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Original illustration by Su Yun Song '24, an Illustration major at RISD

For the US military, recruitment starts in the living room. Video games franchises like Call of Duty and Halo introduce a fun, romanticized, and low-stakes version of warfare to millions of American teens—mostly young men and boys. Gameplay focuses almost exclusively on the tactics and tools of war, brushing aside the less entertaining ethical dilemmas and psychological costs. This distortion has palpable effects; a 2008 MIT study revealed that 30 percent of Americans aged 16 to 24 held a more favorable view of the military because of the state-sponsored game America’s Army (2002). This is no accident—the Pentagon has a strong hand in contemporary video game development. 

From chess to Call of Duty, games have long been a safe outlet for our most bellicose instincts: hoarding resources, conquering territory, and competing with enemies. In recent decades, video games have found new ways of scratching that primal itch. Today’s young gamers are immersed in an interactive, multisensory virtual world. At a tender age, their minds are flooded by complex and addictive algorithms with the power to influence emotions, behaviors, and ideas. If, as studies suggest, first-person-shooter (FPS) games can make players more militaristic in outlook, then it’s no wonder they have become a major tool in the arsenal of the US military.

Since World War II, the US military has cultivated a close relationship with the entertainment industry, in an arrangement dubbed the ‘military-entertainment complex.’ In 1942, the Office of War Information began purging scripts of “anti-war” material while collaborating with studios like Disney to produce educational, often propagandistic content. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense (DoD) began to provide “production assistance” on a number of entertainment titles each year. For film and TV studios, ceding some narrative control to the military can accord major advantages, such as access to extremely advanced equipment. 

From lending F-35 fighter jets to major film studios to reviewing and revising scripts, the Pentagon has thus ensured authentic (read: flattering) portrayals of the armed forces in numerous Hollywood blockbusters. With the original Top Gun (1986), for instance, the DoD saw an opportunity to rehabilitate the US Navy’s image post-Vietnam. Death-defying stunts, awe-inspiring fighter jets, and action stars like Tom Cruise contributed to an 8 percent boost in Navy recruitment. Thirty-six years later, the DoD repeated the trick with Top Gun: Maverick, co-scripting the second highest grossing film of 2022. 

The story is much the same in the gaming world, where the military-entertainment complex has found new form. The aforementioned America’s Army was an early and successful government attempt at game development, designed to recruit soldiers for the nascent War on Terror and influence popular perceptions of the Army. The military has since collaborated with AAA production companies in an advisory role, consulting on popular FPS games like Black Ops II (2012) and Six Days in Fallujah (2023). On such games, military personnel advised designers on how to make combat gameplay more realistic. 

Surprisingly, this advisory relationship goes both ways; in 2014, Pentagon officials approached Dave Anthony, a former writer and producer for the Call of Duty franchise. Impressed by the “realism and authenticity” of his game, they invited him to Washington to join a panel of experts on modern warfare. Anthony was later named a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, advising the government on how to predict and conceive of future national security threats. Today, games don’t merely mimic war, they shape our perception of it—even at the highest levels of government.

Even though the military has had a strong hand in crafting the way Americans view war, the US Army is now facing a grave recruitment problem. In the last two years, America’s primary land force has shrunk by around 7 percent, as the pool of recruits reaches “crisis levels.” Dwindling enlistment numbers have underscored the necessity for novel, innovative modes of recruitment. For Army recruiters, video games present an opportunity to target introverts in the comfort of their own homes—a place beyond the reach of traditional recruiting channels. Soldiers in the Army’s esports team are assigned a unit and compete full-time to make “soldiers more visible and relatable to today’s youth.” Last year, Vice reported that the Army had allocated millions to sponsor a variety of esports tournaments, popular streamers, and Twitch events, with the aim of reaching a Gen Z audience. With laser-like precision, the military is now using social media tools to target their advertising at favored demographics. 

These newer recruitment methods have met resistance and controversy. During a US Army esports stream in 2020, one Twitch user caused a stir by commenting “What’s your favorite u.s. w4r cr1me?”—using numbers to prevent triggering the word restrictions imposed by the Army—along with a link to the Wikipedia article on US war crimes. He was quickly banned from the chat in an act some have equated with government censorship. The incident attracted national attention when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) put forward legislation to prevent the Army from using Twitch to recruit. “Children as young as 13 and oftentimes as young as 12 are targeted for recruitment forms that can be filled online,” she claimed in a speech to the House. The amendment was rejected, but reflected both grassroots and institutional opposition to the Army’s newer recruitment methods. Ultimately, the Army was forced to retreat from Twitch.

Once soldiers have been recruited, the final stage of video game militarization begins: training. In September 2023, the Air Force launched an esports tournament with the directive to help airmen “better understand mission logistics choices and prioritization while under attack.” 3D simulations are nothing new for the military, but they are now ubiquitous. And why wouldn’t they be? Video games have been shown to improve reaction time, hand-eye coordination, teamwork, communication, problem-solving, and many other skills. Moreover, they are a cost-effective and low-risk activity, which can meaningfully supplement (but not replace) combat training. On a psychological level, however, video games have much the same effect on soldiers as they do on teens—desensitizing them to violence and leaving them ill-equipped for the real burdens of war.

Do wars shape video games, or do video games shape wars? With the advent of immersive and realistic gaming experiences, the line is blurred. Game designers do policy work for think tanks in Washington, while generals supervise film sets in Hollywood. Video games are being used as PR, recruitment, and training tools for a new crop of Gen Z soldiers. What’s more, game mechanics are permeating the front lines, redefining the modern battlefield. American soldiers pilot Predator drones with Xbox controllers, while every day in Ukraine, unmanned weapons accelerate our troubling march toward autonomous warfare. What happens when war and game become indistinguishable? We now seem destined for a world in which buttons replace guns, and pixels replace people.