War Gamification's Costs to Society

Earlier this month, the former head of the controversial private military contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater) Eric Prince took a lead position developing a first-person shooter video game based on the firm he built. The increasing trend of militarization of video games and conversely, the gamification of warfare, has been an unsettling one because of the psychological impact on our youth and the distorted perception of war it portrays. This distortion carries a huge cost — a cost we are paying today.

There is nothing new about military-like strategy in games. For centuries, chess has been used to sharpening strategy skills, and today we see military strategy playing out in board games like Hasbro’s Risk. It is rather, the dramatic intensification of aggressive and ruthless violence without consequences in video games that is problematic. Researchers have proven the link between desensitization to violence and aggressive behavior in youth. However, I want to challenge the false assumptions of potential benefits such games cause.

These video games do not prepare our youth for the next era of challenges of military engagements, nor do they portray an accurate depiction of the true nature of military conflicts. National security can only be achieved through energy independence, economic development of the developing world, and diplomacy, not by rogue soldiers trained by video games going on rampages of destruction. The Navy’s recent launch of an online simulation to crowd-source military strategies is a more productive youth engagement approach that should be replicated. For our military to be prepared for the next era of national security threats, the DoD should increase investment in the education and training of our next great scientists, engineers, computers scientists, and brilliant strategy thinkers, rather than subsidizing video games that train civilians to be emotionless, human-killing machines.

In one of his final addresses as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen responded to a question about how we could address the increased emotional detachment of members of the military. He declared, “I believe broadly a couple years of service — in any capacity — would be good for our young people in the country, in neighborhoods, in communities, with the Peace Corps, with the military, with other organizations — NGOs — something that exposes them to the broader world and gets both a better connection to the challenges and a recognition of the opportunities.”

Even games considered to be the most realistic depictions of military life fail to give players the experience of rebuilding destroyed infrastructure, understanding the customs of native populations, and treating PTSD and depression. Gamers do not need to think about the public health, economic, or social impacts of their actions.

Popular sentiment of military interventions does indeed have a direct impact on foreign policy. In May, Pew reported “the current measure of isolationist sentiment is among the highest recorded in the more than half-century.” It is difficult for us to comprehend the devastating impact of war unless we see it. It is rather the perception of war that determines public support for military engagements, and these video games fail to accurately depict that impact. How the public views war does matter and it creates for a dangerous game, considering our elected president, a representative who need not have previous military experience, serves as commander-in-chief of the armed services.

Photo Credit: Justin Marty