Header art by Sunless Design

The Culture of Games at Gitmo Goes Beyond Prisoners and Guards

Under the Trump presidency, future of games at Gitmo is yet to be determined.

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Jul 26 2017, 7:39pm

Header art by Sunless Design

At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.

"It's a really out of the way place, and such an esoteric topic, honestly," says NC1 Sean McCormick.

We are sitting in a sterile office in Gitmo, and I am a long way from my home out in the woods of western Massachusetts. "Out of the way" is a bit of an understatement. Some call Gitmo the "legal equivalent of outer space." To get here, I signed many documents. I agreed not to photograph "views of fuel, water, electrical power, or ammunitions processing or storage facilities from within their enclosed boundaries including close-up views of valves, electrical power panels, fuel, or water distribution pipes or fittings." All to "study games at Gitmo."

I say these words aloud many times before I trek there. I say them in front my perplexed parents, tabletop wargame addicts, Pokémon Go-playing compatriots, ex-boyfriends, my landlord. They know that I've studied Gitmo academically and have written about it journalistically, and yet "Games at Gitmo" always provokes question, assumption, or judgment.

Gitmo is simultaneously many things. For many detainees, it has certainly lived up to its reputation as a "legal black hole." But, it's also the oldest overseas naval station in U.S. history; a home to an endangered iguana population; a corner of America that is ever so far from America—with a McDonald's; a grocery store that sells Sabra hummus, Keurig cups, and fresh raspberries; and even a scuba diving club.

There are guards at the detention facility, who are also parents; spouses of active duty servicemen who organize weekly sessions of Bunka embroidery; Navy corpsmen who, yes, go home at night and play Dungeons & Dragons. Some of these people are responsible for monitoring one of the world's most notorious detention facilities, and some go a full rotation, eight, nine, ten months—never interacting with a single detainee, never seeing an orange jumpsuit.

Still, I often wonder how rotations at Gitmo change its sailors and soldiers. How can eight, nine, ten months there transform the identity of a single soul? A board gamer? A guard? To get real answers to these questions, journalists would need to visit Gitmo and conduct countless interviews. I only have a few days.

NC1 Sean McCormick. Photo by author

Back in 2009, the Obama Administration released an 81 page long report called the "Review of Department Compliance with President's Executive Order on Detainee Conditions of Confinement." I open this PDF many times before I go to Gitmo, and I note that there are over ten separate references to games. There's even a brief mention of Sudoku.

By the time I get to Gitmo, I've also read up on the Dungeons and Dragons community but have no clue what else to expect. So, when I sit down with NC1 Sean McCormick, I almost forget that I'm a stone's throw away from one of the world's most controversial (even notorious) detention facilities. I feel as if I could be in Anywhere, America, and it takes a few minutes to remember that I'm not.

NC1 McCormick tells me that he isn't into LARPing, that he got through a divorce by going "down the whole Magic the Gathering hole," that he runs the naval base's Dungeons and Dragons Adventurer's League, that cultivating the community has been a huge part of his life on base. By day, he's a petty officer and Navy counselor who doles out career advice to people enlisted in the Navy, and by night, he vets new players and plays countless games with his wife.

It takes twenty minutes for me to ask NC1 Sean McCormick a question that has weighed on me for over two years. I don't really know how to ask it. As we sit in his office, I lean forward and pause before speaking.

"I've spent the past three days primarily over at the Joint Task Force," I say, "and I think that, when I told people I was coming to cover games at Gitmo, there were a lot of eyebrows raised. I feel like, on one hand, gameplay is a creative outlet. Everyone needs to de-stress, but on the other hand, I've had people argue that there's some serious stuff going on at Gitmo. Seems wrong to play games there."

And then Sean McCormick darts straight into an unexpected aspect of the Gitmo community that has long fascinated me: unity.

"As far as the detention center and anybody who—"He pauses. "I don't deal with [the Joint Task Force], they're not within my purview and I had a whole bunch of people that—"He pauses, again. "No okay, I'll be a little bit more modest than that—a couple of people from JTF come over and join the game, and I never had a problem with any single one of them. We are all exactly the same. We are looking to engage in our hobby, and we all share that in common. It's another thing that unites us together."

I like the idea that people stationed at Gitmo can occasionally step away from their demanding routines and temporarily escape. And so, when NC1 McCormick explains this dynamic, small troop of games-loving people, who occasionally de-stress by playing D&D, I smile, even though a part of me also wonders how those JTF guards feel, playing with active service people who have absolutely nothing to do with detainees—and vice versa. NC1 Sean McCormick is one of those people: He's never stepped foot in the detention facilities.

He continues, "We're all military or all working for the military in some capacity, cause I've got some civilian folk who come and play games with us cause they work at civilian contracting agencies on base. And so, it doesn't come into play, any issues that anybody has about the detention center, it exists separate and apart from that."

I'm tempted to delve into a meta-analysis of what it means to be a "Dungeon Master" in a place like Gitmo, but I stop myself, because I feel like NC1 McCormick has more to say. What I didn't anticipate is what he was going to speak on.

"If anybody thinks that 'Oh well, it's doom and gloom at Naval Station Guantanamo, cause the specter of God forbid any human rights abuses are going on over at the detention center… I'm not saying that there are." He pauses and then clarifies, "There aren't any things like that going on over there, but a lot of the American people are led to believe that there are. I mean, you've got, to the best of my knowledge, the detainees are getting fatter by the day over there, living, okay, let's not talk about that. It doesn't have anything to do with gaming."

"Throw them a ball, let them play soccer, if they have to play at all." - Donald Trump

NC1 McCormick isn't the first to call detainees "fat." It's a long running rhetorical theme, really.

In October 2006, Michael Melia, a reporter with The Associated Press wrote a piece, where she explained that a high-calorie diet provided by the Joint Task Force wasn't doing detainees any favors; it was making them f-a-t. Almost five years later, on May 13, 2011, during an interview on Fox & Friends, Senator Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma declared, "Let's keep in mind, these detainees, they have things they've never had before. You know what the biggest problem in Gitmo is right now? It's obesity."

Less than two weeks later, researchers at the Seton Hall University School of Law's Center for Policy wrote "The Guantanamo Diet: Actual Facts About Detainee Weight Changes," a report with facts and figures that refuted Inhofe's claim in the strongest of terms.

Detainees' bodies—how they are treated, what they are fed, and how many remain in the camps—have been at the forefront of a number of controversies over the past fifteen years.

Republicans and Democrats alike debate how taxpayer dollars are being used at Gitmo—whether it is to buy Ensure for hunger-striking detainees or to build athletic facilities for "compliant" ones. In January 2015, Jason Leopold, an investigative reporter with VICE News, reported that some detainees could choose from hundreds of video games and movies while being force-fed. Later, that same year, in September 2015, during a speech about U.S. tax policy, Donald Trump made a nod to U.S. fiscal conservative ideologies by scolding the Joint Task Force for investing $744,000 on a patch of grass for detainees:

"We just spent a million dollars building a soccer field. Okay. A soccer field for our prisoners that happen to be in Guantánamo. Okay. I don't like that. What do you need a million dollars for that? Level out the surface. Let them play. What do you need to spend a million dollars? We just spent. There's a story today. A million dollars on a soccer field? How do you spend a million dollars on a soccer field? You have a level piece of land. Throw them a ball, let them play soccer, if they have to play at all."

A few days after Trump took office, a picture circulated on Twitter of shelves of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's Library that had been stocked with books that had Trump's face plastered on them. When I first see the photo, I wonder if Trump will clear all the PS3 games out of the Gitmo Detainee Library and in their stead, place crisp, clean new copies of The Art of the Deal.

Today, we're more than five months into the Trump presidency, and the truth is that no one knows exactly what he's going to do with Gitmo. As of June 2017, the Detainee Library sits without a single Trump title in its stacks, and the PS3 collection remains very much untouched and intact.

Yet I frequently dwell on the last five seconds of Trump's quote: "if they have to play at all."

Gameplay at the Naval Station is inherently fragmented. Troops constantly rotate in and out. Private contractors come and go. All told there are approximately 5,500 active duty military, reservists, family members, and staff. The majority of these people, in contrast to detainees, have a clearly delineated arrival and departure time. And in this regard, the Naval Station could not be more different from the detention facility, where 41 men remain, held, detained, some awaiting judgment, others awaiting trial, many just waiting for a new Executive Order. And yet, in both of these communities, there are small pockets of people, who have embraced games as a pastime, as a way to de-stress.

One evening, after my first night at Gitmo, I meet up with a bunch of board game lovers, mainly men and women serving in the U.S. Navy as well as one private contractor.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Anderson, the self-described "current proprietor of game night, at least the Friday night one," tells me why—despite the arrival of T-Mobile cell service on the base—he still prefers tabletops. "There are a lot of board game apps on phones. I'm not a huge fan of it, because for me, 90% of board games is the social aspect. It's not about winning or losing. It's the same reason that hookah or something like it is really popular."

He adds: "Humans have an issue sitting in a room and talking to each other, but when you put something simple in front of them, like a board game, it just gives everyone a singular reason to be in the room together, and then it's an excuse to come together."

Maegann Foster, my escort from the Naval Station's Public Affairs Office, adds jokingly, "If you don't have an activity, it's just group therapy."

When people stationed at Gitmo come together to play games, for a few hours, whether it's through board games like Codenames or a round of D&D, they can put their work on hold, their different identities aside. A private contractor tasked with managing the endangered iguana population might end up playing D&D with a guard from the Joint Task Force, who spends their days watching detainees. A military spouse might play Bunco with a U.S. Navy Public Affairs Officer. Games provide everyone with an opportunity to forget rank, a chance to forgo deployment details, an escape from the rules and regulations underlying daily life in an isolated base.

"...wartime has become normal time in America." -Mary Dudziak

At Gitmo, in my many conversations with people who play games, words like "unity" and "community" pop up without fail. One person in a scuba meeting puts it to me this way: Gitmo has the vibe of 1950s America.

At first, the comparison to seems like an apt one. Petty officers in the Navy (at least the ones in the board game crowd) tell me that they leave their doors unlocked at night. There are no stoplights on the base. A bowling alley is the weekend hang. Almost everything is within a five minute drive.

In an interview with Waypoint, Anderson, a cultural advisor who works as an intermediary between the Joint Task Force and detainees, put it this way: "Gitmo is a safe place. It's a good place to grow up. We don't have many problems. I can let my kids get on the bus by themselves or walk. In the States, we cannot do that. I have to go everywhere with them."

But this comparison of Gitmo to 1950s America (unintentionally) includes a less favorable reading, too. While the pop cultural memory has focused on the Beaver Cleaver cleanliness of the postwar boom, the 50s were not a pristine decade. The Korean War marked a new style of American intervention. Redlining in housing markets deprived minority families of homes and hamstrung their ability to build wealth. And with nuclear arms production, McCarthyism, and international proxy conflicts continued, Americans struggled to define "the Cold War."

In a 1955 U.S. Gallup Poll, some responded that it was "war through talking, not down and out fighting," "not a hot war," while others described it more as a "battle of words among powers to gain prestige among their nations" or "a real war all over the world." In his book, Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, historian Kenneth Osgood writes that Americans "perceived the Cold War as a war, but as a different kind of war—one that was difficult to define, and one that was fought not so much with guns and tanks and atom bombs, as with words and ideas and political maneuvers all around the world."

Today, there is an ongoing effort amongst scholars, journalists, and service people to define Gitmo, and part of the struggle is to situate it in a certain era.

Mary Dudziak, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law and Director of the Project on War and Security in Law, Culture and Society at Emory Law School has reflected a lot on this phenomenon. "Assumptions about the temporality of war are embedded in American legal and political thought." She goes on to argue, in her book Wartime: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, that there is great dissonance between the way we imagine wartime, and the way that war itself is practiced. "If we abandon the idea that war is confined in time," she says "we can see more clearly that our law and politics are not suspended by an exception to the regular order of things. Instead, wartime has become normal time in America."

By extension, it's no surprise that so many Americans have accepted the timelessness of detention at Gitmo. Roughly 780 people have been detained at Gitmo since 2002. 41 remain. With the "war on terror" an ongoing, seemingly endless pursuit, their futures—and the likelihood that American civilians will pay attention to their futures—remain uncertain.

That same suspension of temporal expectations ignores another aspect of life on the base, that every year there are new crops of Americans, coming and going, each bringing with them a new set of expectations and principles and identities. And it's easy to forget this detail, to instead make the assumption that everyone serving at Gitmo believes in the same values, that they want the same things, that they define "detention" in the same way. After all, they're at Gitmo. They play the same games, see the same outdoor movies, eat at the same dining halls, serve the same nation.

It is 2017. The detention facility is in its fifteenth year. In 2018, the U.S. Naval Station, which was established in 1903, will turn 115 years old. As the years stretch on, as conflicts with new terrorist organizations lead us to wonder if Gitmo will be used to detain yet more people, it is increasingly unclear what fate awaits the detention facility. But through study, reporting, and sheer, bull-headed attention, what we can determine is how Americans will remember this Gitmo and the many people who lived here.

Follow Muira McCammon on Twitter.

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