The Romance of Military and Gaming

Dan Crabtree discusses the symbiosis between video games and the military.

This may be an obvious point to most, but gaming and the military, particularly in the United States, have a lively relationship. I don’t mean that they share entirely symbiotically or that they are deeply or inseparably connected with each other. Rather I mean that it’s hard to look at video games, especially the hugely popular FPS genre, and not see the distinct imprint of Army brass or Navy steel all over each weapon, storyline, or character. And simultaneously, the military is getting surprisingly comfortable with gaming technology as a means of recruitment and training, and has been for the past decade.

Gamers tend to use knowledge like this to justify gaming, like the scores of studies proving that gaming improves mental aptitude, dexterity, etc., like we’ve found some missing link between man and the digital universe. I’ve seen articles touting the “important realism inherent in X military shooter title,” as if there are actual Army Rangers with a regenerative health system. So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking anything ridiculous like that. Real men and women serving in the military for whatever country are in real danger, and the stakes are infinitely greater, which is something video games should never attempt to capture, however fascinating or intriguing it might seem to a civilian. (I am admittedly in the very category I criticize, a big fan of “military media” in most any capacity, just to be clear.)

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

But what are the real implications of gaming’s relationship with soldiers in uniform, and why should we care? The most obvious implication is that as warfare evolves, so will games about warfare.  As sci-fi as games like Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, with active-camo, deployable shoulder rockets, may seem, those kinds of technologies are actually being developed for militaries across the world right now. (Okay, maybe not the Predator-style shoulder rockets, but definitely the active camo.) And games like both Modern Warfare and Bad Company titles will likely stay on par with whatever technology takes front and center on the initial lines of combat.

More importantly, though, is the effect it has on the social perception of war and the military. In short, video games romanticize war. I know, I played “No Russian” too. Yes, military shooters are gritty, and show some of the darker shades of war, much like a number of WWII movies or the more recent portrayal of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Hurt Locker. But media doesn’t have to paint a pretty picture of war to make it appealing. It just has to attract its audience in a relatable, perhaps emotional, and inspiring way, which most AAA FPS titles accomplish.

Want evidence? How about America’s Army, the $20+ million game development project by the United States Army for the purposes of not only training, but recruiting young men and women into the Armed Forces. The Army figured that by producing a game where players assumed the role of a soldier in situations very similar to that of “civilian” military shooters, it could attract gamers to take their perceived prowess in combat to actual combat arenas. And in fact, the project has worked. And it’s spawned a whole new way for all the branches of the military to look at training processes.

Mission Rehearsal Exercise

As early as 2001, the U.S. military was developing multi-sensory digital training exercises like Mission Rehearsal Exercise, or “Real War.” The simulation puts soldiers in front of a 150-degree screen with surround-sound audio and even emits smell simulations “including burning charcoal.” Since then, the technology has become even more sophisticated, to the point where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones can be controlled remotely using interface controls and displays initially created for gaming, which most gamers are likely to know through the Air Force commercial showing off that very innovation. The military is pulling to get gamers on board mostly because more than half of the U.S. population plays video games in one form or another, which means they are a big pool to draw from. That’s even more true with teenage and 20-something gamers who are prime candidates for recruiting into the military.

The generals, admirals, commanders, and other high-ups know that countries like the U.S., England, and Japan love their video games, and they’re trying to capitalize on it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? And in turn, society becomes more enthralled by the perception of military and especially military combat that media like gaming glorifies. That is, except for those who disagree with gaming in general (see Obama’s graduation speech remarks). For this segment of media consciousness there is still a vast canyon dividing the violence of shooter video games and the real-life heroics of actual soldiers. And it should be noted that such a canyon absolutely exists, and should be made apparent. But if the military itself is trying to use the “uber-violent, corrupting shooter games” in order to attract new soldiers, is it really so bad?

I’m certainly not making an argument that the ends justify the means, or that violent video games always make gamers want to join the military. The case can be made, however, that because of the vibrant relationship between these two very distal entities, military and video gaming, both have reaped positive consequences, and that’s a synergy worth preserving despite the often graphic content it implies. Media concerning the actions of soldiers will always govern public perception on the topic, whether it’s news coverage, a radio announcement, an action movie, or an interactive digital experience. If gaming can occupy a healthy, constructive space in that dynamic, and also lend a hand in return, the relationship will remain for generations to come, even as warfare and digital warfare continue to evolve. Right now, it seems that balance has been achieved, at least to some extent. The real question is: What’s next?

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