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What does Call Of Duty have to do with real-life war? A lot, it would seem

From targeted recruitment to games used to treat PTSD, the ties between warfare and commercial gaming grow ever stronger – and some militaries have even launched their own esports team.

What does Call Of Duty have to do with real-life war? A lot, it would seem

Call Of Duty. (Photo: Activision)

Young soldiers entering the Israeli Defence Force’s latest tank prototype might find the interior oddly familiar. Tablet screens glow in the darkness displaying a map, ammunition and weapons, imitating the interfaces of contemporary shooting games. In place of a military-grade joystick, they drive the tank using an Xbox controller.

This juxtaposition of war and play may seem chilling, but it is hardly new. The sophisticated relationship between the gaming industry and the military, sometimes dubbed the “military-entertainment complex”, stretches back decades. 

Men are dressed as soldiers to promote the video game Call Of Duty Black Ops 3 Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters/Reuters

The US military has explored the potential of game-like combat simulators since the 1980s. Today’s “virtual training devices” range from tank gunner simulators so large they must be transported in shipping containers, to Engagement Skills Trainer, testing marksmanship and “shoot/don’t shoot decisions”, and Virtual Afghanistan, which is so immersive it has been used to help veterans suffering from PTSD revisit their trauma as a form of exposure therapy. 

The early games built for military training, such as 2004’s Full Spectrum Warrior, were deemed too unrealistic to be practically useful (though the game did later enjoy success when released as entertainment).

Today, however, commercial gaming has outstripped the military’s own projects in sophistication. Virtual Battlespace, used to train thousands of troops sent to Afghanistan, is adapted from the commercial Arma series, popular for its realism.

Meanwhile military recruiters in the US and Europe doggedly target gaming communities, perceived as desirable for their quick reflexes, tactical thinking and interest in new technologies. Last year a British army advert targeted “binge gamers” with a TV spot and a 66-page gaming magazine supplement explaining “why the army loves your nonstop, button-mashing skills”, part of a new campaign which helped the army hit its recruitment target for the first time in six years. The US military went further by creating America’s Army, a full video game designed for recruitment which launched in 2002 and was downloaded 1.5m times in the first six months of release. 

The most striking new avenue for military recruitment is the world of competitive gaming, or esports. The Dutch and British militaries have launched their own esports teams in order to raise their profile among an attractive demographic.

The US military sponsors several esports competitions and has developed a significant presence on video streaming platform Twitch, which reports it has 28m users a month and reaches 80 per cent of teenage males in the US.

The use of Twitch as a military recruitment tool has drawn criticism for deliberately targeting minors, prompting congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to file a measure in congress last month to ban the US military from streaming games for recruitment purposes. The measure was ultimately voted down. The description on the US Navy’s Twitch page still reads: “Other people will tell you not to stay up all night staring at a screen. We’ll pay you to do it.”

Gamers play the latest Call of Duty Video game during the Game XP event at the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sep 7, 2018. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP)

War remains an attractive subject for developers of commercial games, with military series such as Call Of Duty and Battlefield becoming regular bestsellers. These tend to adopt a positive view of military operations and US overseas engagement – games, still largely seen as entertainment products, struggle to counterbalance jingoism with the horrors of war as we might expect in films or literature.

Even so, playing games that reward brutality does not make us killers. For his 2004 book Generation Kill, journalist Evan Wright embedded with a group of young American soldiers entering Iraq in 2003, describing how, rather than being desensitised by their childhoods spent playing violent games, they were in fact traumatised by real-world bloodshed, discovering “levels of innocence that they probably didn’t think they had”. 

Most troubling is not when games feel like war, but rather when war is made to feel like a game. Xbox controllers in tanks might not be the focus here – joysticks were used in military operations long before they were adopted for games consoles – but we should question killing machines which are deliberately designed to dehumanise their targets.

Consider the drone pilot, practically a gamer, carrying out an assassination using a controller and a TV screen, operating in a space so abstract and distant it might as well be virtual. Because however much the targets in our very real crosshairs resemble the pixelated baddies we’ve dispatched by the thousand, no press of a button will allow them to respawn.

By Tom Faber © 2020 The Financial Times