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Inside the Pentagon’s long debate: Do gamers make good soldiers?

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In May, the U.S. military created a new rivalry. In a seven-hour Twitch stream, soldiers from the Air Force and Army fought on an unlikely battlefield: “Halo Infinite,” a popular first-person shooter video game. Over a half million people logged on to watch the Air Force win the military’s first interservice gaming championship.

At the event in San Antonio, the competition and camaraderie were celebrated. But as military leaders have begun to embrace gaming, it has come with controversy. For years, gaming in the military was simply a soldier’s hobby, but now it’s transforming into a strategic, well-calculated initiative many see as a means to recruit, retain and train America’s fighting force.

Senior Pentagon officials are becoming more accepting of gaming, facing recruiting challenges and a talent pool that grew up with iPads and video game controllers. Each branch of the military now fields an esports team, military sponsorships of gaming leagues are on the rise and service members can easily flock to military-created Discord channels and chat with thousands of others about their love of games such as Call of Duty and Halo.

But some leaders are skeptical of gaming, arguing it weakens recruits so they wash out of basic training. Moreover, the military has received fierce criticism from gaming experts and lawmakers for using gaming channels and influencers to subtly recruit younger audiences.

“It’s a fine line,” said Amy J. Nelson, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Embracing the culture and the generation where they’re at now … and using that as leverage on the battlefield, but [it’s] not something to exploit in recruitment.”

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The military has a long history with gaming. In the early 2000s, the Department of Defense poured millions of dollars into creating a shooting video game called “America’s Army” that allowed people to pretend they were soldiers, fight missions and explore other aspects of military life. The game became a hit, with millions playing it. Research commissioned by MIT in 2008 showed roughly “30 percent of all Americans age 16 and 24” had a more favorable view of the military because of it.

But as other military-styled shooting games, such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, became far superior in quality, popularity for the Pentagon’s version waned. With the rise of online gaming, military officials recognized they needed a fresher approach. Twitch, an online platform owned by Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post), and used to live-stream gameplay was on the rise. Military members started playing games such as Call of Duty, “Valorant” and Halo while interacting with large audiences and touting military life, news reports show.

At the same time, the military was relying on technology to shape its future. Augmented reality, artificial intelligence and automated and unmanned weaponry called for recruits with increasingly technical skill sets. In February, the Office of Naval Research unveiled a study showing that playing first-person shooting games, could actually create a better fighter. Playing those games, researchers said, could improve cognitive processing, peripheral vision, and the ability to learn tasks better.

“People who play video games are quicker at processing information,” said Ray Perez, a program officer in the Office of Naval Research’s Warfighter Performance Department. “Ten hours of video games can change the structure and organization of a person’s brain.”

Despite that, others in the military have frowned upon gaming culture. In February, Army major Jon-Marc Thibodeau, chief of medical readiness at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, decried video games as a reason for why young recruits are physically unfit for the military. “The ‘Nintendo Generation’ soldier skeleton is not toughened by activity prior to arrival,” he said in a statement. “So some of them break more easily.” (The Defense Department later removed his remarks from the statement.)

Capt. Oliver Parsons, an Air Force officer and the founder of Air Force Gaming, said that soldiers benefit from gaming initiatives becoming more formalized. According to a survey of 35,000 airmen, over 86 percent between the ages of 18 to 34 identified as gamers.

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Parsons said it was necessary to foster a culture where gaming was accepted as a hobby to foster mental health during the pandemic and retain talent. “We’re not robots. We’re normal, average people,” Parsons said, adding that if the military doesn’t make gaming culture accepted, soldiers are “gonna go somewhere else.”

Since 2019, when Parsons dashed off an email to a two-star general about creating a gaming community in the Air Force, the branch has arguably become the leader in fostering gaming culture.

To field recruits for the military’s Halo championship in San Antonio, the Air Force held an internal tournament with 350 gamers among its airmen to find its best players. The top eight members were sent to San Antonio, where hired gaming coaches winnowed down its team to the best four members. (Parsons did not provide the budget for his gaming initiative, but Air Force spokesperson Armando Perez said travel orders for gaming tournaments are often funded by an airmen’s unit.)

Rod Breslau, an industry consultant, said he is worried about the military’s involvement in esports and gaming. Over the past few years, Breslau said he and others, including Jordan Uhl, have tracked how the military used streamers on Twitch to promote military life, stifle conversations critical of the armed forces on government-backed gaming channels and get easy access to a pool of younger viewers to shape their perceptions about war.

The military received scrutiny for this in 2020, most notably when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) sponsored a House amendment to ban the military from using Twitch to recruit that failed to pass. “War is not a game,” she said on Twitter. “We should not conflate 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 skeptics great concern for the future.

“The bottom line is that the American government is using these sponsorships, and these streams on Twitch and all these tools … for recruitment,” Breslau said. “People need to recognize that is the end game.”

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