By Barry Morris and Danielle DeSimone
The doors have only been open a few weeks, but the new USO Gaming Center, which opened on Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Northwest Florida in April 2022, is already making an impact on the service members on the base.
The 2,500 square-foot USO Gaming center and café features 24 gaming stations equipped with state-of-the-art systems and games – many donated by Xbox – and ergonomic gaming chairs, donated by Razer™, all of which are available to service members and their military families to use for free.
The gaming center is also adorned with colored led lights that are adjustable, creating a calming and safe environment for service members and their families to enjoy together.
“It was astounding. There are very few moments that induce a reaction like I had first walking into the gaming center,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Tyrone McKenzie, who almost immediately applied to serve as a USO volunteer at the center.
“To sit down and see each station with top-of-the-line equipment from start to finish was mind-blowing. As a gamer, I’ve invested my own funds to create a comfortable gaming experience at home, but this was another level.”
The center is designed specifically to provide a welcoming and comforting atmosphere, as noted by Airman 1st Class William Garcia.
“What I like most about the new USO gaming center is the ambiance you feel when you walk in,” Garcia said. “It looks entirely different than everywhere else on base.”
The opening of this center is a part of the USO’s efforts to expand its gaming programs and construct more gaming centers and dedicated spaces within existing USO centers across the globe. In doing so, the military community has access to ever-expanding spaces in which to unwind and connect.
In fact, even forward-deployed troops are getting to participate, as the USO has sent gaming units overseas to remote locations such as Eastern Europe, as well as by deploying its newest USO Mobile vehicle – an NFL Gaming Trailer outfitted with gaming stations that can be driven to locations where there is no brick-and-mortar USO center.
However, as the reactions to the USO Gaming Center on Eglin AFB have proven, video games are so much more than a screen, a game console and the act of putting on a headset for a few hours of fun. For many service members, the escapism of video games can allow them to forget – just for a moment – the daily stress of the military lifestyle.
“The incredible ability of gaming to build community and strengthen bonds goes straight to the heart of the USO’s mission to keep our service members connected to family, home and country throughout their time in uniform – not matter where they serve,” said Executive Director of USO Northwest Florida Dana Cervantes.
With this mission in mind, gaming has become an important tool for the USO to support and strengthen service members.
After all, the Department of Veteran Affairs has conducted research which shows that video games can help service members relieve stress – especially as they decompress after deployment.
“If you still think of playing video games as a lonely activity, please, toss out those misconceptions,” said Space Force Master Sgt. Michael Sullivan, the founder of Space Force Gaming who served as the Master of Ceremonies for the USO center’s grand opening event.
“I have witnessed firsthand how gaming encourages and empowers community and connection.”
How the USO Gaming Can Improve the Lives of Service Members
“This new center is a game changer,” said Brig. Gen. Scott A. Cain, Commander, 96th Test Wing, Air Force Materiel Command at Eglin Air Force Base. “Our junior airmen living in the dorms across the street now have a world-class facility they can come to and unwind, relax and build comradery.”
The idea of building comradery through gaming is not just wishful thinking – gaming research has shown that video games can promote team-building among service members, which is important for their roles in the military. As the American Psychological Association found, “The collective skills and actions that result when using small units or teams enable the military to quickly and more efficiently accomplish missions,” – making teamwork, built both on and off the field, crucial to the operational readiness of our Armed Forces.
But most importantly, for many of our service members, the escapism of video games can allow them to take a break from the pressure and responsibility of their daily missions.
“Gaming allows me to temporarily be ignorant to the stressors of life,” said McKenzie. “When the console turns on, the stressors turn off.”
For the service members who have utilized the new USO Gaming Center since its grand opening, their experience has far exceeded their expectations – and has had a lasting impact on their day-to-day morale.
“I’ve found [that] spending a little time reaching that new in-game rank, or unlocking a new achievement, lifts my spirits enough to re-attack the challenges outside of gaming,” McKenzie said.
The USO Gaming Center at Eglin AFB also helps service members stay connected to their loved ones, either through in-person community programs that they can attend with their families, or by connecting online with friends and family members in other states by gaming together.
“I feel like [gaming] is just a more interactive way to kill time and stress,” said Garcia. “It keeps me involved with family and friends that are not close by.”
Thanks to the generosity of our donors, the USO is able to provide service members and their families with these connections to one another at USO Gaming centers, ensuring that they have places to turn to in times of stress – and so that they always know the American people have their backs.
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