Video games are now an integral part of mainstream culture and the first person shoot ’em up is one of the most popular styles of games, especially in the US. Games franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty are consistently huge sellers, with each new edition striving for greater realism and authenticity as well as better gameplay, graphics, and more exciting scenarios.
It’s little wonder then that the US Army has looked to video games, and shoot ’em ups in particular, as a way of increasing army recruitment. Seeing successive generations hooked on games that are frequently based on real-life military operations, the top brass must inevitably fall to considering how this enthusiasm for simulated soldiering can be translated into an active desire to serve their country. But are shoot ’em ups an effective advertisement for military service? And how seriously do those involved with real warfare- from recent recruits to generals and majors- take video games as a first step towards joining up?
First person shooters have dramatically increased in popularity in the current century, especially in the US, and some commentators have linked this to the aftermath of 9/11 and the ongoing War on Terror. Military-themed shooters are a way of turning anxiety over a national crisis and constant threat into empowering fantasy – so the argument runs. Whereas terrorism makes most of us feel like impotent victims, these games turn us into the hero, taking decisive action to defeat those that threaten us.
The US Army has long used games as a way to teach tactics to troops and recruits, starting with tabletop war games. In the 1980s the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) approached video game designers to create games for training purposes. In the following decade, a modified version of Doom II was used to train marines. The 2004 Xbox game Full Spectrum Warrior was developed by the military-funded USC Institute for Creative Technologies as both a commercial product and a training tool. By putting a training game into the wider world, the army must have been aware of the game’s potential for recruitment and for winning hearts and minds.
In fact, the army had already produced a shoot ’em up video game with the express purpose of recruiting young men into the service. America’s Army was launched in 2002, combining the best elements of the most popular shooters of the day with an emphasis on squad tactics and military realism. Players advanced by earning ‘honor points’ that enabled them to move up the ranks. As a free to play online shooter, America’s Army was designed to reach the maximum number of gamers rather than to make money.
America’s Army 2 added Special Forces options, including medical training, emphasizing the wide range of careers available in today’s army. Game features also included the opportunity to hear the testimony of “real life heroes” as well as moves and mechanics that are now commonplace among commercial shoot ’em ups. The latest version, America’s Army: Proving Ground is available for both PC and PlayStation 4.
The wide range of jobs available in the army means that it is possible to combine military service with a civilian career. Mark Green asked the army to send him to medical school after talking to a military physician who was caring for his father. As flight surgeon for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, he provided medical coverage for covert missions including Operation Red Dawn which resulted in the capture of Saddam Hussein. On retiring he set up his own medical business and was elected state senator for Tennessee in 2012.
Green’s story may sound like the narrative of a video game, but it also shows how many different factors influence joining the army. By far the main driving forces are economic and social, with most recruits either coming from a military family or a background of poverty and limited career options. Video games may feed a romantic fantasy of what army life is like, but they can never accurately capture what real combat feels like. However realistic it is, those who join the Armor Branch expecting it to be just like Armored Warfare will likely get a rude awakening, or worse.
That is not to say however that shoot ’em ups are not effective propaganda. Video games can be used to disseminate particular versions of history and geopolitics which players will feel to be emotionally authentic. They can also be used for training and even beta testing of military technology prototypes, especially in the age of cyber-warfare and remote-controlled drone attacks. They can also teach military culture and values. But ultimately it’s unlikely they are the deciding factor in getting gamers to join the army for real.