In an effort to engage young American teens, U.S. military recruiters are connecting to this demographic through Twitch online casinos gaming streams. The Army, Navy and Air Force all have Twitch channels where they stream their esports teams with the goal of identifying talented players who are showing signs of quick thinking, analytical skills, fast reaction time and other abilities that may be useful to the military.
Through their teams’ competitions, the recruiters “hang out” with kids as they play video games, chat with them and encourage them to think about devoting a few years to the military.
Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, is a livestreaming platform that hosts millions of viewers. These viewers often devote tens or hundreds of hours of viewing time as they watch esports teams compete in tournaments. The military acts by streaming one of their own – a recruiter. S/he plays the games and chats with viewers about how much s/he loves his army life. The recruiter (usually male) doesn’t hide the fact that he’s in the Army – instead, he uses the viewers’ curiosity about an army career to entice them into learning more about army life.
Critics say that by using gaming to connect with potential recruits, recruiters are targeting minors, especially those who are in disadvantaged and/or unstable situations. Many of these youngsters are looking for the kind of stability that the army says that it can provide, especially youngsters who are living as undocumented immigrants.
In the best of times, these factors would make such individuals vulnerable to military recruiters’ efforts to reach out to them. But now, during a pandemic, when half the country is out of work and hunger and homelessness looms for many families, critics say that many young people are at risk of being put in a position of making a decision that might not be in their best interests.
The accusation that recruiters are going after kids who come from low income backgrounds is not a new one. For years, critics have been accusing the military of targeting low-income schools in their recruiting efforts. This, they say, is just one more way for the recruiters to follow in that path. Many of today’s potential recruits dream of joining one of the e-sports teams that the various branches of the military field.
The accusation that recruiters are going after kids who come from low income backgrounds is not a new one. For years, critics have been accusing the military of targeting low-income schools in their recruiting efforts and this, they say, is just one more way for the recruiters to follow in that path.
Many of today’s potential recruits dream of joining one of the e-sports teams that the various branches of the military field. The lure of the esports, critics say, helps the recruiters build relationships with young, impressionable contacts.
Hasan Piker is a popular Twitch streamer who has been outspoken in his criticism of the new recruiting methods. “Twitch is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my career, and it’s because you’re live for hours on end, talking to these people in the chat,” said Piker. “You develop a community and know your individual chatters. There is an ecosystem in every Twitch channel. Recruiting in this predatory way is a violation of [the users’] safety.”
Once upon a time, a patriotic movie like American Sniper might have stirred some feelings of patriotism in young viewers but when the movie finished, they would move on to other pursuits. Now, the pervasive, non-stop infiltration of action games in the lives of teens feeds into the recruiters’ goals of establishing an atmosphere of action and thrills – which, the recruiters believe, will draw the young gamers into agreeing to sign up for a stint in the military.
The games themselves are almost tailor-made for this goal. Some games, such as Call of Duty, were created in conjunction with military and ex-military figures, making them exactly what the recruiters need to appeal to young men and women who are looking for some adventure.
The Twitch channels give recruiters the platforms that they need to entice young viewers into sharing personal information which then allows the military to reach and recruit the young viewers. Critics object to those tactics. They say that the teens are lured into filling out the recruiting forms through false promises, deceptive messaging and slight-of-hand tactics.
The U.S. Army’s Twitter account links to a page that broadcasts “Register to Win” at the top. Yet no details are provided to indicate what can be won. There is, however, a sign-up form that provides an Army recruiter the means by which to contact the youngster who has registered.
The form is open to youngsters as young as 12 but the Army is committed to refraining from contacting anyone under the age of 16. According to a Twitch advertising pitch, 80 percent of teen males in the United States can be accessed on Twitch.
Justin Hendrix, the executive director of the NYC Media Lab commented, “All parents are concerned about screen time and what it’s doing to their children. As a parent, I reckon a lot of us are unaware that our children are encountering marketing messages, influencers, and sales people in a variety of contexts online when we think they’re just playing games.”
Viewers who tune into Twitch’s Army’s channel get messages that suggest that they could win a Xbox Elite Series 2 controller along with a link to enter the “giveaway.” On that page, another recruiting form can be found -- but no additional mention of a contest.
Young people might be drawn to the military because they think that they will be able to play esports there but if that’s their dream, they have a long way to go to achieve that goal. The Navy’s esports team, commissioned earlier this year, has 10 members – out of a total of 325,000 active-duty Navy servicemen and women.
If a youngster thinks that he’s going to join a branch of the military and get recruited onto their esports team any time in the near future, s/he’s in for a rude shock. Yet the military does nothing to dispel that idea.
The Navy’s Twitch channel declares, in its bio, “Other people will tell you not to stay up all night staring at a screen. We’ll pay you to do it. Get a look at what life is like inside the uniform on the America’s [sic] Navy.”
Military esports streams are not considered mature programming by Twitch so anyone can join the stream. Thanks to the current pandemic, with screen time spiking, there’s a troubling dynamic. Rod Breslau, an e-sports industry consultant and insider, is troubled. “You can say what you want about people who serve in the military and what that says about them. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be able to play video games or e-sports, but I do think it’s more insidious to have the military using it as a recruiting tool for young, impressionable people”
Military sponsorships are another aspect of the esports industry to which critics want to draw attention. The military partners with various teams, organizations, games and even individual players. For instance, The Call of Duty League is sponsored by both the Air Force and the Army. Even the National Guard has partnered with the NRG e-sports organization.
Recruiting via esports has become so valuable that the Navy eschewed a Super Bowl ad last year and instead, redirected those funds to its esports recruiting program. Fandom and ESLGaming, two of the world’s largest esports organizations, are sponsored by the Navy which also sponsored the Evil Geniuses esports team.
Twitch itself is also collaborating with the military – it partners with the Navy which gives the Navy a prominent place in Twitch’s homepage carousel. “Lara Bollinger, deputy public affairs officer for Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, has been acting as the Navy’s spokesperson regarding its esports recruiting activities. Through our partnership with Twitch, the most popular e-sports streaming site, the Navy has immediate access to millions of 17-to-24-year-old e-sports enthusiasts on the platform to showcase a side of Navy life that viewers may not expect,” said Bollinger. “Viewers are asking our gamers insightful questions, and our gamers are effectively communicating that there is a place for everyone in the Navy.”