WoW in Afghanistan

18 Mar

Eastern Afghanistan.

Mountains.  High parched desert.  Taliban.  No fit place for man or beast and there I was plunked right in middle of it all.  I had been in country for maybe four days and had finally made it down to the little American Forward Operating Base that was to be my home for the next year.  It was a pretty spartan place, located on top of a plateau at around 7000 feet. Not many amenities to speak of and the guys that were showing me around had hit all the high points in about five minutes.  There was a collection of beat up free weights they called a gym, the chow hall, and a tiny exchange where we could buy razors, soap, and six month old magazines.

“But hey – we do have our own Internet – so it’s not all bad,” I was told.  This surprised me, most bases have little Internet cafes setup for troops to e-mail folks back home and maybe get in tiny bit of web surfing.  But these guys were describing good old fashioned real Internets with no government filters or restrictions.

“Lead on,” I said, “take me to your Internets.”

And they did.

Troops throughout the company area were tapping away on laptops, e-mailing, surfing, listening to music.  Things were looking promising.  Then I saw him. There was this one guy who was sitting behind a desk in a particular hunched posture, his face intent, mouse hand twitching.  I knew that look, knew that focus.  Sidling around to where he was I stole a quick glance at the liquid perfection of his super high resolution lcd.  There, in its achingly familiar and wonderfully rendered glory were the Hillsbrad Foothills.  The object of all the mouse twitching was a midlevel dwarf warrior killing turtles for turtle meat.  Realizing that I was the new guy and wanting to make a good impression, I said something witty.

“ZOMG…”

The geeky happy realization that the next year might not be WoW free after all was shot full of holes pretty quick.  You see, the guys my unit was replacing were going to take the hardware for their civilian Internet system home with them.  That is – unless we got together and bought it from them.  Putting the word out to gamers and the rest of the Internet starved troops, by the time the rest of my unit’s main body arrived, we had collected over $10,000 to buy the satellite modem, dishes, wifi paraphenalia and the painfully expensive service contract.

When the old unit finally picked up and moved out for home, those of us in charge of the new Internet System went to town trying to get everything setup and sorted out.  Of course – with the guys who had managed the finicky thing through 15 months already on freedom birds headed back to the states, we were on our own.  This presented the best time possible for a hardware failure to occur and before anyone could so much as torrent an episode of Battlestar, the router that managed much of the communications died a smoky, dust-choked death.

Faces fell like daisy cutter bombs when we passed the news along to everyone else.

Not to be deterred we pulled some cash out of our reserve fund and purchased a replacement router.  In the meantime we went about the time honored task of jury rigging something, anything together.  A day later, with a little netgear home router stuck in place of the big (dead) Cisco, we were able to offer up some basic Internet to the company area.   It was brutally slow and the little router tipped over in protest from time to time with all the users hitting it, but it worked.  Tentatively, a friend tried logging on to WoW.  The look of ecstasy on his face when the loading screen came up was a joy to see.  After a few moments of disconcerted clicking he finally looked over at me.

“It works,” he said.  “But it’s damn laggy.”

Damn laggy was actually like 5-6000 ms latency.  Yeah.  But you could log on to less crowded locations and chat with friends or just wander around and farm herbs or ore.  It was something.

In time we managed to get enough bandwidth provisioned that the service felt a bit better than dialup.  Remember, we were sitting on a mountain top in the middle of damned no where in a country that time forgot.  The satellite shot we were supping from was small and we were using old, inefficient hardware that ate up even more of that bandwidth just keeping the connection up.  AT&T Broadband it was not.  Through the year that we lived there, we fought to keep the service running, fixing failed hardware, arguing with surly Afghan technicians over borrowed cell phones, burning through our precious Skype air time to place calls to provider data centers in Germany and Spain – hoping against hope that someone would speak english and didn’t mind the laggy coke bottle quality of the call.

But through it all, slow as it was, people got to talk to families, e-mail got sent, itunes got downloaded.  And the gamers gamed.  I leveled Rain’ into her early 70’s while in Afghanistan and did the Mag’har chain quests on her and Tigerclaw both.  Not much for an entire year, but we were kinda busy.  A good latency day for us was around 2000 ms and a great day was something no stateside gamer would tolerate at 1000 ms +.  But it was playable – and play we did – and e-mail and download and surf.  That crappy, laggy, hard as hell to maintain link to the rest of the world was a critical piece of sanity that was enjoyed from the newest private all the way up to our Brigade Commander, a 1-Star General.  I’m proud as hell of the system and proud of the fact that it was my personal baby to protect and nurture.  Nothing I did though would have been possible without the guys from our S-6 shop (the army’s computer guys) my buddy Sertab and a host of WoW crazy volunteers that helped us keep the thing running.

I remembered the system last night when my son started complaining about our home broadband.  He was trying to play Counterstrike while watching You-Tube movies on two old laptops he’d crowded around his desk.  Things were starting to lag a bit for him.  While this was going on, I was farming ore in Icecrown and my wife chatting with friends on Facebook.

I just smiled at him as he grumbled about You-Tube being reduced to a slide show.  I put on my “uphill both ways” boots and told him this story.

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One Response to “WoW in Afghanistan”

  1. Nora March 18, 2010 at 19:23 #

    It’s amazing the ways WoW can show up in your life. Ehr was deployed to the ‘Gan for a while too, though before we had started playing. I know he got through it in part via Halo and other games, plus the periodic chance to call home and talk to me.

    Still – it’s astounding, thinking about the level of technological connection we have with our warfighters, when in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation they had to rely on the rare, periodic letter written and sent home as the missions allowed. How far we’ve come, eh?

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