Inside the long-running Pentagon debate: Do gamers make 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 battled it out on an unlikely battlefield: “Halo Infinite,” a popular first-person shooter video game. More than half a million people tuned in to watch the Air Force win the first-ever Army Interservice Gaming Championship.

At the event in San Antonio, competition and camaraderie were celebrated. But as military leaders began to embrace the game, it sparked controversy. For years, gaming in the military 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 fighting force. .

Senior Pentagon officials are increasingly accepting the game, facing recruiting challenges and a talent pool that has grown with iPads and video game controllers. Every branch of the military now has an esports team, military gaming league sponsorships are on the rise, and service members can easily flock to military-created Discord channels and chat with thousands of friends. others for their love of games like Call of Duty and Halo.

But some leaders are skeptical of the game, arguing it weakens new recruits and robs them of basic training. Moreover, the army received heavy criticism from 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, foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Embrace the culture and generation they are in right now…and use that as leverage on the battlefield, but [it’s] not something to exploit in recruiting.

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The military has a long history with games. In the early 2000s, the Department of Defense invested millions of dollars in the creation of a shooter video game called “America’s Army” that allowed people to pretend to be soldiers, carry out missions and explore other aspects of military life. The game became a hit, with millions of players. Research commissioned by MIT in 2008 showed that about “30 percent of all Americans ages 16 to 24” had a more favorable view of the military because of it.

But while other military-style shooters, like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, have become much higher quality, the Pentagon’s version’s popularity has waned. With the rise of online games, military officials recognized that they needed a more innovative approach. Twitch, an Amazon-owned online platform used for live gameplay was on the rise. Servicemen started playing games like Call of Duty, “Valorant” and Halo while interacting with large audiences and touting military life, according to reports.

At the same time, the military relied on technology to shape its future. Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and automated and unmanned weapons have required recruits with increasingly technical skills. In February, the Office of Naval Research unveiled a study showing that playing first-person shooters might actually create a better fighter. According to the researchers, playing these games 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 with the Office of Naval Research’s Department of Combatant Performance. “Ten hours of video games can change the structure and organization of a person’s brain.”

Despite this, other service members have disapproved of the gaming culture. In February, Army Maj. Jon-Marc Thibodeau, chief of medical preparedness at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, decried video games as the reason why young recruits are physically unfit for the army. “The skeleton of the ‘Nintendo Generation’ trooper is not hardened from activity prior to his arrival,” he said in a statement. “So some of them break more easily.” (The Ministry of Defense later withdrew its remarks from the statement.)

Capt. Oliver Parsons, Air Force officer and founder of Air Force Gaming, said soldiers benefit from formalizing gaming initiatives. According to a survey of 35,000 Airmen, more than 86 percent aged 18 at 34 identified themselves as players.

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Parsons said fostering a culture where gaming is accepted as a hobby is necessary to foster mental health during the pandemic and retain talent. ” We are not Robots. We’re normal, average people,” Parsons said, adding that if the military doesn’t get the culture of the game accepted, the soldiers will “go somewhere else.”

Since 2019, when Parsons emailed a two-star general about building a gaming community in the Air Force, the branch has arguably become the leader in promoting gaming culture. .

To recruit recruits for the Halo Military Championship in San Antonio, the Air Force held an internal tournament with 350 players among its Airmen to find its best players. The top eight members were sent to San Antonio, where hired game coaches whittled his team down to the top four members. (Parsons didn’t provide the budget for his gaming initiative, but Air Force spokesman Armando Perez said travel orders for gaming tournaments are often funded by a unit of Airmen. .)

Rod Breslau, an industry consultant, said he was concerned about the military’s involvement in esports and gaming. Over the past few years, Breslau said he and others, including Jordan Uhl, have been tracking how the military uses streamers on Twitch to promote military life, stifle conversations critical of the armed forces on government-backed gaming channels and easy access to a swimming pool. young viewers to shape their perception of war.

The military faced intense scrutiny over this in 2020, including when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sponsored a House amendment to ban the military from using Twitch to recruit who doesn’t. was not adopted. “War is not a game,” she said on Twitter. “We shouldn’t confuse military service with ‘shoot-em-up’ style games and contests.”

Breslau noted that since then “the heat has definitely died down” and allowed the military to resume its esports initiatives and sponsorship of external gaming leagues, causing major concern for the future among doubters.

“The bottom line is that the US government is using these sponsorships, and these Twitch streams and all these tools…for recruiting,” Breslau said. “People have to recognize that this is the end game.”

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