - like the leader, Gluck - are involved in choosing new recruits. Even after they're accepted, ShackTac reserves the right to terminate pFNG's membership at any time.
"But here I am," Wastell said. "By the time you’re at the end of your training, you’re not the new guy anymore. You’re one of the group. These people are not just people you play games with. They’re some of your best friends. I talk with these people every single day of my life, and without them it would be lonely. Very lonely indeed."
Wastell acknowledges, like most of the members I met, that her hobby playing Arma is a little unusual. It’s something she has difficulty explaining to her friends in Australia. But those conflicts are nothing compared to her own personal struggles with the game.
She began to question her relationship with ShackTac when her own brother was first deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Australian army. He just came back from a tour in Afghanistan last Christmas, and Wastell expects he’ll be heading overseas again soon.
As much as she enjoys fighting as part of the community at ShackTac, she was against her own brother going off to war.
"Before my brother joined up, I would fight black and blue with him about it," Wastell says. "We'd end up in these yelling matches because what it came down to was I was just afraid for him to be in that career. But I respect that choice. It's what he wants to do.
"Video games make war appear to be this glorious thing, which it's not. I know he's never gonna be in a situation like one of the missions we play. Life doesn't work that way. Those sorts of terrible engagements have happened. Can happen. Do happen. But in a video game we haven't got bucket loads of intel. We haven't got super army-drones. We haven't got surveillance.
"A war game is ... wonderful and glorious and fun and whatever. But real life is just not like that."
"Winning is not dying. Winning is what you do when you're alive, and the people you help to keep alive. That's winning."
Honor the fallen
Among all the organized groups that play Arma, ShackTac is incredibly popular. It’s not uncommon for them to receive 150 applications for membership every month, and it wasn’t all that long ago when the number climbed over 600 for a time.
There is a natural attrition that happens with every group, and recruitment is what keeps this organization fresh. What drives people to ShackTac is its steady self-promotion through several YouTube channels. None of them are more popular than the one run by ShackTac’s leader, Andrew Gluck.
Gluck’s channel has more than 116,000 subscribers. Fans have viewed ShackTac’s exploits through his eyes nearly 18 million times. For such a niche game series as Arma, for such a hardcore group as ShackTac, the number is hard to comprehend.
Gluck’s channel has more than 116,000 subscribers. Fans have viewed ShackTac’s exploits through his eyes nearly 18 million times.
The group’s popularity is a big reason why Gluck now works with the company that makes Arma, Bohemia Interactive, as a consultant and video designer. He’s the author of an extensive series of freely available written and video tutorials for Arma products, all of which grew out of his experiences leading ShackTac. Called the Tips, Tactics and Procedures Manual, much of that content was bundled together to create the authoritative guidebook sold alongside Arma 3.
That kind of exposure has caused Gluck to be very careful with what he shares about his personal life online.
"I'm very invested in the Arma product," Gluck says. "But there's a degree of personal stuff that I just don't talk about outside of a very small social circle within ShackTac. I keep fairly quiet about what my personal situation is.
"I spend my time either doing ShackTac stuff, doing my YouTube stuff, or just watching TV and things like that. It's nothing really glamorous; ShackTac and video editing. My jobs are so close to each other. What I play and what I do as a job? There's not a fine line between those most of the time."
But what Gluck feels most honored by isn’t the volume of fans he and ShackTac have. It’s the kind of audience that is drawn to his videos.
You can watch Gluck rescue Wastell and Charlie squad at the 16:00 mark.
"There's been a number of military types who have contacted me," Gluck says, "and said ... now that they're out of the military, they lost that feeling of camaraderie they once had. They're looking for it, and they see it in our videos.
"That makes me incredibly proud. Because it comes across playing as a member of the community, but it also comes across through our videos. And that’s just amazing to me.
"Service members have told me that seeing that camaraderie — being able to watch that — has helped them cope with being out of the service. Or that it has helped them cope with things that happened while they were in. It adds a real gravity to what we do."
What gives Gluck the most pride is that the "serious fun" ShackTac is having two nights a week means something for people who have actually been in combat. The people in his group can, by working hard to play a role within Arma's realistic simulation, recreate not just the mechanics of war on screen but the the emotions that go along with it — fear, joy, camaraderie and even love for their fellow soldiers.