War games: The military’s deep affinity with gaming
Foreign nationals thinking about travelling to fight in Ukraine were given a clear warning earlier this year: “This is not Call of Duty.”
The horrors of a real-world battlefield are a long way from their virtual versions, no matter how much games have evolved in recent years.
However, the gaming industry’s relationship with the military has been getting closer – whether through the technology used to train officers, the tactics to change public perception, the close ties to veterans, or the simple fact that soldiers love to play.
“There’s absolutely a deep affinity to gaming among those actively serving and younger veterans,” says Dan Goldenberg, who served in the US Navy and now runs the Call of Duty Endowment, a military veterans’ organisation affiliated with the popular video game franchise.
That connection “is not going anywhere”, he adds.
Years ago, military commanders would plan, prepare, and test their tactics on a worn map.
They would shift wooden models around the ink and parchment, the models representing the movement of troops.
Today, they play a video game instead. Well, sort of.
Modern gaming technology allows generals to do something similar to their historic counterparts – just in a much more advanced way.
Joe Robinson from technology company Improbable explains: “Where video gaming technology has become incredibly powerful and useful is the ability to fundamentally recreate all the complexity of the real world in a virtual one.”
Improbable’s software allows real-life warfare scenarios to be recreated virtually and explored either from a bird’s eye viewpoint, like you would see in real-time strategy games such as Company of Heroes, or from a first-person perspective, like in such games as Counter Strike.
From the impact of cyber-attacks and disinformation to population demographics and infrastructure – all the myriad aspects affecting modern warfare are channelled into the software and have an impact on how situations play out. This is much more than just troop placements and movements.
Robinson explains: “Threats can come from anywhere today. It’s incredibly difficult to understand how they’re going to evolve and the impact on the battlefield. It’s very difficult to begin to plan and train for these problems.
“We enable decision-makers to try out ideas, test strategies and new equipment, and train troops to deal with these complex ever-changing environments. Very quickly it can help you understand how things impact each other and what can be learned.”
It’s not just training where gaming technology is being used. It is also “being applied to current real-world operations”, meaning it is providing advances “all the way up to the orchestration of operations”, Robinson says.
Improbable says its technology is being used by commanders in conflicts around the world today, but the company won’t tell us exactly where – for security reasons.
Gaming has become a key part recently of the British Army’s strategy to engage with the public.
From visiting conventions to using games as an overt part of its advertising campaigns and regularly interacting with people on streaming platforms like Twitch, it’s clear that top officials believe the millions who play games regularly in the UK are a key demographic to connect with.
Speaking to BBC Sounds gaming podcast Press X to Continue, Lt Col Tim Elliot explained: “The whole idea is to bridge the gap between the military, locked away in our barracks, and the public who we serve.”
Lt Col Elliot is head of the Army’s Esports division. Today, soldiers regularly share their gameplay sessions online, show off their skills, chat with the public and build a community of viewers.
“The Army realises there’s a distance growing between us and the public, so the idea is to try and bridge that gap – in order for the general public to understand what we do, and that we’re basically the same as them but we wear a uniform.”
He says there’s a difference between this outreach work and recruitment. “We can interact with people, they can ask questions to soldiers – there’s no pressgangs, we’re not actively recruiting, it’s just growing understanding. Lots of people don’t have anyone from their family in the Army any more.
“We’re trying to make sure individuals know all they want to know about us, the intention is not to take people to a careers office. If people are interested in that, then we point them in the direction of recruiters – but we’re focused on trying to get beyond the mystery and misunderstandings surrounding the Army.”
But competitive gamers do have skill sets the military wants – fast reactions, good communication and problem-solving skills. They’re also, generally speaking, the perfect age for the armed forces.
This budding relationship has not gone unnoticed and has not been universally welcomed in the past. In 2019 there was criticism of Army recruiters distributing a military publication in an edition of Playstation Magazine.
Using streaming platforms is not just limited to the British armed forces – Twitch has been used by the US Army as a recruitment tool, although that move has been mired in a free-speech controversy.
‘Soldiers also love to play’
Pte Jonah Jupp is a medic in the British Army and is known online as Ace. He takes his Nintendo Switch with him abroad and loves Mario Kart.
He says many soldiers serving in conflict zones across the world love to handle a controller as well as a weapon. “Playing games, especially with friends back at home, is way to stay connected, prioritise mental health and get away from the day job for a bit,” he says.
“People forget, yes we’re soldiers, but we’re also humans, so being able to play with friends allows me to let go and forget about my work and de-stress from the environments I’m in.”
This growth of the number of players actively serving in the military is a reason why gaming’s influence on the Army’s outreach programme is growing.
Another example of the growing relationship is the fact that companies who profit from military-themed video games can be seen fundraising for and supporting military charities.
Set up in 2009, Code (the Call of Duty Endowment) works with veterans to try to find jobs after their service comes to an end.
Dan Goldenberg explains that “the game took its inspiration from the actions of men and women in uniform, and it seemed like a really good way to give back”.
Given that Activision Blizzard, the franchise’s publisher, makes a fortune from sales and in-game purchases on titles themed on warfare, it is perhaps no surprise that it covers the running costs of this endeavour.
Goldenberg not adds: “I think the appropriate, almost poetic, way to give back is to ensure that after their service, veterans land the transition to civilian life well.
“It’s very clear that the surest way to help that transition is employment. It’s the thing that everyone needs. If you have a job, other challenges, like mental health issues, are more surmountable.”
Gaming, he argues, is a way for veterans to stay connected after their service, and so “has very strong affinity” with them as a result.