“Watch a 12-year old take evasive action and score multiple hits while playing Space Invaders, and you will appreciate the skills of tomorrow’s pilot.” – Ronald Reagan
It’s late and I should be working, but I feel compelled to stay up and kill terrorists.
I’m flying over a Middle Eastern city in a black hawk helicopter at night, so I had to use thermal vision. From so high above the town, it’s hard to distinguish the enemies from the civilians. I don’t even know who I’m looking for.
Suddenly we take on fire from all directions. I fire back with intense focus, and take them out one by one. My heart races, and I start to smile. My smile quickly turns sour and I have to put the controller down.
These games are getting too real.
(Caption: Call of Duty’s “Death from above” mission, with actual AC130 combat radio chatter)
It’s sickening what little difference there is between this level on Call of Duty, and what a soldier experiences in a real battle. The worst part is, I’m completely indifferent toward the death and destruction that I’m causing.
It feels like I am being recruited, and that’s because I am.
Call of Duty is only one of the video games that the US Army has collaborated with to design a new line of video games that will aid with training and recruitment. The most famous of these being America’s Army, a game developed by the pentagon to help recruit younger generations.
The Army had a sever drop off in recruitment’s, and needed a way to bring in a younger generation, so on the 4th of July, 2002, they launched a $3.5 million dollar a year campaign to create a free Internet game, which you can still download here.
The game ranks in the top 10 downloadable games of all time. It has been downloaded more than 16 million times, and a 2008 study by MIT found that, “30 percent of all Americans between 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game”
In fact, the game has had more impact than all other forms of Army advertising combined, and it ranks as the second-likeliest reason for people to enlist, surpassed only by being a child of a military family.
With the success of America’s Army, the recruiting process changed, and the Army began to set up gaming centers in malls. The Army Experience Center in Philadelphia cost taxpayers $12 million for 80 video-gaming stations, a replica command-and-control center, and Black Hawk helicopter and Humvee combat simulators.
It even had a “chill out zone” where kids could hang out on couches and listen to rock music that filled the space.
The center was open to anyone over the age of 13. As Marsha Berry, executive producer of America’s Army 3 explains, “We wanted kids to be able to start playing at 13. If they haven’t thought about the Army by the time they get to 17, it’s probably not something they’ll do.”
The game was designed for kids because they want to hook them when they are young. When it was designed, many of the ideas were taken from the popular FPS, Counterstrike, and it was built on the Unreal engine, indicating that the US Army knew exactly the demographic America’s Army would target.
The blood was taken out of the game so they could reach a younger audience. “We were very careful on the blood thing,” says one of the game’s developers. “There are no sound effects when players are shot; only a small red blotch appears, similar to a paintball hit. The sanitizing of violence aids marketing efforts by earning the game a “T for teen” rating.”
The Army even models their controls for remote-controlled weapons like the Predator and Pacbot after Xbox and PlayStation controllers. “We know that most of our soldiers know how to use a game pad,” said Michael Macedonia, chief scientist at the Army’s Program for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation. “Every kid figures out the controls pretty fast.”
There are obviously some problems with this style of recruitment because war is not a game, and when it is treated as a game, the consequences are taken away. “The video game generation is worse at distorting the reality of war,” explains one Air Force colonel. “Although they may be more talented at operating predator drones, they don’t have a sense of what is really going on.”
One of the major reasons that these recruits are oblivious to what really happens in war is because video games only really allow for “shoot first, ask questions later” type of training. Shooting first is always the highest priority in a war game, but there is no experience of the consequences.
Sgt. Geoffrey Millard describes an incident in Iraq where an “18 year-old kid on top of an armored Humvee with a .50- caliber machine gun” was sitting at a checkpoint. “This car speeds at him pretty quick and he makes a split-second decision that that’s a suicide bomber, and he presses the butterfly trigger and puts two hundred rounds in less than a minute into the vehicle. It killed the mother, a father, and two kids. The boy was aged four and the daughter was aged three.”
This is where you start to see war being fought like it is a game, and the worst is brought out in soldiers. In 2007 two Reuters employees and several innocent civilians were shot down by an American Apache helicopter attack. The soldiers thought that they were shooting at enemy combatants.
The footage looks surprisingly like the Call of Duty game. “It seems like they are playing video games with people’s lives,” says Wikileaks chief Julian Assange, who is responsible for uploading the video. This is because, as Benedict Carey, a reporter for the New York Times says, “in a morbid but necessary sense, they were.”
Military training is fundamentally an exercise in overcoming a fear of killing another human. To think about the ‘enemy’ as nothing more than an object that should be destroyed, facilitates the aggressiveness and one-track mentality that helps win wars.
China is realizing how well this propaganda works, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have designed their own game to compete (literally) with America’s Army. It is called Glorious Mission (also known as Mission of Honor), and in this version we are the enemy.
That’s right; China’s recruitment video game has America as the bad guy. The propaganda is anything but subtle, and more than alarming. When young Chinese recruits come to think of Americans with a “shoot first” attitude, it starts a precedent that is hard to undo.