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The United States military is deeply involved in the world of gaming, with a focus on recruiting teenagers.
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The United States military is deeply involved in the world of gaming, with a focus on recruiting teenagers.

I

In a compact space within a US naval base near Memphis, Tennessee, soldiers are seated at their desks, intently watching screens and communicating through headsets with precise efficiency. Their workstations are equipped with advanced technology, designed for carrying out military operations and organizing tactics – but not for managing fleets positioned around the globe. Instead, these servicemen and women are engaged in playing virtual games. Through their headsets and screens, they aim to motivate aspiring young gamers.

“In 2019, we conducted a thorough analysis of our spending and took into consideration the preferences of the next generation,” states Lieutenant Aaron Jones, leader of the navy’s esports team, during our visit to his office. A naval press officer stands nearby. “This is their preferred platform,” Jones adds. “Be it Twitch, YouTube, or Facebook Gaming, this is where their interests lie.”

The group of navy members known as Goats & Glory participate in esports, competing with other gamers online. The team is made up of 12 enlisted sailors who have various backgrounds, including flight officers, sonar techs, and a chaplain’s assistant. According to a spokesperson from the navy’s recruiting command, the navy sets aside 3%-5% of its marketing budget each year for esports initiatives. This equates to a budget of up to $4.3 million from October 2022 to September 2023, as revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request for budget information.

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Since 2018, the US military has increased its utilization of gaming as a recruitment tool, a crucial move given the current challenges in recruiting for the all-volunteer armed forces following the Vietnam War. This approach of targeting gamers aligns with the military’s goal of appealing to the young, technologically savvy demographic. However, some veterans have expressed concerns that promoting the military through video games, essentially gamifying warfare, is unethical.

The main worry is the youthfulness of the military’s gaming demographic. Minors, some of whom are under 13 years old, are drawn to online gaming platforms, and the military strategically takes advantage of games that attract them. If the military’s recruitment tactics are effective, these children and teenagers may eventually utilize the abilities they developed while playing their favorite games for warfare purposes, such as operating drones to carry out remote killings.

I had a conversation with a 12-year-old gamer named Katie K who spends several hours each day watching livestreams of others playing violent games on YouTube and TikTok Live. The idea of fighting for her country interests her and she believes it would instill better discipline in her. She also finds it exciting to imagine all the people who would be grateful to her for serving.

The truth is vastly dissimilar.

“I served in a country where the citizens struggle to survive on less than $1 per day, while equipped with massive weaponry and armored vehicles,” recalls Jeremiah Knowles, a former intelligence analyst for the US Army. “And when I’m out on patrol in Afghanistan with my assault rifle, if a child gets too close…” He trails off. “That’s not something they advertise. It’s not a topic on their Twitch streams.”

The armed forces are participating in online games and also implementing them in educational settings.

In the late 1990s, the military was struggling to meet their recruitment goals. To address this issue, the army created a video game targeted towards a younger audience. A colonel in charge of the project explained to Corey Mead, author of War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict, that a person’s career aspirations are formed at a young age, around 13 years old, rather than at 17. The game, America’s Army, was a resounding success. Mead notes that the military and game industry have a mutually beneficial relationship, with the military providing resources to game developers in exchange for incorporating pro-military storylines.

In 2018, the military established its initial esports team, however, it faced allegations of unethical recruiting methods during its Twitch broadcast. These accusations included deleting inquiries about war crimes from the chat and conducting a deceptive Xbox controller giveaway. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested prohibiting recruitment through Twitch, but the proposal was not approved. The army halted their streaming on Twitch, but continued to use gaming as a means of recruitment.

Currently, the United States military utilizes various gaming platforms such as Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, and Discord to promote its content. The army and navy have created esports teams that organize tournaments for popular games among youth, such as Fortnite and Valorant. Additionally, the air force and coast guard have also established their own esports teams, while the US Marine Corps has partnered with gaming influencers like TheWarOwl and Melonie Mac for recruitment purposes. According to interviews with young gamers, they have been exposed to recruitment ads that resemble the graphics of their favorite games. Joshua Silva, a specialist for the navy esports team, mentions that they received over a million views on Twitch last year.

It is required for individuals to be at least 13 years old in order to utilize social media platforms like Twitch and YouTube. Users under the age of 18 must have parental consent. However, these age restrictions can be easily circumvented.

Many 13-year-olds within the online gaming community are beginning to develop their views on the US military. Kaitlynn Considine, a former marine linguist, cites her 13-year-old brother as an example. According to her, “He is still a very young child and his brain is not yet fully developed.” She explains that his understanding of the military is based on her own experience and he finds her pictures with equipment fascinating.

Considine is a participant in Gamers for Peace, a branch of Veterans for Peace that opposes the use of video games for recruitment purposes. She expresses concern over the potential influence of military Twitch streams and sponsored content from popular influencers on her brother, as well as targeted recruiting advertisements. While she acknowledges the necessity for the military to promote itself, she recognizes that military service may be the most viable option for some young adults.

“I am unable to deny someone’s opportunity to join, especially if they are in a financially unstable position. However, individuals should have a clear understanding of the responsibilities that come with joining,” she explains. “Regardless of your role, you are expected to support the military’s goal of taking lives. Even if you never physically engage in combat, you are still a crucial part of the mission.”

The majority of members in Gamers for Peace are former soldiers in their 30s and 40s who have been playing video games their whole lives. They recognize the impact that video games can have on young individuals, as well as the weight of serving in the military. Jeff Parente, a US Marine Corps veteran who has been deployed three times, expresses his frustration: “As someone who grew up playing a lot of video games, it really bothers me. There are many young children who watch Twitch to see others play video games, and to think that the military is targeting these kids who may not know any better…”

The military enlists individuals who are at least 17 years old. This involves signing a binding agreement. The military may still reach out to and communicate with minors for recruitment efforts.

Katie, who is 12 years old, has viewed gaming streams from military channels a few times, but has not come across any recruitment advertisements. She enjoys playing first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty, where players can immerse themselves in combat through the perspective of their character. She describes it as “fun to shoot things.” While she recognizes that the game is not completely realistic compared to actual warfare, she believes that the use of real guns and the healing mechanics are fairly accurate.

Selecting games that attract adolescents is a key factor in the military’s recruitment strategy. According to Silva, shooter games are the most prominent genre among players. Additionally, the navy’s esports team makes a deliberate effort to play Rocket League, a popular racing and sports game among high school and university students. During my visit to the Memphis facility, I observed Goats & Glory hosting a Fortnite championship, a third-person shooter that is extremely favored by young adults and kids Katie’s age. In fact, Fortnite’s popularity is so immense that it will soon be integrated into the Disney/Pixar/Marvel/Star Wars universe. (Interestingly, Katie’s preferred weapon in Fortnite is the combat SMG, which stands for “sub-machine gun”.)

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A video shared on Instagram last autumn shows a member of the navy esports team placing a Meta Quest VR headset on a young student’s head in an elementary school library in Utah. The child excitedly plays with the headset, mimicking punching motions, as images of naval ships appear on the screen. The visuals display the messages, “United States Navy: where gamers excel” and “Press start to defend!”

The practice of military recruiters speaking to children in schools became more widespread in the 2000s after the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which granted military access to school campuses. In 2008, the ACLU brought to the attention of the United Nations that the US military was breaking international conventions on children’s rights by aggressively recruiting students under the age of 17 on high school grounds. In response, the state department reaffirmed the military’s age policy and stated that recruiters were not allowed to use any forms of coercion or deception. However, the UN expressed concern and made recommendations for better recruiting practices.

Jordan, a 20-year-old who prefers to use a fake name in case he decides to enlist in the military later on, recalls the time when the military visited his high school in Mineola, Texas in March 2021 during his junior year.

“They had a standard trailer, similar to the ones we use for band,” he explains, “and inside, each station had a separate area where everyone could play a game.” He remembers that the army provided a variation of America’s Army called Proving Grounds. “Everyone was eager to play the game – but not necessarily to enlist in the military.”

Sheena Young, a former member of the air force and a member of Gamers for Peace, also had recruiters visit her high school. However, she noticed that they were not actively engaging in conversations with students. Instead, they had a table set up in the cafeteria and students had to approach them. Sheena believes that when young children watch gamers on platforms like Twitch, they are not likely to approach a recruiter. This is because they are in a different virtual space.

According to Knowles, a member of Gamers for Peace, there is a lack of adult supervision in online gaming spaces, unlike in high schools. Knowles, now a licensed social worker at a university, primarily works with young adults. He points out that these young adults look up to streamers and are heavily influenced by them. However, when it comes to military recruiters on Twitch streams, they are only presented with a limited perspective of the military world.

At age 17, players begin to notice recruitment strategies.

From childhood, Amber Cronin has found pleasure in observing skilled streamers play her beloved games, such as TheWarOwl, a Twitch streamer with 1.46 million followers on YouTube. As a 21-year-old studying computer science, Cronin has dedicated over 800 hours to playing Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter that offers the option to join either the terrorist or military/police team.

At the age of 18, Cronin became aware that TheWarOwl had uploaded a series of videos showcasing his training with the marines for 100 days. He aimed to demonstrate his gaming skills in comparison to the real-life battles that marines engage in and win for their country. Recently, during her last year of school, Cronin noticed that the algorithm was recommending recruitment videos to her while she was browsing through YouTube Shorts. Despite not directly promoting joining the army, Cronin explains from her dorm room at Worcester Polytechnic Institute that these videos attempt to entice viewers with the allure of cool activities such as mid-air refueling and skydiving while shooting guns.

In March, Cronin was approached directly by a marine recruiter, who inquired about her interest in attending Officer Candidates School.

When young people reach the eligible age of 17 to enlist in the military, it is likely that they have already been exposed to advertisements promoting video game recruitment. Bodhi B, a 17-year-old, states that he frequently receives military ads on YouTube while watching his preferred gaming content. Bodhi and his twin brother, Dashiell, currently in their final year of high school in suburban Massachusetts, have been playing games like Rainbow Six Siege and Counter-Strike since the age of 12. Dashiell adds that he often sees the army sponsoring tournaments and teams in popular games like Valorant.

According to the military, virtual gaming platforms offer a chance to engage in valuable discussions with adolescents.

According to Jones, the team captain of the navy esports team, a recruiter in high school wearing a uniform is instantly recognizable. When competing against us, opponents may be surprised to find out that we are just regular people, with the same interests and passions as them.

The navy makes it clear that their team members are not considered “recruiters”. Following criticism of the army’s questionable actions on Twitch, the navy has made changes to their streaming practices in order to avoid similar backlash. Jones explains that the team discusses military life during streams, but they are also trained to redirect anyone interested in joining the navy to a designated recruiting website where they can communicate with an official recruiter.

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Jones explains that when they first began three years ago, much of the negativity they witnessed was a result of the army’s influence and tactics.

According to Jones, each member of the navy team is required to attend a recruiting orientation unit to acquire fundamental public speaking abilities. Afterward, the team receives additional public affairs training at the esports center, including instruction on team terminology and how to moderate a Twitch stream.

Jones states that it is necessary to clarify to viewers of the Twitch stream that they are not robots, but rather human beings. He reassures them that he will not harm them and dispels the misconception that soldiers are only trained to kill.

According to him, Goats & Glory aims to be seen as the equivalent of the Blue Angels in the world of esports. The Blue Angels are a naval aerobatic group that showcases their skills at air shows and sports events. They simply showcase their flying abilities without actively recruiting for the navy. However, their performances generate interest and curiosity about the navy among spectators.

The reality of combat

Moses Lemann, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Pittsburgh, frequently receives recruitment advertisements that resemble his beloved video game franchise, Battlefield. He notes, “It appears as though they are copying the visual style of the game,” as the ads replicate the loading screen of Battlefield, complete with a topographic map and instructions for players to select their class. Lemann further observes, “It’s obvious that they’re trying to capitalize on that, making the military seem similar to choosing a class in Battlefield.”

After the conclusion of the cold war, major military powers such as the US have shifted their focus away from traditional forms of combat and towards “asymmetric warfare”. This strategy involves utilizing advanced technology to overcome adversaries with less resources. In order to maintain their technological advantage, the US military seeks to recruit individuals with specific abilities such as attention to detail, problem-solving under time constraints, and determination in the face of obstacles, as outlined in the navy’s recruitment handbook for potential candidates.

According to Jones, the navy seeks individuals who are highly skilled in technology, specifically those with a STEM background, to assist with tasks such as handling nuclear weapons or IT-related tasks. He also mentions that being an avid gamer demonstrates an inherent understanding and interest in technology.

The Virginia-class attack submarines utilize Xbox controllers to control photonic masts, and certain combat vehicle controllers have a similar design to Nintendo 64 controllers. Additionally, there is a noticeable similarity between piloting combat drones and playing video games. Although drone pilots may reject this comparison due to the emotional strain of remotely operating a machine that causes harm to others, studies have shown that gamers are highly skilled at this task.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that video games do not increase violent tendencies in individuals. However, Dr. C Shawn Green, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asserts that playing games can enhance perceptual and cognitive abilities. The Office of Naval Research supported Green’s research on how specific games, particularly shooters, can improve warrior performance. According to Green, these games involve rapid speed and frequent “transient events” that appear and disappear on the screen. This can lead to improvements in visual perception and higher levels of cognition, such as working memory.

But video games can’t fully convey the psychological toll of combat, the moral injury, or even the physical toll. “I remember wearing the armor,” says Knowles. “You’re adding 80lb on to your body, you have seven magazines across the front of your body, and then you’re carrying your 8lb M4. Heaven forbid you have a grenade attachment, which adds another 5lb to your rifle. And then you have to try and get in and out of an upper armored Humvee in a combat zone while you’re getting shot at. That’s not in Call of Duty.”

realistic video game image of man in fatigues with gunView image in fullscreen

As the possibility of conflicts with Russia, China, and in the Middle East increases, having personnel is crucial for maintaining combat readiness. However, the military branches are in a frenzy as the Department of Defense reported that they fell short of their 2023 recruiting goals by 41,000 recruits, despite lowering their goals. The military states that many young individuals are unable to serve due to weight issues, drug use, or criminal records. Others believe that recent media coverage about racism, white supremacy, and sexual violence within the military, along with flaws in the US’s veteran support system, the aftermath of the US’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ideological opposition to war, have led to young people being hesitant to join the military.

However, when recruiting teams enter gaming environments where there are children and teenagers, their goal is to capture their attention and depict military life as glamorous, or downplay its realities, according to Young from Gamers for Peace.

The military does not disclose the effectiveness of video game recruitment, but the teams view it as a successful strategy.

In December 2021, the air force introduced an internet-based “Aircade” featuring video games that simulate “real-world skills used by airmen”. For instance, in Command the Stack, players can operate aircraft in an augmented reality mission simulator created from satellite imagery. Maj Oliver Parsons, the founder of the air force/space force esports team, reports that some individuals have told him they joined the air force because of Air Force Gaming. He believes that this initiative has made the Department of Defense more relatable and improved its reputation.

Silva states that the presence of the esports team in the navy has greatly benefited their interactions with young individuals. He and Jones highlight Goats & Glory’s recent achievements, such as collaborations with popular streamers and esports leagues, showcasing sailors playing Madden NFL with professional athletes, and hosting their own competitions. Jones adds that their 2022 tournament in Denver was one of the biggest amateur League of Legends events in North America. The navy plans to enhance their Memphis facility to create a more advanced esports center in the upcoming year. Jones expresses his enthusiasm for the potential addition of a stage with extra seating.

The marines have not utilized esports as a means of recruiting. While there is a Marine Corps Gaming team, it does not serve as an official representation of the branch. A communication officer from the US Marine Corps stated their reservations in 2020 about incorporating video games into the serious decision of joining the military.

the system

One alternative method to manipulate the system

Gaming in the military has a broader purpose than just recruitment. It has the potential to enhance mental well-being and foster a sense of community, both of which are important areas for the military to address. This is especially crucial as having mentally healthy soldiers can lead to better ethical choices. Additionally, the military’s willingness to invest in gaming can have positive effects, such as providing funding for virtual reality therapy to help treat trauma in veterans.

Parsons, along with other airmen, initiated Air Force Gaming as a grassroots effort. He believes that participating in esports can enhance mental toughness throughout the military division. He shares that a drone operator, who was struggling with their mental health, confided in him, saying, “If it wasn’t for my Overwatch team and the connections I made with airmen and guardians from around the globe, I may not have made it through.”

According to experts such as Considine and Knowles, children and adolescents do not possess the maturity to fully understand the gravity of joining the military or the impact of active duty.

Cronin, a student studying computer science, was recently introduced to the concept of military propaganda in a history course at college. He initially asked about the modern form of military propaganda and why traditional posters are no longer used. He was informed that advertising, captivating videos, and social media are now the main methods of spreading military propaganda.

At this time, she has no current intentions to join the military. Despite feeling pressure from her career and financial situation, she is not as inclined to consider enlisting as she was when she was younger. She explains that as she has gotten older, her views on the military have become more discerning.

  • Funding for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Individuals under 18 years old are identified by their first name and last initial.

  • For those in the United States, you can contact Mental Health America by calling or texting 988, or by chatting on their website 988lifeline.org. Another option is to text MHA to 741741 to reach Crisis Text Line. In the United Kingdom, you can reach the charity Mind at 0300 123 3393 and Childline at 0800 1111. In Australia, support is available through Beyond Blue at 1300 22 4636, Lifeline at 13 11 14, and MensLine at 1300 789 978. For those outside of these countries, a list of international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

Source: theguardian.com