In the Pentagon’s long debate: are gamers good soldiers?

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In May, the US military created a new rivalry. In a seven-hour twitch stream, Air Force and Army soldiers fought on an unlikely battlefield: Halo Infinite, a popular first-person shooter video game. Over half a million people tuned in to watch the Air Force win the military’s first-ever Inter-Service Gaming Championship.

The San Antonio event celebrated the competition and camaraderie. But as military leaders have begun to turn to gaming, it has met with controversy. For years in the military, gaming was simply a soldier’s hobby, but now it’s morphing into a strategic, well-calculated initiative that many see as a way to recruit, retain, and train America’s armed forces.

With an increasing acceptance of gaming, senior Pentagon officials face recruitment challenges and a talent pool that grew up with iPads and video game controllers. Every branch of the military is now fielding an e-sports team, military sponsorship of gaming leagues is increasing, and military members can easily flock to military-created Discord channels and share their love of games like Call of Duty with thousands of others and chat halo.

But some executives are skeptical of gaming, arguing that it debilitates new recruits, causing them to drop out of basic training. Also the military has been heavily criticized by gaming pundits and lawmakers for using gaming channels and influencers to subtly recruit a younger audience.

“It’s a fine line,” said Amy J. Nelson, a Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow. “To embrace the culture and the generation they’re in now… and use that as leverage on the battlefield, but [it’s] nothing to exploit in recruiting.”

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The military has a long history of gaming. In the early 2000s, the Department of Defense poured millions of dollars into developing a shooter video game called America’s Army that allowed people to pose as soldiers, fight missions, and explore other aspects of military life. The game became a hit, with millions playing it. A study commissioned by MIT in 2008 showed that about “30 percent of all Americans between the ages of 16 and 24” had more positive opinions about the military because of this.

But as other military-style shooting games, such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, became far superior in quality, the popularity of the Pentagon version waned. With the advent of online gaming, military officials realized they needed a fresher approach. Twitch, an Amazon online platform used for live streaming of gameplay, was on the rise. Military personnel began playing games like Call of Duty, Valorant, and Halo while interacting with large audiences and promoting military life, news reports show.

At the same time, the military relied on technology to shape its future. Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and automated and unmanned weapons all required recruits with increasingly technical skills. In February, the Office of Naval Research presented a study showing that playing first-person shooter games could actually make a better fighter. Playing these games, the researchers say, could improve cognitive processing, peripheral vision, and the ability to learn tasks better.

“People who play video games process information faster,” said Ray Perez, a program officer in the Office of Naval Research’s Warfighter Performance Division. “Ten hours of video games can change the structure and organization of a person’s brain.”

Despite this, others in the military have frowned upon the gaming culture. In February, Army Maj. Jon-Marc Thibodeau, chief of medical preparedness at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, denounced video games as a reason for the physical unfitness of young military recruits. “The soldier skeleton of the ‘Nintendo generation’ is not hardened by pre-arrival activities,” he said in a statement. “That’s why some of them break more easily.” (The Department of Defense later removed his comments from the statement.)

Capt. Oliver Parsons, an Air Force officer and founder of Air Force Gaming, said Soldiers are benefiting from gaming initiatives becoming more formalized. According to a survey of 35,000 aviators, over 86 percent between the ages of 18 and 34 identified themselves as gamers.

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Parsons said fostering a culture where gaming is accepted as a hobby is necessary to boost mental health and retain talent during the pandemic. “We are not robots. We’re normal, average people,” Parsons said, adding that soldiers “will go elsewhere” if the military doesn’t embrace gaming culture.

Ever since Parsons emailed a two-star general about starting a gaming community in the Air Force in 2019, the industry has arguably been at the forefront of promoting gaming culture.

To recruit for the military’s Halo Championship in San Antonio, the Air Force hosted an internal 350-player tournament among its Airmen to find its best players. The top eight members were sent to San Antonio, where hired game coaches sifted their team down to the top four members. (Parsons did not provide the budget for his gaming initiative, but Air Force spokesman Armando Perez said travel assignments for gaming tournaments are often funded by an air unit.)

Rod Breslau, an industry consultant, said he’s concerned about military involvement in esports and gaming. Breslau said that over the past few years he and others, including Jordan Uhl, have followed how the military has used streamers on Twitch to promote military life, quell conversations critical of the armed forces on state-supported gaming channels, and easy access to a pool received from younger viewers to shape their perceptions about the war.

The military came under scrutiny for this in 2020, particularly when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supported a House amendment to ban the military from using Twitch for recruiting that failed. “War is not a game,” she said on Twitter. “We shouldn’t confuse military service with shoot-em-up-style games and competitions.”

Wroclaw noted that “the heat has definitely eased” since then, allowing the military to resume its esports initiatives and sponsorship of outside gaming leagues, causing skeptics major concerns for the future.

“The bottom line is that the American government is using these sponsorships and these streams on Twitch and all these tools … for recruitment,” Breslau said. “People have to realize that this is the endgame.”

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