Meet the Sims…and Shoot Them

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

February 22, 2010

The country of Ghanzia is embroiled in a civil war. As a soldier in America’s Army, your job is to do everything from protect U.S. military convoys against AK-47-wielding attackers to sneak up on a mountain observatory where arms dealers are hiding out. It is a tough and dangerous tour of duty that requires dedication, focus, and a bit of luck. Fortunately, if you get hit by a bullet and bleed to death, you can reboot your computer and sign on under a new name.

America’s Army is a video game — a “tactical multiplayer first-person shooter” in gaming lingo — that was originally developed by the U.S. military to aid in its recruiting and training, but is now available for anyone to play. Among the most downloaded Internet games of all time, it is perhaps the best known of a vast array of video game-based military training programs and combat simulations whose scope and importance are rapidly changing not just the video-game marketplace, but also the way the U.S. military finds and trains its future warriors and even how the American public interfaces with the wars carried out in its name. For all the attention to the strategic debates of the post-9/11 era, a different sort of transformation has taken place over the last decade — largely escaping public scrutiny, at modest cost relative to the enormous sums spent elsewhere in the Pentagon budget, and with little planning but enormous consequences.

These “games” range from the deadly serious, like programs designed to train soldiers in cultural sensitivity or help veterans overcome the trauma of combat, to the truly outlandish, like a human-sized hamster wheel that makes virtual-reality software feel more realistic. There are even video-game modules that teach soldiers about the perils of sexual harassment. All told, the U.S. military is spending roughly $6 billion each year on its virtual side, embracing the view, as author Tom Chatfield put it, that “games are the 21st century’s most serious business.”

The link between games and war goes all the way back to “boards” scratched onto the back of statues by Assyrian guards almost 3,000 years ago. Three millennia later, as the U.S. military recruits from, and is increasingly led by, a generation raised on Grand Theft Auto, real warfare is taking on the look and feel of a video game, from the aerial drones launching precision strikes at terrorists in remote hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the joystick-controlled robots defusing roadside explosives in Iraq. “The biggest change is that it’s gone from being unique to being ubiquitous. It’s everywhere now,” Mark Sinclair, a staff vice president at military contractor General Dynamics, told a U.S. Navy journal.

The Pentagon’s embrace of video games is part of a much larger phenomenon — “militainment” — that is reshaping how the public understands today’s conflicts. The term was first coined to describe any public entertainment that celebrated the military, but today it could be redefined to mean the fascinating, but also worrisome, blurring of the line between entertainment and war. For example, while America’s Army is technically a publicly funded recruiting and training platform, its main commercial rival is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game published by Activision Blizzard. The two games compete for market share, but also over who can better define contemporary war zones. In America’s Army, you deploy to the fictitious country of Ghanzia; in Modern Warfare 2, you join a U.S. special operations team that roams from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, winning hearts and minds (or losing them) with a mix of machine pistols and Predator strikes. The players also fight it out in a range of potential future areas of conflict, from Brazil’s rough urban favelas to a simulated Russian invasion of Washington, D.C. (This is actually a major flaw in the game; any invasion force would clearly get stuck in Beltway traffic.)

The stakes are high. Modern Warfare 2 came out on Nov. 10, 2009. By the end of the next day, it had racked up $310 million in sales. To put this in perspective, Avatar, James Cameron’s latest Hollywood blockbuster (notably following an ex-Marine remotely fighting through a video-game-like battle environment), earned a measly $27 million on its first day. Another comparison might be even more apt. Roughly 70,000 young Americans chose to join the U.S. Army last year. By contrast, 4.7 million chose to spend Veterans Day playing war at home.

And this is no mere American trend. More than 350 million people play video games worldwide, with the war-oriented sector perhaps the most important part of the global market. Modern Warfare 2 may have players join a U.S. special operations team, but one out of every 49 British citizens did so in its first 24 hours. Niche games have also amassed huge followings; in the polarized Middle East, Hezbollah-produced Special Force plays out an attack on Israeli soldiers, while Ummah Defense provides the vicarious thrill of taking on the U.S. military, Israeli settlers, and killer robots.

Reporting on militainment sometimes suffers from either an uncomfortable gee-whiz quality or blanket condemnation, when the story is far more complex. There’s much to be impressed by: The Pentagon is saving millions in training costs while creating a learning environment that can look astonishingly like the real thing, potentially saving real-world lives. But as the training and fighting — and even the public’s relationship with war — becomes ever more distant and virtual, there is also an emerging dark side to keep our (glazed-over) eyes on.

Be (Online) All That You Can Be

Like many innovations, America’s Army and the broader rise of militainment didn’t grow out of a grand strategic plan. Almost a decade ago, a group of U.S. Marines hacked the commercial video game Doom II to create “Marine Doom,” a software program that helped them teach urban warfare (instead of fighting the demons of hell, the Marine version has players team up to take out an enemy bunker). Col. Casey Wardynski, then a professor at West Point, was impressed by the program, as well as by the fact that his two teenage sons were fans of action video games. While researching how to build an increasingly high-tech U.S. military, he approached the Pentagon about making an online game as a recruiting tool. The idea stuck, and in 2000 the Army contracted the Naval Postgraduate School to create it.

After two years of development, the game, called America’s Army, was released at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a sort of annual pilgrimage for video-gamers that draws some 60,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center. What happened next surprised all: The Army didn’t just have a new recruiting tool, but an actual market hit. It quickly became one of the top 10 most popular games on the Internet, and within its first five years, some 9 million individuals had signed up to join America’s video-game army, spending some 160 million hours on the site and making it one of the top 10 of all video games, online or otherwise.

From the Army’s perspective, commercial triumph was secondary. Its goal was to recruit. And at this, too, the game proved to be a wild success. To log on to the game, you have to connect via the Army’s recruitment website and fork over your information. Gamers can also check out profiles of current Army soldiers and video testimonials of why they joined. Just one year after America’s Army was released, one-fifth of West Point’s freshman class said they had played the game. By 2008, a study by two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that “30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.” Notably, this is from a game that the Pentagon has spent an average of $3.28 million a year developing and promoting over the last 10 years — compared with the military’s roughly $8 billion annual recruiting budget.

Behind the success of America’s Army lies a story of entrepreneurship and good old-fashioned interservice rivalry. As one of the developers explained in an online forum, “The Navy started to get pissed at the Army because there was never any mention that the game was actually built within a Naval think tank.” So, with the Navy angry, the Army did the only logical thing: It brought in the French. Future versions of America’s Army were licensed to French game company Ubisoft, which also allowed the game to be used on Microsoft Xboxes — a breakthrough because it meant the game could penetrate a much wider marketplace. Ubisoft paid the Army $2 million upfront, plus 5 percent in royalties per game sold. The Army also kept its right to edit content; video games were becoming too violent even for the U.S. military. As Wardynski, the program’s originator who now directs the Army Game Project that administers it, told National Defense, the military wanted to ensure that it wouldn’t be “the sort of game where you tear off someone’s arm and beat them to death with it.”

Instead, America’s Army is meant to imbue potential recruits with traditional military values. To join, would-be video soldiers have to pass training sessions not only for the game but also for U.S. military systems, lingo, and values. Over time, they can go through added training to specialize in becoming anything from a Javelin missile operator to a Humvee driver.

Once in, players enter a virtual battle built around a scenario from recent real-world U.S. Army experience — in a squad with other online soldiers anywhere in the world. America’s Army has proven so popular globally that, with so many users signing on from Internet cafes in China, the Chinese government tried to ban it. Real soldiers play too, usually identifiable by the unit insignias listed in their gamer names.

The game itself isn’t just a regular shoot ’em up, but features an “honor system.” Those who cooperate the best tend to win the most, while the go-it-alone Rambo types tend not to last too long. Following the rules of engagement wins extra points, as does stopping to give medical care to your buddies. Commit a “friendly fire” incident, and you get banned from the server. If you log back on under that same account, your point of view is from behind jail bars in a virtual Fort Leavenworth military prison.

The game is not without its shortcomings, suggesting a far more antiseptic version of war than the real thing. Get hit by a bullet and there is only a tiny puff of pink smoke that quickly disappears. And the real world’s “fog of war” — the chaos, confusion, and mistakes in battle that Prussian überstrategist Carl von Clausewitz defined as an enduring feature of warfare — doesn’t cloud the game.

One scenario, for example, is built around a real battle during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A team of Green Berets was attacked by an Iraqi motorized infantry company backed by artillery, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. As the real-life Green Berets did, you can beat back the virtual Iraqis by deftly firing Javelin anti-tank missiles. However, the game leaves out the part when the Green Berets called in an airstrike. Instead of hitting the Iraqis, the plane mistakenly dropped a bomb on friendly forces, killing 17 U.S. troops and their Kurdish allies.

Virtual Vets

America’s Army quickly expanded from a potent recruiting tool into a valuable training system for soldiers already in the military. Military contractor Foster-Miller’s Talon robot, for example, is used widely in Iraq and Afghanistan to dismantle roadside bombs, the most deadly weapon used against U.S. troops there. The game’s Talon training module cost just $60,000 to develop, but took training in how to operate robots in war to a whole new level. “Prior to this, the only way to train was to take the robot and the controller to the trainees, give them some verbal instruction, and get them started,” Bill Davis, head of the America’s Army future applications program, told National Defense. “This allows them to train without breaking anything.”

But with these advances, it’s getting harder to figure out where the games end and the war begins. In Talon the game and the real-life version, soldiers are watching the action through a screen and even holding the very same physical controllers in their hands. And these controllers are modeled after the video-game controllers that the kids grew up with. This makes the transition from training to actual use nearly seamless. As one Foster-Miller executive explained to me, describing the game’s training package for the Talon’s pissed-off big brother, the machine gun-armed Swords robot, “With a flip of the switch, he has a real robot and a real weapon.” Because of “the realism,” he said, the company is finding that “the soldiers train on them endlessly in their free time.”

Such “serious games,” as the Army calls them, go well beyond the America’s Army series. One program trains aerial drone operators while Saving Sergeant Pabletti teaches some 80,000 Army soldiers a year what is and isn’t sexual harassment. This use of gaming extends across the entire experience of war. Virtual Iraq is being used at 40 clinics around the United States to help the thousands of veterans returning from war cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The game platform allows them to re-experience traumatic episodes in a safe environment.

These training tools are not just for raw recruits. For example, Gator Six is built around 260 realistic video clips that simulate many of the difficult judgment calls an officer might have to make in modern wars. Designed with the help of 20 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, it is broken into three parts: pre-deployment, combat, and transitioning into post-conflict.

The military is also turning to video games to help raise its soldiers’ cross-cultural understanding. Army 360 presents 11 “choose your own adventure” mission episodes that take place in present-day Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The player chooses from four or more decision paths at various stages in the mission, which ultimately lead to as many as 20 different outcomes. Produced by Ken Robinson, a 24-year Special Forces veteran, the game aims to prep soldiers for the real conundrums that they might experience when deploying into different cultures. For instance, upon hearing a burst of AK-47 fire, an infantry patrol leader might mistake a wedding celebration for an ambush, taking the game down a far more dangerous path.

Much like their civilian counterparts, military game designers are moving from two-dimensional screens and sitting behind simulator mock-ups to three-dimensional experiences that hit multiple senses. At the Institute for Creative Technologies, founded with a $100 million Pentagon grant and housed at the University of Southern California, the self-described mission is to tap the best of Hollywood to create “synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real.” Its Army leader training module, for example, builds off a scenario that has more than 300 pages of script, works in 75 characters, and was even coordinated with USC’s School of Theatre. The program sends trainees out wearing not just 3-D goggles, but also a “scent collar,” which sprays what one reporter described as “aromatic microbursts — of anything from cordite to spices.” One driving simulator is said to be so lifelike that the participants often unconsciously wave to virtual trucks that drive by. A few of the virtual drivers even get carsick. Another center for military gaming research — conveniently located just a short drive from Walt Disney World — bills itself as “a theme park on steroids.” It marries physical sets with virtual-reality projectors for an experience its creators dub “mixed reality.”

The Pentagon’s ultimate goal with all this gaming technology is to create “simulation on demand” for almost any military skill set. The concept is not unlike Neo’s kung fu crash courses in the movie The Matrix: When the military needs its people to learn something, it’ll be able to get personally tailored, realistic training instantly.

A good example is a tool for young officers called Self-Directed Learning Internet Modules, or SLIMs. They turn the latest military intelligence reports into packets that can be “played” by soldiers. Instead of just getting a briefing a few hours before a mission, the officer can virtually “play” what he might have to do in his real-world mission. For example, a Sadr City SLIM, layered on top of a 3-D map of the Baghdad neighborhood, is the game’s version of what a patrol there might entail. Kids come out and warn of a mine, and then the player has to figure out whether to believe them. A woman screams that the Americans killed her husband, and he has to decide how to respond. Hidden within the training are also lessons the Army wants the young officer to pick up. Taking digital photos and GPS locations of key sites, for example, bumps up the tally, and a “hearts and minds” score measures interaction with the public.

The collective effect is potentially revolutionary. Game-based training can be tailored to specific scenarios as well as to an individual’s own rate of learning, sped up or slowed down based on how quickly he or she acquires knowledge. The result is an enormous gain in efficiency. The Navy, for example, switched to such programs for its communications technicians and estimates that it saved some 58 man-years in training time. Virtual training is also appealing because it allows soldiers to learn and exercise their skills, again and again, without the accompanying physical risks. “Combat veterans live longer,” Col. Matthew Caffrey, professor of war gaming and planning at the Air Command and Staff College, told National Defense. “One reason we use war games is to make virtual vets.”

For the military as a whole, there are also tens of millions of dollars saved by conducting virtual training at the unit level. One recent war game, for instance, linked the crew of a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea, British and German submarines (docked in harbor, but the crews were on simulators), British airplane crews (sitting at simulators), and a set of Patriot missile batteries (working on practice mode). The players shared information and made joint decisions, just as if the exercise were real. The Navy estimates that its use of gaming at bases, in lieu of doing the same exercises at sea, saves it some 4,000 barrels of fuel a year, while simulated missile launches, rather than firing the real thing, save some $33 million annually.

Avatar Fatigue

Not everything about militainment is controversial: Who is going to complain, after all, about trying to find a better way to save soldiers’ lives, help trauma victims, or prevent sexual harassment? And as Maj. Gen. John Custer told Training & Simulation Journal, the world has changed: “You have to realize what generation you’re trying to teach. You know what? PowerPoint is not the way to go.”

But there are many concerns about what these dramatic changes mean for war’s future. With only so many hours in the day, some in the military worry that video games are beginning to edge out real-world training. Navy Capt. Stephen David complained in the service’s in-house journal that the virtual vets arriving aboard his ship lacked “the requisite familiarity with even the most basic shiphandling skills.” Others raise what is called the “O’Brien Effect,” referring to the time talk-show host Conan O’Brien challenged tennis champion Serena Williams to a match, only to defeat her on the Nintendo Wii. At some point, piloting a plane in combat is different from piloting a computer workstation, just as hitting a real tennis ball is not the same as hitting the Wii version.

The real danger of militainment, though, might be in how it risks changing the perceptions of war. “You lose an avatar; just reboot the game,” is how Ken Robinson, the Special Forces veteran who produced Army 360, put it in Training & Simulation Journal. “In real life, you lose your guy; you’ve lost your guy. And then you’ve got to bury him, and then you’ve got to call his wife.”

This is not just an issue for the military, but also for a broader public that has less and less to do with actual war. As Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, a mother who lost her son in Iraq, told Salon, “I’ve always believed when people participate in virtual violence, it makes the victims of violence become less empathetic and less real, and people become immune to the real pain people suffer.” But for most parents, having to send their children to war is not something they worry about, even as it becomes something that more of them play at.

At the same time, the nexus of video gaming, war, and militainment is growing even fuzzier with the rapid growth in unmanned systems that use video-gaming technology to conduct actual military operations (the United States now has some 7,000 unmanned systems in its aerial inventory and another 12,000 on the ground). Indeed, the executive at robot-maker Foster-Miller worries that it is becoming too fuzzy. “It’s a Nintendo issue,” he told me. “You get kids used to playing Grand Theft Auto moving on to armed robots. Are you going to feel guilt after killing someone?”

With more and more soldiers sitting at a robot’s computer controls, experiencing no real danger other than carpal tunnel syndrome, the experience of war is not merely distanced from risk, but now fully disconnected from it. One Air Force officer speaking to Wired’s Noah Shachtman about his experiences in the Iraq war, which he fought from a cubicle hundreds of miles away, described the feeling: “It’s like a video game…. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool.”

A commander of a Predator drone squadron based in Nevada probably best summed up to me the quandaries, for both the military and the public. A former F-15 pilot, the officer described the new generation of unmanned systems operators with awe. Years of video gaming had made them “naturals” in the fast-moving, multitasking skills required for modern warfare. But there was also a cost. “The video-game generation is worse at distorting the reality of it [war] from the virtual nature. They don’t have that sense of what’s really going on,” he told me. This might be the essence of this new era of militainment: a greater fidelity to detail, but perhaps a greater distortion in the end.

Every day, this officer heads off to virtual war. But when he comes home, he doesn’t let his own children play the many war games aimed at them. “We do the car ones instead.”