Cartoon owl holding a magnifying glass. Pixelated red background. Text: Games Have Taught Us - Following Orders

The previous post in this series was about how to use games as a teaching tool.

Today I have a bit of personal history to share with you. And how the military failed to teach me one of the most important aspects of being a soldier that I understood only much later – from video games.

Women, Children and Soldiers

Here in Finland, we don’t have a paid army.

The Finnish military works so that every single man is drafted and trained for half a year (basic training) or a full year (specialists and upper ranks).

Well, I guess that isn’t 100% true. There is an alternative to opt out and do civil service instead. And there are some men who are exempt from participation due to religion. However, civil service takes up a whole year (instead of the possible half-year in the military), so if you want to get on with your life then military is often the way to go.

Since more or less every man has to participate, there is an interesting conclusion you can make about the Finnish population:

When you look at the people around you, you see women, children and soldiers.

I wasn’t a good soldier

And so, as a white man of Finnish nationality, one of my many priviliges include having to waste half a year in service of my country.

(To be fair, it wasn’t a complete waste. Those many crappy moments turned into nice memories.)

And, I wasn’t exactly a very good soldier.

It goes without saying that a soldier should follow orders. But every time I was given orders, all I could think “Why? This order makes no sense in this situation!”

During service, everyone kept chanting the same thing: “Stop thinking and just follow the orders.”

Yet, during my entire service, nobody ever actually told me why.

Why is it important to follow orders in combat?

Why does it go without saying that a soldier should follow orders?

Or, in fact:

Why it is absolutely crucial to follow orders – blindly, quickly and without question.

Stepping into the shoes of a Commander

Games allow us to experience the life from viewpoints that we would normally never experience. In the case of many Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games, you get to step into the shoes of a general, a commander or a ruler – someone who decides the overall strategies during combat.

So let’s do that.

You are now Uesugi Kenshin, daimyō of the Uesugi clan.

You, at this very moment.


Your troops are marching towards an enemy platoon, ready to engage them in combat. The enemy platoon is standing near a forest. Cautious, you decide to command your troops to stop well beforehand.

You send a scout to check the situation, and notice that the enemy has several other platoons hiding away in the forest. Naturally, you give your troops an immediate order to fall back.

You are playing a video game. Your troops do exactly as you say, at the exact moment you say it. They flee and survive the battle.

Now, imagine if instead of following your orders, your troops simply look at each other in confusion. They keep marching forward because they don’t understand why they should stop.

They only realize their error as they personally notice the sizable army they’re facing a few moments later – when arrows are already raining on them from all over the forest.


You send your troops against just a slightly weaker army, knowing full well that the fight is going to be a close one. However, you can clearly see that as long as they fight to the last man, the battle will be won.

But morale is low. Despite you having more soldiers, just few moments before your triumphant victory, your troops decide to stop fighting.

You watch in disappointment as your remaining troops get sliced and shot down as they refuse any further orders from you. Instead, they attempt to scramble their way away from the battlefield while getting slaughtered by an enemy they could have eventually defeated.

Fleeing samurai running through a volley of arrows in panic. (Total War: Shogun 2)

There are some RTS games that don’t have a morale system, such as Age of Empires II. Or games like Dawn of War, where the morale system works differently: only affecting the troop’s stats.

And you can see the difference there: now that your troops are never disobeying orders, you have only yourself and your abilities (both as a gamer and a strategist) to blame.

Even in those games, you can find new things to complain about: path-finding, the camera, misclicks, troop inbalance, or controls in general.

Many of these problems imitate the experience of “my soldiers didn’t do what I wanted them to.”

Why commanders even exist?

Imagine if you had a game where your troops just did whatever they wanted and only followed your orders occasionally. You might still get things done, but boy would it be annoying and cause a lot of unnecessary losses.

It’s true that whoever is handing down commands may not have the best possible strategy at that moment. They may not know all the details. They may make mistakes. They’re probably not even the most qualified person around to handle that job.

(Just like you, as a player, don’t necessarily have all the details while playing through a battle scenario. And you’re probably not that one professional player who has done nothing but play and study this one game for the last 30 years.)

Despite their flaws, your commander is someone who has some kind of comprehensive idea about what should be done. Even if that strategy is seemingly hard to understand from your perspective, and exists only in their head.

And it’s still imperative that everyone works together toward some goal, preferably as quickly as possible. Instead of ignoring the overall strategy and just doing whatever they feel like.


I’m someone who accepts facts if they’re explained.

(Well, most of the time.)

If I know the reasoning for something, it’s very easy for me to accept and follow it. And that also makes it easier for me to teach it to other people.

And so, if these reasons had been actually explained to me while I doing my service, perhaps I hadn’t been such a bad soldier.

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

3 thoughts on “Importance of Blindly Following Orders – Games have taught us #8

  1. Oop, missed this post for a couple weeks. I totally agree with what you’re saying, and I think one crucial factor you almost mention but never quite do is the soldiers’ level of trust in the commander. Sure, there’s trusting that the commander has more information than you do, but there’s also the element of knowing that your commander is a competent person who will use a plan that is at least somewhat likely to be effective. If you, a random soldier, know that the commander is well informed, has well trained troops with great morale, and who happens to be an absolute idiot with a habit of sending his people into deathtraps, it’s probably not a great idea to follow his orders (how did he even end up in charge, in this hypothetical situation?).

    On the other hand, if the situation is looking hopeless, you’re outnumbered and outgunned, but you know that your commander is seasoned and intellegent and will use every man to the best possible effect, that’s a man you can jump to follow the orders of to the letter. In that scenario you have a certain level of trust in the commander, and will follow those commands knowing you’ll be told why, or figure out why, at a later time.

    Now, this is oversimplfying a lot of course, and I don’t have military service experience to draw from, but that one factor seems crucial to me. I could also ramble for a while about immoral orders and such, but I should probably shut up now and hope that all that was somewhat coherent and typo-free lol. Thanks again as always for the thought-provoking article 🙂

    1. It’s been almost a year since the last post, so no wonder. Thanks for commenting so often! (OvO)/

      I think my problem was exactly what you described there. When I entered the military, I did so with several naive preconceptions: thinking that our training would be coherent and executed by experienced, charming commanders. Because that’s what media usually shows us: commanders that earn their respect.

      Instead, everything we did felt like chaos led by adult-sized children. The people whose orders we had to follow made no effort to show any aptitude (aside from one sergeant). It was almost all just “My rank’s higher so you gotta listen to me!”

      And that’s a big reason why it was so hard to follow orders.

      I mentioned in the article that the service only lasts half a year. However, you can choose to continue for an extra half a year (or even longer) if you want a higher rank.

      Except that it’s not necessarily a choice… most people don’t want to continue, but there’s a quota to meet so that during wartime there’s enough people to fill the lower-middle ranks. So, many get dragged in for an extra half a year. And they’re very pissed about it.

      This isn’t a job they chose – it’s tough, it’s crappy, it makes no sense, and they don’t want to be there. And they need to vent their anger somehow. It’s a very toxic environment.

      The higher ranks who actually work there for living were a bit better, but I didn’t see them often and it was still a very mixed bag. Aside from that one sergeant, there were no inspirational speeches, no “this is the strategy we’re going with”, and no “I’ve been in your shoes” talks.

      And despite that, in combat, when one of these incompetent manchilds gives me one of their ridiculous commands, it’s still probably the best choice to just execute it without delay.

      1. When your commander obviously doesn’t want to *be* a commander, that’s definitely not a good situation for anyone involved. I guess in your example at least, there’s the hope that somewhere up the chain of command someone has a measure of competence, even if your direct superior doesn’t. In that case, any absolutely crazy orders are likely to be caught and overidden before they travel too far, horrible enviornment aside. And, failing to follow orders also is more likely to be met with consistent consequences, and less sympathy given the larger command structure. But if the entire command structure is incompetent, or if an incompetent immediate superior is all there is, then things can go off the rails a lot faster and a lot more catastrophically. All that said, at some point, the best option you have may be just to shut up and follow orders until a different option presents itself.

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