gaming for your country

For the last few years, the Pentagon has been warning that recruitment of new personnel, especially among Gen Z and younger millennials, has been dropping.

For a couple of years now, the Pentagon has raised a growing concern for the U.S. military: Recruitment levels are dropping pretty fast.

The Pentagon is particularly focused on recruitment levels for younger millennials and Gen Z. Recent surveys support this concern – a 2022 survey of military families found that the number of military personnel and veterans who would recommend that someone join the armed forces has dropped while a Department of Defense survey that asked young people to gauge how likely it is that they will serve in the military, only 11% responded positively.

Those responses have caused the military to invest in new strategies in their efforts to meet young people where they are hanging out – in gaming rooms and other gaming locales.

The military hasn’t been ignoring the gaming culture for all these years – over the last 20 years the Pentagon has been promoting  its own game --America’s Army which enjoyed significant success as a multiplayer shooter that aimed to encourage a desire to serve in the armed forces. It was discontinued early this year but the military continues to collaborate with game makers on other projects including creating modified versions of successful video games for training purposes.

Game designers have even been recruited to Washington think tanks to pursue military strategy modifications and innovations.

New Era

The relationship between the military and the gaming world is nothing new. But as military recruitment drops, the military has begun to look at esports, streaming and gaming (not Grande Vegas online casino) as a way to interest  potential recruits in military service.

One of the ways in which the different branches of the military is trying to draw new recruits is through their pro-esports teams.  All branches of the military have pro-esports teams and there’s a space force too. These teams compete with other military teams, civilian pro-esports teams and even teams from other allied countries’ militaries. The different branches sponsor tournaments to promote their presence and give them more opportunities to meet young people.

The military teams stream on Twitch in an effort to recruit but this has proved to be controversial. Links with messages such as “Sign up to win!” that led to recruitment forms have been criticized.

Now, although the Twitch streaming continues, the objections of critics who feel that using such recruitment tactics on youth as young as 13 is unethical. One criticCongresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, tried to get Congress to pass an amendment to a fiscal bill that would have made it illegal for the military to use video games for recruitment purposes.

The amendment was overwhelmingly voted down but it drew attention to the practice. Military personnel have also tried to censor commentators who criticized the army on its streams but constitutional issues regarding free speech squashed that effort.

Gamers as Soldiers

Do gamers make good soldiers? The military thinks that they may make the best soldiers yet and it’s investing significant resources in using gaming for recruitment, training and retention.

One of the U.S. military’s biggest efforts to  encourage engagement came in May of this year when esports teams from the Army and the Air Force met in a 7-hour Twitch stream where they competed in the Halo Infinite first-person shooter.

The online meeting drew over half a million viewers who logged on to see the Air Force win the military’s first branch-on-branch gaming championship.

The engagement was noteworthy for another reason – it demonstrated how senior Pentagon staff is increasingly accepting of gaming’s place in the military. In recruiting gamers, many military bigwigs think that they are not only recruiting soldiers, they’re recruiting from a more talented pool.

Towards that end, each branch of the military fields an esports team. Service members have access to military-created Discord channels where they can chat with fellow military members about their favorite games and military sponsorships of gaming leagues are on the rise.

Not everyone is enthusiastic though. Amy J. Nelson, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution says, “It’s a fine line. 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.”

But soldiering is no longer a matter of battlefield combat. Tomorrow’s armies need to be well-versed in all sorts of technology including skills in fields of augmented reality, artificial intelligence and automated and unmanned weaponry. The army needs recruits who have these kind of technical skill sets and it believes that gaming prepares soldiers for these kinds of tasks.

Last February, the Office of Naval Research released a study that showedshowing that playing first-person shooting games create a better fighter. Such games, researchers said, improve peripheral vision, cognitive processing and the ability to learn tasks better.

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

Capt. Oliver Parsons, the founder of Air Force Gaming, said that he would like to see the military foster a culture where gaming is accepted as a hobby. He believes that it will help the military retain talent and foster mental health.

“We’re not robots. We’re normal, average people,” Parsons said, adding that if the military doesn’t make gaming culture accepted, service members are “going to go somewhere else.” Today the Air Force is the leader among the 4 branches in fostering gaming culture.

Rod Breslau, an industry consultant, says that it all boils down to the military doing what is good for the military. “The bottom line is that the American government is using these sponsorships, and these streams on Twitch and all these tools … for recruitment. People need to recognize that is the end game.”

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