MOD / WIRED
In 2002, the United States military developed and released a free-to-play video game called America’s Army, a first-person shooter designed to give gamers a taste of life as a soldier. The early versions of the game focussed more on strategic gameplay than Call of Duty or other commercial titles, centring instead on things like the rules of engagement on the battlefield and the administration of field medicine.
It was a hit. By 2005, some 40 per cent of enlisted soldiers said they’d had previous experience with the game, and by 2018 America’s Army, and its more Call of Duty-influenced sequel America’s Army Proving Grounds, had been tried by more than 15 million players.
It is one of the most successful recruitment tools the US army has ever produced, according to Nick Robinson, an associate professor in politics and international studies at the University of Leeds, and an expert on the political and social consequences of video games. A survey conducted in 2003 ranked the game fourth in a list of things contributing to favourable awareness of the US army – behind the war in Iraq, homeland security, and tensions with North Korea.
But events since 2002 have taken some of the shine off military service – and forces the world over are having a tough time recruiting soldiers at all. The United States is falling thousands short of its target. In the UK, some army units are as much as 40 per cent below strength, according to figures obtained by The Guardian.
In an attempt to plug the shortfall, military leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to attract young people to sign up or apply for adjacent roles in communications and engineering. And, again, they’re turning to video games – targeting gamers on social media, putting together their own esports teams, and working with big streaming platforms to change the army’s image.
“The history of game-based recruitment is extensive,” says Robinson. As well as America’s Army, the US army, navy and air force each have their own esports teams, for instance – and until recently ran popular live streams of recruits playing online video games. It’s not just national forces either – a decade ago, Hezbollah’s media wing released Special Forces and Special Forces 2, both of which were similar in style and aim to America’s Army although built without the benefit of access to US development tools like Unreal Engine.
British strategies, Robinson says, tend to be derived from the tactics being employed in the United States – which has a bigger budget and more opportunity to create bespoke products like America’s Army, which costs several million dollars a year to run. “The British moves are much more clunky than the US,” Robinson says – because of budget, and because the UK military tends to be more tentative than the US.
The British army has targeted games in the past, though. In 2009, it launched an online, “Doom-style” video game as a landing page for people who’d seen its TV advertisements. The games were positioned as tests of the skills that would be required to be a good recruit: observation, problem-solving, intelligence and so on. In 2019, it launched an advertising campaign that riffed on the famous Your Country Needs You posters from the World War II to target ‘binge gamers’ and ‘phone zombies’.
In February 2019, the army was criticised when it produced a supplement which was distributed with the official PlayStation and Xbox magazines – and accused of targeting children (although, Robinson points out, both titles did have a 16+ age rating). And, in June this year, it awarded a £121,000 contract to broadcast company Ayozat, to produce four live-streamed events on platforms such as Twitch and Mixer, aimed at improving engagement with the online community.
More recently, esports teams have begun to spring up in the UK Armed Forces too – although these seem to have risen organically from soldiers in individual barracks rather than being centrally organised. That said, in April, the army launched its first esports event, where various military teams took each other on at Counter Strike: GO.
Part of this is about demographics – armies need young people, and young people like video games and platforms like Twitch. Advertising on those platforms is simply a more cost-effective way of reaching the right people than countless Made in Blyth television adverts.
But there’s also a skill-based element. “The army has realised it needs gamers, they have mental determination and agility, excellent problem solving skills,” said major Tim Elliott – who has been credited as the “driving force” behind the growth of esports in the army – after the recent esports competition (which was won by the army). “No matter what your cap-badge or rank, every soldier needs these skills in the modern battlefield.”
As warfare changes, with more widespread use of drones and remotely piloted tools, video game skills are becoming more relevant. “Increasingly now weapons systems are remote, which requires a huge amount of informational processing,” says Robinson. Esports competitions add an extra layer. “To be effective in an esports team, you have to communicate effectively with very clear instructions, and take those instructions and deliver on them.”
Militaries are increasingly using simulations and games – often based on commercial titles – as part of their training, although it can never quite replicate the real thing. “Life in the military involves a lot of hanging about, while a game is a very arresting and exciting thing,” says Robinson. When soldiers talk about the experience of the battlefield, Robinson says, the smell of death and warfare is something that often gets mentioned which can’t (yet) be replicated in a game.
As the British armed forces expands their recruitment drive into video games, they are likely to face resistance. Protests against the military’s use of video games date back almost as far as the practice itself. In July, the US army was forced to suspend live streaming after being criticised for potentially targeting children, and for banning people who posted negative comments – arguably a breach of their constitutional rights. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tried to get an amendment through Congress that would have banned the military from recruiting on Twitch, but failed to win the vote.
When America’s Army was launched, one player – artist Joseph DeLappe – began spamming the game by typing in the names of each American soldier who had been killed in the then-ongoing Iraq war. “This game exists as a metaphor, not wanting us to see the carnage, the coffins coming home. It’s been sanitised for us,” DeLappe said at the time. “It’s to entice young people to possibly go into a situation that would be almost the complete opposite, completely terrifying.”
It’s a complicated ethical dilemma – but as Robinson points out, if you want a military, it has to recruit somehow.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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