Video Game Veterans and the New American Politics

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

November 17, 2009

Inside the Beltway, the military, media, and pundits are all awaiting the president’s decision on the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But for more people outside, the decision for war has already been made. Virtual war that is.

“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” is the new video game phenomenon in which the player fights in contemporary conflict zones. As part of a US special operations team, the player roams everywhere from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, winning hearts and minds with a mix of machine pistols and Predator drone strikes. The players also fight out in range of potential new conflict zones, from the rough urban favelas of Brazil to a simulated Russian invasion of Washington, D.C., and the Virginia suburbs (This is actually a major flaw in the game; any invasion force would clearly get stuck in traffic at the Interstate 95 Mixing Bowl).

The game came out on Nov. 10. By the end of the next day, it had $310 million in sales. To put this into comparison, the recent Batman movie “Dark Knight,” which holds the Hollywood record, did a measly $67 million in its first day. But perhaps another comparison might be more apt. Roughly 70,000 young Americans chose to join the Army last year. But 4.7 million chose to spend the day after they bought the game playing war at home, many of them not even realizing they were doing so on Veterans Day.

“Call of Duty” is just one of the many popular “first person shooter” games. Indeed, one of its main competitors is “America’s Army,” in which the player also gets to virtually experience contemporary war without leaving his basement. But while “Call of Duty” was developed by the Infinity Ward company for profit, “America’s Army” was developed by the U.S. military to aid recruiting. To log onto the game, you have to connect via the Army’s recruitment Web site and give them your information. The gamers can also check out profiles of current Army soldiers and video testimonials of why they joined up.

Finding your future warriors via a video game sounds a bit too much like the plot of the 1984 film “The Last Starfighter.” But it works. The Army has found it, according to testimony to Congress, more effective at recruiting than “any other method of contact.” Indeed, a 2008 study by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers 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.”

Once in the force, our current generation of warriors uses video gaming technology in all sorts of ways, from training with the Packbot robot, which is guided using a version of X-box controllers ruggedized for battle, to how to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder after the fight, with treatment now occurring in virtual worlds like “Second Life.”

For the Pentagon, to hitch a free ride off of the video game industry is actually quite savvy. Gaming companies have spent tens of millions of dollars developing technologies designed to re-create battle, as well as easy for the average teen to use. More importantly, these teens enter the military already “trained up” in a certain way. I recall meeting a commander of a Predator drone squadron, a former F-15 pilot, who described the younger generation of remote drone pilots with awe. They had less training and experience than him, but he felt their years of video gaming had made them “naturals” to the fast-moving, multitasking nature of modern warfare.

But that same Air Force colonel had other concerns. “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 really going on.” He went on to tell that he thought the virtual nature of the games, which gave such skills, also made it harder for some to weigh the consequences of their acts. “It teaches you how to compartmentalize it.”

As the president weighed a war, but most of the public went virtual war gaming on Veterans Day, I thought about his statement, and how perhaps it better applied to our nation. Perhaps the warning label on the boxes should include something other than a parental advisory of drug references and strong language.