‘War is not a game’: How video games became military recruitment tools

Written by Gaurav Bhatt
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Published: August 2, 2020 8:31:23 pm





Military Games Military shooter games are used as a way to continue combat training, when not on active duty. Using games to teach tactics and strategy is also an age-old practice, which actually began with military-themed board games.

exPress Start is a weekly online column on the intersection of gaming and culture. Level up with Gaurav Bhatt every weekend as he explores the creative and competitive sides of video games.

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“Imagine trying to explain to your colleagues who are members of Congress what Twitch is,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Thursday while the US House of Representatives was voting on her proposal. The amendment was to ban the military from using online gaming platforms for recruitment and it was presented by the democratic socialist Ocasio-Cortez with the words: “War is not a game.”

“…I believe we should restrain and restrict ourselves from explicitly recruitment tactics on platforms that children are using to play games from Animal Crossing to Call of Duty,” Ocasio-Cortez, aka AOC, said on the floor. “We can not conflate war and military service with this kind of gamified format.”

None of the 188 Republicans voted in favour of the 30-year-old’s amendment, while 103 of her Democrat colleagues voted against it. The final tally was 126-292.

Rep. Pete Visclosky (Democrat), spoke out during the debate — “The United States Military is a very special place…we oughta cast a very wide net to encourage young Americans to serve their country in the military” — while another Democrat representative Max Rose was outraged by the amendment.

“This is incredibly insulting as it perpetuates the limousine liberal trope that soldiers are idiots who only get duped into enlisting,” Rose, a 33-year-old Afghanistan War veteran, told The New York Post.

Is the issue immediately insidious? Perhaps not. It is, however, discomforting enough to demand a discourse.

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US Army, Navy and Air Force all have esports teams and channels on major streaming platforms like Twitch. The live streams aren’t intended for mature audiences even though the games played are war simulations such as Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Escape from Tarkov.

There’s nothing wrong with soldiers playing video games. Machinist’s Mate-ranked Andrew Crosswhite said as much during a US Navy stream: “We’re here to show that we like video games too. Like, literally, we’re not here to recruit. That is not the point of this.”

Then a few days later, Vice website’s Matthew Gault discovered Navy Recruiting Command Twitch Guide for Streamers — a handbook that says, “Everything done on social media should be aimed at making connections between prospects and recruiters.” Guidelines include “talk about the excitement of your Navy career” and “ban trolls.”

That last bit is important. How exactly do the military streamers define troll? For one, anyone who brings up war crimes. In the Navy stream chat, the name “Eddie Gallagher” is a banned term. Gallagher is a former Navy SEAL who was found guilty of inappropriately posing for a photograph with an enemy corpse in the war zone.

Liberal political advocate, Jordan Uhl posted a link to the Wikipedia page for US war crimes in the chat. He was barred from watching the rest of the US Army stream, but not before the military gamer told Uhl: “Have a nice time getting banned, my dude,”

“Was I undiplomatic? Sure. But if the military is going to use one of the world’s most popular platforms to recruit kids, then it shouldn’t be able to do so without some pushback,” Uhl wrote in a column for The Nation. “Right now, with the support of Twitch, gamers with the US military are spending hours with children as young as 13, trying to convince them to enlist.”

Twitch allows users to ban miscreants, but it is a little complicated when it comes to government agencies on public forums. Just like US President Donald Trump is restricted from blocking people on Twitter, the Army and Navy esports teams blocking users was a violation of free speech, and prompted several first amendment lawyers to send letters to the agencies.

Then there was the ‘giveaway’. The Twitch users in the US Army’s channel were frequently notified of an opportunity to win an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller, a high-end gamepad that costs upward of $200. Such giveaways are age-old marketing gimmicks, but clicking on the link led users to a page with no mention of the contest or winners, only a recruitment form.

While the US Army esports has taken a leave of absence to “review internal policies and procedures”, the Navy has continued to stream and their Twitch bio continues to read: “Other people will tell you not to stay up all night staring at a screen. We’ll pay you to do it.”

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In June, the Brazilian Army’s Joint Chief Staff launched ‘Mission Olive Green’ — a plan to develop an FPS video game to “create positive impressions of the Army, especially among the 16-to-24-year-old demographic.”

China’s People’s Liberation Army released its own state-sponsored FPS ‘Glorious Mission’ which has been used to recruit potential soldiers as well as educate current PLA troops. The game recreates the details of firearms, uniforms, and vehicles used by the PLA. Then in 2017, the PLA Daily wrote an article about the adverse effects of a mobile game called ‘Honour of Kings’.

“The game has already infiltrated … the daily lives of some soldiers and officers, affecting (their) physical and psychological health on a certain level”, the article said.

Closer home, the Indian Air Force launched an official mobile game titled ‘A Cut Above’, The game — which features a pilot with an uncanny resemblance to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was captured and released by Pakistan last February — was nominated for Google’s User Choice Awards.

military ‘Indian Air Force: A Cut Above’

Indian Air Force: A Cut Above’s description on Play Store reads: “The official mobile gaming application of the IAF will allow an aspirant to experience first hand the roles of an IAF air warrior, as well as means to apply and appear for recruitment from the comfort of his/her mobile phone.”

But nobody is more plugged in than the United States.

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US military streams get prominent placement on the Twitch homepage. They are sponsors and partners with some of the top esports outfits and competitions.

The foray into the digital space began in 2018 when it missed the annual 70,000 recruitment goal by 6,500 — the largest margin since 2005. The expensive TV commercial, including Super Bowl spots, were ditched and advertisement money was poured into esports and streaming platforms. The same year, 8,000 Army soldiers gave a trial for esports team with a chance to earn regular pay playing video games and recruit.

The pandemic this year meant a sharp drop in face-to-face recruitment drives, and the military again pivoted hard to Twitch streams.

“We need to reach youth where they are, which is online, on social media, playing e-sports,” Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of the Army’s recruiting command, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

But soft recruitment has been around since 2002, when Army developed a free-to-play FPS called ‘America’s Army’ to “provide the public a virtual soldier experience that was engaging, informative and entertaining.”

The game, which spawned five sequels, came at the height of America’s ‘War on Terror’ and was used by recruitment and training centres. The missions were based on real-life skirmishes.

Then there are AAA titles like the Call of Duty series, which has sold over 250million copies and has raked in $15bn sterilising the horrors of war. Critics have often referred to such video games as ‘militainment’.

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Games and simulators have also long been part of the training programmes. Tank crews use Close Combat Tactical Trainer and Advanced Gunnery Training Systems to simulate virtual environments. And troopers use online games which simulates various military equipment.

Military shooter games are used as a way to continue combat training, when not on active duty. Using games to teach tactics and strategy is also an age-old practice, which actually began with military-themed board games.

But what about training gamers to be soldiers?

In 2014, US Navy launched Project Architeuthis — a puzzle-solving game on social media to attract potential cryptologists. One year earlier, an alphabet-based Vigenere cypher was used to portray “a positive image of the Navy.”

The changing nature of war is also suited for the unconventional pool of candidates. A shortage of trained operators means the US Air Force is training enlisted airmen to fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) drones. And the apparatus would be familiar to a gamer. According to a 2017 study, gamers who had flight simulation experience may make better drone operators than even general aviation and military pilots.

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The current debate is raging not because US military is turning to unconventional recruitment drives, but because of the denial mode. And while AOC’s amendment was nixed, there’s already another in the pipeline that would block federal funds from being used on recruiting in middle and high schools.

“Whether through recruitment stations in their lunchrooms, or now through e-sports teams, children in low-income communities are persistently targeted for enlistment,” AOC told New York Times. “In many public high schools where military recruiters have a daily presence, there is not even a counselor. As a result, the military stops feeling like a ‘choice’ and starts feeling like the only option for many young, low-income Americans.”

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