By Kate Kohn
The military in the time of coronavirus has put strip-mall recruiting centers on the back burner. With handshakes now the equivalent to launching plague corpses over the city walls, virtual recruiting is taking over the task of enlistment. But this recent shift does not send the Pentagon into uncharted territory. Rather, it vindicates the US Military’s decades-long dabbling in online games.
These games live in a strange and ghoulish space. While the general public has accepted the verdict that video games aren’t a pipeline to psychopathy, the military still thrives on the theory that they are. The US Military develop or support the creation of games like Tactical Iraqi and Full Spectrum Warrior to recreate battles, demonstrate new weapons, and train newbies. The Pentagon pitches these games like a weekend sleepover activity while simultaneously claiming that they reduce “several months of cultural training to 80 hours of computer-based training,” and make soldiers “learn from their mistakes more easily and faster” – things that appeal only to those whose primary concern with the military is that it could do things cheaper and with more polygons.
Regardless of their effectiveness, the military’s deepening involvement in our children’s lives have slipped by without sparking any debate so long as they ask the nation’s young to imagine the violence taking place in Noname-istan. Instead of school shooters, the government asks our kids to become aero-marksman, or whatever the technical term is for someone who shoots up schools in the Middle East.
C4 and Before: a short history
In 1997, the National Academies (then-National Research Council) identified a shared means, albeit to different ends, between the Department of Defense and the entertainment industry. The entertainment industry was interested in exploring new avenues for computer game graphics. The military was interested in training its soldiers. The result was the establishment of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California (USC) for the price of $45 million, which kept the military abreast of and involved in development of state-of-the-art simulation technology.
“We came to the conclusion that [the military] had a pretty good handle on training someone to shoot a gun,” ICT Chief Technology Officer William Swartout said about the project which he left to focus on the human element of military action. By 2007, ICT’s AI baby Sergeant Star was born.
Sergeant Star wasn’t exactly persuasive, nor was it even that impressive when you compare it to the animated gems Ratatouille and Meet the Robinsons that premiered in the same year. But the AI Sarge was plopped onto the GoArmy homepage to interact with would-be recruits, encouraging them to enlist and answering all their questions about enlisting. Although Sergeant Star was “incredibly handsome,” he wasn’t good at much else.
There were other military-sponsored games. America’s Army was conceived in 1999 by Colonel Casey Wardynski, the Army’s chief economist. He created the game with the mission of “using computer game technology to provide the public a virtual soldier experience that was engaging, informative and entertaining.” When the game was released, the deputy director of the game called the game a recruitment tool. Despite the public admission that it is a propaganda tool, the game proved popular at events like E3, and made it onto many best-of-show lists around the web.
America’s Army would cost the MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School a cool $7.6 million, an amount justifiable if the game brought in 300 to 400 recruits. Well, in 2003 it was one of the most popular online games, boasting over 2 million registered users. By 2007, there were over 8 million registered users, or 15 times larger than the count of active duty soldiers at that time.
(And you don’t need to be an American to play America’s Army. From the FAQ: “I AM NOT IN THE UNITED STATES, CAN I STILL PLAY THE GAME?
Answer: Yes, we have official servers in Europe as well! There are no restrictions on who can play America’s Army. We want the whole world to know how great the U.S. Army is.”)
Meanwhile, the ICT began developing its pièce-de-résistance-of-training-troops-to-suppress-resistance in 2000: Full Spectrum Warrior. That year, work began on advancing virtual simulation technology that would marry the military-entertainment-software-development complex. The idea of Full Spectrum Warrior, then codenamed C4, was to refine software game techniques, and create technology that complemented and enhanced existing training methods.
As development on C4 continued, the consumer model of the game began to look substantially different from the game that would be used as a training tool. The consumer version of the game, made for Xbox (since export restrictions prevented Sony’s Playstation 2 system from being used for military purposes) had a linear narrative, with limited options for exploring the world of “Zekistan.” The military version, accessible via cheat code, had a larger world to explore, but with less help. This version of the game was less centered on achieving goals as defined by story beats, but instead defined by its actively unhelpful attitude towards the player: AI characters would get in your way, your troops wouldn’t engage in friendly banter, and there were no helpful hints from helicopters above telling you where enemies stood.
Full Spectrum Warrior would go on to win Best Original Game at the Game Critics Awards in 2003, where critics praised its realism, saying “you felt like a reporter embedded with a US Army division as it maneuvered through a fictional Middle Eastern location”, attributing its high-fidelity to its conception “as a training simulator for the US Army.” And though FSW touts its military affiliations, it had a fine line to tread. ICT creative director Jim Korris said FSW “is not intended as a recruiting tool. There is a stipulation from the army that packaging and advertising for a commercial version does not express or imply any kind of U.S. Army endorsement.”
The equivocation wouldn’t matter. Full Spectrum Warrior stood out primarily because of its connections with the US Army. Games released in years prior, like Delta Force: Task Force Dagger, prided themselves on gameplay that was inspired by “real operations” and their devotion to details like uniforms and weapons. However, as Delta Force game designer Mark Long noted, his game “[left]the politics to the Department of Defense.” They weren’t interested in getting involved with bureaucracy and military propagandism, just as-realistic-as-possible depiction. Video games had been depicting war for years prior, enough that critic Ed Halter had called them “the next generation of wartime propaganda” in 2002, but the direct influence of the military meant that FSW represented a new generation of games that had the explicit intent to advance the Pentagon’s agenda.
As video games became an increasingly lucrative and productive industry, the Pentagon would more cautiously consider developing consumer video games. Moreover, private studios would outpace the capabilities of ICT and the Naval Postgraduate School quickly, encouraging the military to opt for licensing and consulting deals over creating from scratch. America’s Army would receive updates for the next ten years, as well as score a few sequels, all developed by the MOVES Institute. But where the military broke a few eggs, the entire video game industry got to scrambling.
The CODdling of the American Mind
Using people’s downtime pleasures as a participatory advertisement sours what little privacy we have left, but tell that to the Pentagon. A 2014 Call of Duty (COD) installment had a Pentagon adviser, and had the cooperation of military-adjacent individuals in order to craft a game meant to depict the future of warfare based on research the military was conducting at the time. What better way to speculate the future of warfare than to do so with the people who are creating that future? The development team even read up on private military contractors in order to create the ultimate experience. Can you really have a realistic war game without a little Blackwater?
But the military’s chief objective was not the faithful reproduction of the battlefield, especially its unpleasant byproducts. Case in point, the 2009 game Six Days in Fallujah never saw the light of day, despite being a cooperative effort between gamemakers and military advisers. The team developing the game, Atomic Games, interviewed over 70 military personnel on the battle, hoping to design a game that accurately recreated the psychological and emotional intensity of the real event. This unnerved many observers and “too soon”-ers pressured Atomic Games to drop the game. Its loudest critics say it was “particularly crass” and that the “horrific events” should be “confined to the annals of history.”
“Even worse,” a father of a slain Red Cap adds, “it could end up in the hands of a fanatical young Muslim and incite him to consider some form of retaliation or retribution.” Despite military-involvement, the tut-tutting of parents and public figures overwhelmed the developers. The popular criticisms of the game’s documentary content, accusing it of disrespecting the dead and those surviving them, forced the developer Konami to kill the game.
So instead of inserting themselves into triple-A games, the military has opted to create their own. The Air Force browser game Airman Challenge is polished and sleek. It could pass for any other webgame, only rather than a link to some now-defunct NewGrounds page, the links in the corner read “APPLY NOW” with USAF branding. Unlock achievements, climb the ranks, get your name on the global leaderboard –this isn’t any different from any game on MiniClip, save for the thousands of taxpayer dollars that went into its development.
“They say the world has changed,” opens the game. (Some might say “war never changes,” but go off I guess.) It’s crisp, with voiceovers talking to you like you’re the hottest shot straight out of the academy. There’s lingo, there’s the artistic crackle of an equalizer over the vocals. There are blurbs to teach presumably young players what an AC-130 gunner does. The game prompts players to “kill more insurgents to gain more points.”
It’s one of the more laughable recruitment techniques – video games, really? But it’s also one of the more grotesque, in its gamification of military strikes, divorcing attacks from casualties they cause, and ignoring any possible collateral of dropping missiles from 30,000 feet. For a military that struggles to consistently reach its recruiting goals, creative problem-solving is in high demand. Targeting Generation Z, by infiltrating their digital social and recreational spaces is the eleventh-hour recruiting attempt by a military who hasn’t met recruitment goals for years.
Army Recruiting Command leader Maj. Gen. Frank Muth credits his success in recruiting thus far in 2020 to breaking into the video games. The Army has made a push into esports advertising, as well as setting up booths where passersby at gaming conventions can challenge soldiers to virtual battles. In these booths, Muth recounted, “one soldier who was unbeatable, until a 9-year-old boy challenged him and won.” The average age of esports viewers is significantly older than 9, at about 25 according to Nielsen. That 25 is just over the cusp of Millennials and Gen Z. But letting that 9-year-old play is no mistake: “While the Army isn’t in the business of recruiting 9-year-olds, the experience left an impression.”
Guns of the Patriots
For decades, video game fans had faced an uphill battle trying to convince lawmakers and the general public that video games won’t and don’t turn your kids into school shooters. As recently as 2019, the US president has claimed that “gruesome and grisly” video games inspire mass shootings. The research shows otherwise, but the dominant narrative in policymaking suggests that video games lead to extreme antisocial behaviors, and military recruiting policy relies on those principles.
When Mortal Kombat didn’t turn us into a bunch of psychos (despite Joe Lieberman thinking it would) on its own merits, someone had to pick up the slack. If there is a chance that video games can turn our kids into killers, then that antisocial behavior can be repackaged as a social good if it’s under the auspices of an organization that prides itself on its myriad euphemisms for death and destruction. What is called terrorism within the borders of America is a surgical strike elsewhere, and someone has to pull the trigger.
There is a tactical and tactile advantage to using video games as a recruitment tool over, say, movies. Video games offer an outcome to an autonomous action. The game may have told you to press the A button, but you’re still the one that fired the gun. Movies on the other hand are passively watched and not played.. Having a player make decisions gives those decisions ownership, and therefore makes the rewards earned. If you can virtually rank up because you shot a few baddies, why wouldn’t you want to rank up for real by droning a few villages back to the Stone Age? You’re rewarded for meeting objectives, nevermind what damage those objectives cause.
This is all to say something went gravely wrong. Were not enough of our children dying? When we stopped worrying about how pocket monsters would turn us into monsters, did we forget all of the arguments that got us that far? It’s not caving into the fear-mongers to say, hey, maybe the way we kill things willy-nilly and get rewarded for it in video games is bad and we should think about it more. Video games could use a critical theory or two. But the scandals have all dissipated: parents who are wary of games are considered out of touch, backwards, like they would’ve thought Frankenstein was going to turn us into mad scientists back in the day.
The post-panic grace period didn’t last long. Video games these days never make headlines for violence, and controversy is only spoken about in industry magazines and blogs. The controversies that plagued gaming in the 90s no longer exist, like other antiquities like a successful Melissa Joan Hart show. The supposedly major Gamergate controversy hasn’t made a deep impression on those not terminally online. With all the huffs of Christian mothers out of the way, military-sponsorship of video games were an obvious way to take advantage of the growing audience and inject a dash of heroic patriotism.
Time to Ring the Town Alarm Bells
In July 2015, the DoD updated the 1988 Instruction 5410.16 to include “electronic games” in entertainment media eligible to receive DoD assistance, signaling that video games were a new frontier. By 2017, the Air Force had hired Active Theory to produce and launch the newest rendition of the Airman Challenge, for presumably thousands upon thousands of taxpayer dollars. Perhaps this sleek update to the 2013 game was the work of the AF Recruiting Service “innovation cell” who met to “find new ways to engage with the next generation of potential airmen.”
This policy change has come in handy in early 2020, as an international pandemic has shut down physical storefronts across the globe. The military has switched to “‘virtual’ recruiting” according to Gen. James McConville, “wooing recruits more aggressively through a variety of social media sites and other online activities.” Could this include online games? Duh.
Muth’s team knows video games are the next frontier, and that kids as young at 12 are perfect targets. They watch Twitch streams, they admire pro gamers, they sink hours and hours into Splatoon. But cartoon violence does not hone an edge. For the military to prey on young and younger people through their entertainment is ghastly. For them to build their recruitment strategy on the falsified idea that games will produce killers is downright ghoulish.
We spent so much cultural capital on debunking the school shooter myth that we’ve overcorrected. We lost the ability to be critical of the impact violent video games can have on young minds, be it because of “let people enjoy things” culture or the chilling effect of games criticism on a post-Gamergate society. The desire to not appear curmudgeonly, out of touch, or otherwise deserving of an “OK, Boomer”, has stalled the necessary conversation.
Video games have become so prevalent in our lives that there is as little escape from the medium as there is from film, television, or Billie Eilish. 67% of Americans play video games – from shooters, to emotional walking simulators, to every rip off of Bejeweled in the App Store. Military recruiting in entertainment is not new. But the government asking kids to use their fine motor skills to go from playing Fortnite to laying siege on Fallujah should raise more alarms.
Kate Kohn is a writer from Washington, D.C. She was previously national communications director for the Gravel 2020 presidential campaign. She has a B.A. in political theory and an M.A. in political communication and American politics from American University. You can follow her on Twitter @kathrwn.