I don’t even like tanks that much. I have honestly no idea what I’m doing here. There are tanks everywhere. Tanks in the lobby, tanks on the lawn, tanks in the gift shop. I walk around hoping to find a Russian tank which inside houses different, smaller tanks, so that I can act bewildered and amused even though I previously suspected its existence. But it doesn’t exist. I look up. There are no tanks on the ceiling, which is a relief. But there is a small helicopter, which is disconcerting. Beneath it a placard reads, “What is a helicopter doing in a tank museum!?” and then goes on to explain the entire history of this particular helicopter EXCEPT the reason it is in a tank museum. I feel a strange kinship with the little chopper. It too has no idea what it’s doing here.
The tank museum is the setting for Tankfest, the annual festival of large, manoeuvrable killing machines held in the south of England. It is very well attended. Tanks are put on display and even rolled out onto a specially built course to rollick around and pretend to shoot things. The festival takes place near the sleepy settlement of Wool, which is a bit like holding an NRA meeting in a town called Carebear, or a nuke parade in a village called Softmint. Nevertheless, people come from all over Europe to see tanks from throughout military history and to buy souvenirs like Airfix models, or soap.
Like I say, I’m at a loss here because I’m not really into tanks all that much. Remember that scene in Band of Brothers when they’re fighting over a couple of hedgerows the whole episode? And then a tank battalion roll in and all the American soldiers joyfully start crying “Sherman!” When I first saw that I thought that the guy sticking out of the first tank was called Sherman and that Sherman was the ‘king’ of the tanks, who had come to rescue them. I believed this for approximately one year.
Still, here I am. “Did you see the tortoise shell in the last room?” I ask the fellow journo walking alongside me through the museum. “The one with the sign above it that said ‘Nature’s armour plating?’” He says that he did, then tells me about his pet tortoise called Tilly, whom he assures me is most definitely not like a tank but is cantankerous. In the other room, lurks what I think is an enormous German Tiger tank. Also, the teddy bear stall.
We take a stroll around the exhibits. We see the Goliath, which was used in Company of Heroes. It’s a small vehicle that was remotely controlled via a wire and could be filled with up to 100kg of TNT. It was used by the German army in WWII mostly to clear minefields but also against enemy tanks “on rare occasions”. It was slow, prone to flipping upside-down, had too short a wire and was generally pretty useless. Very unlike the terrifying kamikaze bastards in the game. We also see the thresher attachment used in the same game by the US army to clear landmines and hedgerows. It’s basically a big spinning cyclone of death made out of heavy iron chains with balls on the end. Think of a combine harvester made out of medieval maces spun at oh-fuck miles per hour. I forget the exact name of this device, but I believe it may be called the ARRGGH.
We stumble across a miniaturised scene of the D-Day landings. Tiny model Nazis hold their hands on their heads on the beach as US tanks roll onto the sands from special landing craft. A single German soldier looks surprisingly calm as one of the machines aims its turret his way. It is possible he has not noticed the invasion happening twenty feet to his left. Meanwhile, in the sea, a US infantryman walks professionally on the water’s surface with his head missing. I am thinking this is an old model.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” I confess to the other journo. “I don’t even like war.” I feel like it might even be true.
“Are you a pacifist?” he says. He asks it earnestly, which is nice considering the word ‘pacifist’ is often said in the same tone of voice as the word ‘paedophile’ or ‘Jar Jar Binks’. I think about this for a few seconds. Images of tanks frolic in my unconscious mind. The mammoth tanks from Red Alert roaring toward an enemy base, the cheat code for the tank in GTA 3, the flap of the machine shop in Company of Heroes fluttering in the wind as sparks fly out, the futile dud-dud-dud of the onboard machine gun in Battlefield 1942 as a Spitfire drops its load. The glee of crushing soldiers on the streets of St Petersburg.
“No,” I say. “I play too many games.”
By now we’ve done a lap of the place and find ourselves in the room that houses the World of Tanks demo. The game’s booths are sandwiched into a room with about six giant tanks, including a weird one the Russians used for training – a big cross section cuts out the back of the turret, which makes the thing look as if it had gone to war with a Mech armed with a laser. Here it is, selling some jewellery.
There are also some other things. An Afghanistan exhibition hosts a desert quad bike and maps of Helmand province, which a looping video of an army man with a posh voice tells us is all under control. A child drops her balloon by my feet and I kick it back to her, whereupon she promptly drops it again and we repeat the whole vicious cycle. This is symbolic. In one corner the most terrifying war machine known to man stands ready to shudder to life at any moment. The deadly US Army COBRA.
I believe it was discontinued for the same reason as the Goliath. The wire can only stretch so far.
All the while the happy sound of World of Tanks players blowing each other up reigns supreme. I guess this is why I’m here – to chat to the CEO of Wargaming, Victor Kislyi, about all the tanks in his game. I never really forgot that this was my mission. But since my first glimpse of Victor Kislyi was of him standing on a soapbox, with a crowd of journalists and WoT fans clamoured around listening to every word he said (and challenging him with in-depth critiques of minor design choices about the game), I had been sort of dazed until this point.
Now, it is my turn to interview him. In the tiny four or so hours I have previously put into World of Tanks, I did not achieve a single kill. I am terrible at this. Gaming. Journalism. Tanks. God, I am terrible at this. But I have my questions ready anyway.
RPS: Exactly how many tanks do you have?
VK: Myself, in the garage? Or in the game?
RPS: Whichever is largest.
VK: In all, either 85 or 87. Almost 90. I was saving one and a half million experience points for the Warplanes to transfer when [World of Warplanes] comes out. But then French artillery came out – because top level has automatic loading – and then the tank destroyer [came out] and I could not hold myself back so I spent all of that – all I had – on French artillery and the destroyer.
RPS: So around 90 tanks. Is that enough tanks?
VK: It’s quite all right. Of course, there’s no way you can play them all in one day. I also am playing sometimes with a tank I don’t like for the sake of double XP or ones that have X3 or X5. I kind of put my family a little bit aside and go and play not all my tanks but a good half of my tanks…
RPS: Do you ever feel like you have more tanks than is prudent?
VK: No no no. Some of the players they have 200. That is not prudent. I’m still moderate.
RPS: Considering the economic and political turmoil affecting the world, do you think there will be another Clash of the Tanks, or “World War” as it is sometimes known?
VK: For real? Of course we all hope no.
RPS: But there might be more tanks if there was.
VK: No no no. We would not be happy to make yet another game about an ongoing conflict. We are a game of chess. Right? Yes, it’s a violent game. It’s a military strategy, like, destructive game, in the same way as chess is.
RPS: But wouldn’t you like some new tanks? That would be interesting.
VK: No, I would prefer some sci-fi tanks in a new movie by James Cameron – but not on CNN.
RPS: Do you ever feel bad about all of the tanks?
VK: The World War II tanks we have in World of Tanks, those are things of the past. That’s like, Roman Empire. Well, not quite Roman Empire but – those are things of the past.
RPS: If people were tanks and tanks were people, do you think that the people (formerly tanks) would ride us around (that’s the tanks, formerly people) and make us shoot each other and hold big shows about us and generally make us do all the dirty war things they wanted to do?
VK: Do you mean, would the Tank Race make a World of Humans game?
VK: I think if Pixar jumps in with the next big hit cartoon like – you know they have Cars? – but with tanks. You know, a small tank town called – I don’t know – Shermanville, and they had lady tanks and boy tanks and old veteran tanks with lots of medals who were teaching young arrogant tanks how to actually drive and shoot, and they’d have the smiles – like Pixar can make a car smile and have eyes – that would work.
RPS: Do tanks appreciate in value over time, like art? Or do they depreciate in value? For example, cars or vegetables.
VK: Here is the answer: I have my Maus tank. I like my Maus tank. I played maybe one and a half thousand battles with my Maus and it has a couple of medals which appreciate and thousands of other medals including very rare ones. If you tell me, “Here is ten thousand dollars” for my Maus, I would say no.
RPS: So tanks actually get more expensive?
VK: When you play with them. If you just have it and don’t touch it, then what’s the difference? But the beauty of World of Tanks is – I’m serious now – that there are all those gold and camouflage and things that you can buy for money but experience and medals and statistics you cannot. There is no way you can sell levelling up. So my Maus and its history and its battle record is worth… it’s priceless. Ten thousand? No. Fifty thousand? No.
RPS: Sadly, tanks are still perceived as a luxury item. But do you foresee a day in which all families own a tank?
VK: I’m sorry, I don’t understand…
RPS: Like 50 years ago not every family could afford a car.
VK: [Nods understandingly] I think we’ll go democratic, I mean ‘mass market’. So yeah, a six-year-old boy could start building his tank collection now. It’s like stamps. Twenty years ago you’d go and buy a twenty pence stamp which might today… or a bottle of wine! You can buy a new one today and in thirty years it would appreciate. If you don’t drink it. So, yeah. You should start building your tank cellar TODAY.
RPS: Ok, we are going to ask a series of ‘alternatives’ now and you must choose only one out of two possible answers. Ready? Tanks or fast cars?
RPS: Tanks or spaceships?
VK: … Spaceships.
RPS: Tanks or dinosaurs?
VK: Oh, tanks.
RPS: Tanks or the Large Hadron Collider?
VK: I’m a physicist myself and I am for the sake of humans going to the stars, so Hadron Collider.
RPS: Tanks or the first day of summer?
VK: I’m a very romantic person, so first day of summer.
RPS: Tanks or the cold side of a pillow?
VK: Oh no, tanks. Come on.
RPS: Tanks or a sense of uneasy yet inspiring awe?
VK: Tanks ARE awe. Tanks.
RPS: Tanks or an entire boxset of Indiana Jones movies –
VK: Ta –
RPS: NOT INCLUDING Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
VK: The last one right? The world of flying refrigerators? No. Still tanks. Wait, let me give you a hint. You will be the first one to get a hint, you will say you might not understand it but probably – most probably – there might be an Indiana Jones style “something” from Wargaming.
VK: Not a game. Not a game. But there is something brewing that people might say is in Indiana Jones’ style.
RPS: Hats for the tanks possibly?
VK: No no, you –
RPS: Whips for the tanks?
VK: No! You just quote me, you don’t know what it means, nobody will. But if it works out we can refer back to this interview. Okay, let me quote it officially… [concentrates]. Something might be brewing ‘Indiana Jones style’ related to our company.
RPS: Okay, that’s quite intriguing. So, tanks or a pleasant trip to Scarborough on a bank holiday weekend?
VK: Scarborough. That is something in England?
RPS: It’s a seaside town in the north of England.
VK: [covers the dictaphone] Off the record, who’d want to go to the north of England? Tanks. The Seychelles islands would be a tougher choice. Tanks.
RPS: Tanks or the smell of fresh rain on a hot day?
VK: Ah, I get so many smells of rain on a hot day. So, still tanks.
RPS: Tanks or world peace?
VK: … World peace.
RPS: Tanks for your time.