The Army has a variety of extracurricular teams. This includes a shooting team, a football team, and now, an e-Sports team. E-Sports is the name given to the rising tide of competitive video games. If you aren’t aware, e-Sports is a nearly billion-dollar industry and is rising rapidly in popularity. 

The Army e-Sports team may be new, but the relationship between video games and the military goes back to the beginning of digital gaming. According to many reports, video game technology has evolved from programs that were financed and sponsored by the U.S. military. Spacewar!, the game that most identify as being the first video game, was developed at MIT through funding from the Pentagon. 

The Global War on Terror is the first war to be fought with servicemen raised in a culture where video games are a common recreational activity. I spent countless weekends playing Battlefield with my platoon mates wired up on Xbox. Others played Halo, or even earlier multiplayer shooters such as the iconic Goldeneye played on the Nintendo 64 platform.

It is impossible to ignore the influence that video games have had on our modern military culture. 

Video Games as Recruitment Tools

For men my age, video games likely acted as a recruitment tool, and sometimes intentionally so. The United States Army has published a series of video games called America’s Army. These first-person shooters currently have four main releases; a fifth one is on the way. While this is the first game published by a branch of the armed forces, the Army had previously aided in creating the game Full Spectrum Warrior. The game focused on tactical decision-making over first-person shooting. 

Various branches of the military have also aided in advising on video games. As a teenager, the video game Close Combat: First to Fight guided me to the door of a Marine recruiter. The video game was created with input from the Marines of 3/1, who had recently returned from the 2nd Battle for Fallujah. The game put you in the seat of a Lance Corporal team leader and armed you with realistic USMC weaponry and squad-based tactics. As fate would have it, my Squad Leader and eventual Platoon Sergeant was an advisor for the game. 

Yet, this input and advice have not always been met with praise. Six members of DEVGRU were punished for releasing classified information to the game designers behind Medal of Honor – Warfighter. The SEALs did not seek the permission of their command to work with the game designers. The information released was related to the combat gear the team utilized. 

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operators (15W) remote pilots of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Aircraft Systems Repairer (15E) with 2-6 Cavalry Squadron, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, conducted Advanced Aerial Gunnery training at Pōhakuloa Training Area, Hawaii. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sarah D. Sangster)

On the Ground Benefits of Video Games

While it may be difficult to believe, video games offer numerous benefits to their players. According to a study conducted by the Radboud University Nijmegen, and published by the American Psychological Association, video games offer numerous cognitive benefits. These benefits include superior problem solving, greater creativity, and spatial ability. According to the study, gamers often have “faster and more accurate attention allocation and higher spatial resolution in visual processing and enhanced mental rotation abilities.” Players of first-person shooters have proven to “allocate their attentional resources more efficiently and filter out irrelevant information more effectively.” 

These cognitive benefits could make a servicemember more successful at their job. 

Beyond that, the last decade of servicemen has proven to be quite adept at adapting to modern warfare. The United States Army and Marine Corps are increasingly utilizing small drones for squad-level reconnaissance efforts. These drones will change warfare at the squad level and likely save lives. The USMC has adopted the Instaeye Mk3 as a squad-level quadcopter. Its controller looks like it could fit in at a Gamestop, making them a natural fit in the hands of video game players. 

The Nexus of Video Games and Drones

In 2009, my unit had a small squad-based drone called the Raven. The Raven was not a great piece of gear, but its what we had. My company sent a few people to the school prior to a deployment to Afghanistan. Most were NCOs and SNCOs, and even our company X.O., but sprinkled among those troops, was a single Lance Corporal. 

Spc. Cameron Simpson, infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division launches a Raven in Iraq.

After the Raven course was completed and our company was issued its Raven, there was only one pilot worth a damn, and that was the video game-playing Lance Corporal. The older NCOs and SNCOs were too busy looking at the controller to focus on flying the drone. The controller is like a keyboard. If you aren’t used to typing, you are likely going to be staring at it while trying to spell your name. An experienced typer can be staring at the screen even if they are writing a novel. Likewise, an experienced gamer can operate a controller — or fly a drone, as it turns out — without having to look at the controller. 

P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, and coordinator of the Obama campaign’s defense policy task force, said in an interview that an experienced Xbox player made for a skilled drone pilot. And in the case of the Lance Corporal above, that pilot was good enough to be an instructor at only 19 years old. 

In 2018, the United States Navy joined forces with a software company to develop a video game to identify sailors with the skills to become drone pilots. The program, called StealthAdapt, incorporates a variety of tests outside of the simulation in order to identify the sailors with the requisite skills. 

One of the most interesting experiences I had in the USMC was working with Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). EOD teams occasionally utilize a sacrificial robot to destroy IEDs. How do they control that robot? With an Xbox 360 controller. The Xbox controller is well made, tough, Windows compatible, and most Marines and sailors are familiar with it. That Xbox 360 controller is now being used to control periscopes on submarines as well. 

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EOD Unit soldier using an Xbox 360 controller to control an EOD robot.

Video Games On the Training Side

Pilot and shooting simulators have long been used to train members of the military and they are becoming more prevalent. Unsurprisingly the Army has been ahead of the curve on adopting various computer-based simulators to train soldiers on emergency medical procedures, cultural interaction, and convoy simulations. 

The Army recently wrote a story about the Troopers from D Troop, 6th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division who used a tank video game to practice their skills during the COVID-19 outbreak. The game is not an Army simulation, but a commercial product. The troops were practicing formations, call for fire, and complete mission simulations.

What Games and War Have in Common

Video games have the capability to make better servicemembers. They increase cognitive functions and allow to better train and familiarize oneself with modern technology — something very valuable in the context of modern warfare. However, looking outside that, why are games and war so linked? 

War games, like the board game Risk, have been around long before video games came to be. People seek adventure and challenge, and both video games and military service deliver that.

Sebastian Junger wrote a fascinating book called Tribe wherein he talks about combat veterans missing war and the purpose it gave them. Video games also promise players a purpose. These purposes may be miles apart in terms of importance and lasting effect, but the sense of purpose and feeling of accomplishment when that purpose is met are real experiences. 

As technology expands both in our everyday lives and in our wars, the presence of military-focused video games is bound to grow. And as virtual reality nears the point of being the future of gaming, we could also see it become the future of military simulations.

Albert Einstein once said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” I can’t tell you the weapons they’ll fight World War III will be fought with either, but I can tell you the men wielding them will be some form of gamers. 

This article was originally published on September 17, 2020.