When foreign nationals thought about joining Ukraine’s fight against Russia in March 2022, they were given a stark warning: “This is not Call of Duty.” Though video games have certainly evolved over the years, the horrors of a real-world battlefield are still a far cry away from their virtual versions.
Despite this, however, the gaming industry has always had a close association with the military. And these ties are only getting stronger as we speak—with the US Army now doubling down on its digital recruitment efforts using unconventional ways to reach potential gen Z soldiers.
During the 1980s, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) first approached developers with the idea of writing video games that could be used to train soldiers. At the time, Chuck Benton, the creator of B.C.’s Quest for Tires, took up the challenge and eventually abandoned the gaming industry to focus on military simulations.
A few years later, the US Marine Corps used a modified version of the first-person shooter game Doom II to teach new recruits “an appreciation for the art and science of war.” In 2004, the Xbox game Full Spectrum Warrior was co-developed by a team at USC Institute for Creative Technologies—which was established as an official US Army University Affiliated Research Center (UARC).
“Set in a fictional middle eastern country, the simulation was a comparatively inexpensive means of teaching marine tactics in military training, but was also launched as a consumer product,” The Guardian reported, adding that America’s Army, a 2002 PC game that enables players to “explore the Army at their own pace,” doubles as a military recruitment tool even today.
Apart from video games, the gaming industry and military also share common peripherals—with both the US and British armed forces using Xbox controllers as an interface to command attack drones in live combat.
After America’s Army, however, the military watched the gaming industry evolve and released updated versions of the video game. Come 2015, the Pentagon reportedly included “electronic games” in the list of media that “may benefit military service recruiting and retention programs.” Three years later, the military founded its own esports teams, comprising active duty and reserve personnel who compete and specialise in popular games on the market.
One of the most notable teams is the US Army Esports, which is currently broken into divisions including: Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, League of Legends, Overwatch, and Magic: The Gathering. The team has also expanded into streaming, in turn debuting another voice in the unsupervised world of competitive gaming.
Before 2007, early Call of Duty titles were all set in the World War II era. However, the setting changed to contemporary conflict following the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. While it partly aimed to “freshen the fiction,” it essentially pushed for contemporary modes of combat in the gaming industry.
Now, reports have surfaced that the US Army has allocated millions of dollars to sponsor a wide range of esports tournaments, individual high-profile Call of Duty streamers, and Twitch events in the last year to specifically grow its audience with gen Z viewers—especially women, black and Hispanic people.
According to internal documents obtained by Vice’s Motherboard, the military considered gaming—more specifically, Call of Duty—as a useful branding and recruiting tool. “For example, the Army proposed using Twitch influencers to ‘create original content videos showcasing the wide range of skill sets offered by the Army’ and to use influencers to ‘familiarise [their] fans on Army values and opportunities,” Motherboard reported. “The Army also wanted to throw tournaments that featured ‘soldiers & top names in gaming’. Another goal of the campaigns was to increase the Army’s ‘favorability’ in viewer surveys.”
The documents noted that the force intended to spend $750,000 on a mix of the official Call of Duty League Esports tournament, streaming service Paramount+, and the HALO TV show. The service branch also planned to splurge $200,000 on sponsoring the mobile version of Call of Duty with a “reward-based inventory.” Essentially, the campaign aimed to provide in-game currency to players who viewed Army video ads.
When it comes to Twitch influencers, officials reportedly allocated $150,000 to be spent on Stonemountain64—a popular streamer who uploads gameplay footage of himself “roleplaying as a tongue-in-cheek commanding officer” during Call of Duty: Warzone matches—apart from streamers like Swagg and Alex Zedra.
“The Army also planned to spend $675,000 on a WWE sponsorship and $600,000 with gaming media outlet IGN, according to the documents,” Motherboard added.
However, an August 2021 email announced the Army’s decision to “pause all activities” with Call of Duty’s publisher Activision after the company faced a wave of sexual harassment complaints. “[We] also recommended the Marketing Engagement Brigade not send their eSports team to the tournament,” the email read. “[We] bring this to your attention because of the brand reputation issue.”
It should be noted that the US military’s esports teams have repeatedly run into controversy since their launch. In July 2020, both the Army and Navy teams got into trouble when they started banning users who asked about war crimes on their Twitch chat. On 22 July, a bill also circulated in the US House of Representatives to try and prohibit the military from having a “presence on Twitch or any video game. esports, or live-streaming platform.”
After a month-long hiatus, however, the Army team returned to Twitch—claiming to have updated its chat policies which will allow a “divergence of viewpoints while maintaining a healthy chat room.”
At the end of the day, the military’s brush with esports has given it direct access to thousands, if not millions, of gamers who harbour the potential of being valued recruits. The new way of digital recruitment has essentially stemmed due to failures in traditional methods following the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of physical events. The unsupervised nature of gaming channels has also aided armed forces to reach players of all ages.
On these terms, Game Rant noted that giveaways hosted on the US Army Twitch channel were easily targeting kids as young as 12, with many of the application forms redirecting to military recruiting forms. “With open microphone opportunities in Fortnite, Warzone, and League of Legends, there is no telling who the gamers are talking to,” the publication added.