ByKen McDonnell, writer at
Now Loading's sentimental Irishman. I can't stop playing Overwatch, please send help.
Ken McDonnell

For many of us video games are an escape from reality. They transport us to a world in which we're no longer controlling ourselves but an enhanced, undying version of perhaps something we'd like to be. We're granted super powers, grand adventures, even the possibility of irking out a whole new existence as an elf! But that's not the case for everyone. For some, video games are a way of preparing you for reality.

The US Army & How It Played Games

The army took "the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the specific technology used in video games" back in 1960 and this continued until the early 1990s. In fact, Spacewar! — considered by historians to be the first video game of all time — was actually funded by the Pentagon in 1962. Thanks, chaps!

Spacewar! involved two players who used various switches and knobs to maneuver spaceships through the gravity field of a star while firing missiles at each other. It was supposed to be a simulator that would give personnel a chance to get to grips with the navigational controls of various planned aircrafts.

Being quite the success, it gave birth to the "monitor-as-sight set-up that would influence all subsequent games."

You're cruisin’ for a bruisin’, Johnny.
You're cruisin’ for a bruisin’, Johnny.

But the early 90s brought a change that would see commercial gaming influence the way in which the US utilized the technology they had essentially created.

1993's revolutionary FPS Doom, showed the potential for first-person simulators, 3-D piloting, multiplayer networking and virtual reality-based training.

Through commercial gaming technology, the armed forces could adapt soldiers to the tactics of team fighting and trigger-fast decision making, or conjure tailor-made battle environments for them. - Hamza Shaban

Things have obviously advanced exponentially since the days of id Software's Doom, so let's examine the various ways that video games have influenced the face of modern warfare and the rather surprising ways our "escapist" art form can help prepare troops, and help them prepare for the darkest aspects of life.

3 Examples Of How The US Army Uses Video Games

Getting Closer To Reality

“I’ve got to find something that’s going to prepare my Marines for something that many of them probably haven’t done before, and that we can’t really reproduce that they are going to feel in combat in training,” —Col. Kurt Sanger, a judge advocate and law instructor in the U.S. Marine Corps.

As a weedy stick insect of an Irishman, military training isn't something I'm particularly familiar with, but I think we can all understand the importance of combat preparation. Men like Col. Kurt Sanger are tasked with training young individuals to ensure that once a combat situation presents itself, they're prepared for the worst. And how does he believe this is best achieved?

“ I think adding technology and video games and virtual reality is such a valuable tool the Department of Defense can now count on, because it can get closer to reality.”

This sentence alone represents the strange dichotomy introduced by militaristic gaming. They believe that playing games like Call Of Duty and other first-person shooters can give soldiers an insight into what a battlefield can be like and how to react accordingly.

For instance, back in the 90s, Lt. Scott Barnett was assigned to play PC games on the market that might fit with the US Military's idea that video games could prepare soldiers for combat. After taking a look around, he eventually selected Doom II.

Barnett enlisted the help of Sgt. Dan Snyder to modify the game from its sci-fi Mars terrain to small desert village, and replace the game’s demon enemies with more real-world adversaries. - Christian Beekman
Doom 2
Doom 2

The product was obviously nowhere near realistic — as you can clearly see above — but it was an intense and engaging game that promoted the kind of consistent, repetitive teamwork a Marine fireteam would employ in combat. In a sense, if you were good at Doom 2, you possessed some of the abilities that the army desired. But it was also your skills with the controller that could catch your superior's eye.

Wanna Fly A Drone, Kid?

Though Doom 2 may have been a great starting tool for preparing troops for combat, it in no way turned them into soldiers. The dissonance between sitting on a sofa, using a controller to play an FPS and being on patrol in an operational area, carrying 30 pounds of kit and a real firearm is obvious. However, there is an area of combat that is becoming more and more prevalent in modern warfare that suits gaming quite well: drone piloting.

Documentary maker Tonje Hessen Schei says she has witnessed military recruiters in countries like Sweden and Norway attending large LAN events and speaking to children as young as 12 about a future as a drone pilot. - Dan Pearson

Wow. Talk about starting young. However, according to one Army representative, that's the age that they need to start engaging young people in the military:

"We wanted kids to be able to start playing at 13," Clark Berry explained. "If they haven't thought about the Army by the time they get to 17, it's probably not something they'll do."

Desiring these young gamers to consider a military career makes sense from the Army's point of view. If you're efficient at sniping your opponents in chaotic battle situations or controlling mass armies of soldiers that require speed and delicate planning while adapting to the situation around you, why wouldn't you be considered?

According to Schei, the military even regularly consults with the gaming industry on how best to design the UI for drones. They're literally trying to create familiar sights for gamers so that they can be comfortable and efficient with methods of control.

PlayStation and Xbox controllers have been used to create interfaces, blurring the line between fiction and fatality yet further.

It seems the two inspire one another. But the military's interaction with video games goes beyond simply playing them and preparing for combat.

Desensitization & Education

It is of the belief that video games can actually mentally prepare soldiers for certain situations through education. Gaming could actually prevent soldiers from being overcome by the mental horrors of war, according to Albert "Skip" Rizzo, a University of Southern California psychologist.

We often hear that video games desensitize us to the horrors of war and other aspects of life. And while this may be in true in some cases, the US Army employs this method of thinking when designing video games for almost every situation.

With funding from the U.S. military, Rizzo's team in the virtual reality lab at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies wants to prepare military recruits for mental trauma before they are ever deployed overseas. It is developing virtual re-creations based on the stories told by returning veterans. - Jeremy Hsu

These harrowing stories are meant to confront people with the horrors of war and thus desensitize them to such horrors on the battlefield.

"What we want to create is something that pulls at the hearts of people," Rizzo said. "Maybe there's a child lying there with the arms blown off, screaming and crying. Maybe your action kills an innocent civilian, or you see a guy next to you get shot in the eye with blood spurting out of his face."

At the most upsetting moment, the simulation would freeze and allow a virtual character to come out and walk the player through the situation. That character might look like a gunnery sergeant, a Buddhist monk, even a former schoolteacher – whatever helps the recruit think calmly after experiencing the virtual trauma.

Another example of such educational video games is known as the ELITE (Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment) program, which aims to help soldiers and their commanders deal with incidents of sexual assault. The game features animated sexual assault and harassment scenarios that demonstrate correct and incorrect ways to handle such situations, and the US believes that it has been a great way for soldiers to relate to these incidents through a medium they're familiar with.

While video games seem escapist, without merit and merely a form of reality-escaping entertainment to some, this art form is proven to have provided players with varying skills, increased intelligence, faster reaction times and even prepared them for encountering rendered situations in the real world. You think this is simply a game? It's far from it.

What do you think of how the US uses video games?


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