War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict

War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict

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by Corey Mead

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A behind-the-scenes look at how the military uses video game technology to train soldiers, treat veterans, and entice new recruits

How does the U.S. military train its soldiers for new forms of armed conflict, all within the constraints of diminished defense budgets? Increasingly, the answer is cutting-edge video game technology. Corey Mead shows us


A behind-the-scenes look at how the military uses video game technology to train soldiers, treat veterans, and entice new recruits

How does the U.S. military train its soldiers for new forms of armed conflict, all within the constraints of diminished defense budgets? Increasingly, the answer is cutting-edge video game technology. Corey Mead shows us training sessions where soldiers undertake multiplayer “missions” that test combat skills, develop unit cohesion, and teach cultural awareness. He immerses himself in 3-D battle simulations so convincing that they leave his heart racing. And he shows how the military, which has shaped American education more than any other force over the last century, fuels the adoption of games as learning tools—and recruitment come-ons. Mead also details how the military uses games to prepare soldiers for their return to the home front and to treat PTSD.

Military-funded researchers were closely involved with the computing advances that led to the invention of the Internet. Now, as Mead proves, we are poised at the brink of a similar explosion in game technology. War Play reveals that many of tomorrow’s teaching tools, therapies, and entertainments can be found in today’s military.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“War sucks,” says one researcher in War Play, “but it does drive innovation.” As one of the largest and highest-stakes educators in the United States, the military has led the way in developing new instructive tools, like the first standardized tests. It was also one of the earliest adopters of video games for training purposes, specifically warfare simulation. The tactic proved very effective: General Schwarzkopf recalled that during the first Gulf War, “the movements of Iraq’s real-world... forces” were so like the simulated scenarios that military communications centers were impelled to explicitly label dispatches concerning the latter as “Exercise Only” in order to avoid confusion. And the line between real and virtual isn’t the only line being blurred—as the “military-entertainment complex” has grown and cross-fertilized, military-produced games like America’s Army make it increasingly difficult to differentiate between recruiting propaganda, ideological indoctrination, and commercial entertainment. (More altruistically, “cybertherapy” simulations have been used to help soldiers cope with PTSD and develop combat stress resilience.) Mead’s account is insightful, and though he’s hopeful that military innovations will continue to benefit more humanitarian fields (such as medicine), he also recognizes its potential repercussions, as evidenced by a prescient closing image: the Chinese military’s combat simulator, where the only opponent is the United States. Agent: E.J. McCarthy, E.J. McCarthy Agency. (Sept. 17)
From the Publisher

"[Mead] has clearly immersed himself in the subject and written the definitive account of gaming in the U.S. military." --Slate
"A surprisingly profound little book about the rise of the 'military-entertainment complex' in the wake of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq... Mead's approach is straightforward and no-nonsense. Readers will learn something they didn’t realize it was important to know." --Kirkus Reviews
"Mead’s account is insightful, and though he’s hopeful that military innovations will continue to benefit more humanitarian fields (such as medicine), he also recognizes its potential repercussions, as evidenced by a prescient closing image..." --Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
Mead (English, Baruch Coll.) covers the past and present of video games in the military far more than the "the future of armed conflict." He begins with a look at how the military has innovated in technology and education and then contrasts that history with the military's relatively slow adoption of video games—which Mead defines as "a variety of interactive digital and virtual applications"—as tools. He discusses key figures such as Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski, developer of America's Army, "the world's first military-developed video game," and Sharon Sloane, creator of a series of live-action, interactive movies that help soldiers deal with traumas such as sexual harassment and suicidal thinking. While Mead focuses most on combat games such as Virtual Battlespace 2, he also addresses therapeutic games that include Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan, deemed effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Most compelling are his accounts of veterans achieving real gains because of these games. While his book lacks a consistent critical approach, especially with respect to video games as recruiting tools, Mead's primary goal is to explain and illustrate, not to debate and provoke. VERDICT Recommended for all readers interested in the training and healing of soldiers.—Paul Stenis, Pepperdine Univ. Lib., Malibu, CA
Kirkus Reviews
A surprisingly profound little book about the rise of the "military-entertainment complex" in the wake of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Always on the lookout for capable recruits from diverse backgrounds, the military has long exerted a strong influence on the way the United States educates its young people and even on the way it measures that education: Standardized tests like the SAT and GED are just two major examples of metrics the military developed first to assess the capabilities of, respectively, officer material and recruits lacking a high school diploma. But with the rise of the all-volunteer Army since Vietnam, the military suddenly found itself on the outside of many school districts, looking in. In the late 1990s, the Army hit upon the idea of using relatively inexpensive-to-produce video games, resulting in the hugely popular multiplayer online simulation "America's Army," to reach talented high schoolers where they lived (literally as well as virtually). The benefit of this approach was that it could both attract good candidates for the Army's high-tech style of combat using realistic and exciting graphics and simultaneously train these young recruits in core Army values. Paradoxically, perhaps, the military now also uses video games to deal with the myriad mental and social problems--PTSD, suicidal tendencies, marital and family difficulties, etc.--that combat-tested veterans face when they return from war. In fact, Mead (English/Baruch College, CUNY) argues, "[t]he most important video game–related legacy of these wars may have nothing to do with preparing for war at all but be concerned with treating its aftermath." An English professor may seem an odd fit for this material, but in other hands, the subject might have been treated more dryly. Mead's approach, while remaining interesting throughout, is straightforward and no-nonsense. Readers will learn something they didn't realize it was important to know.

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Read an Excerpt


One June day, I visited a brick-and-concrete warehouse on a dead-end street of squat buildings in Playa Vista, California. The outer part of the warehouse housed a suite of glass-fronted offices, while the main room was strewn with sandbags, corrugated metal, piles of fake rubble, and twisted rebar. Placed throughout this room were strategic groupings of “digital flats,” large rear-projection screens that employ digital graphics to depict particular settings and geographic locations. The warehouse, a former television studio, was owned by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a joint venture between the military and the University of Southern California. Funded by the army to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the ICT’s declared mission is “to build a partnership among the entertainment industry, Army, and academia with the goal of creating synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real.” As the ICT’s executive director, Dr. Randall Hill, put it to me, “One way of seeing our mission, one way we view it, is that we’re trying to forge leaders and revolutionize learning—in general, not just in the military. It’s really about how you use digital interactive media, forms of media, to aid the learning process.”
   The main room of the warehouse in which I stood contained FlatWorld, one of the ICT’s earliest projects, described as “a mixed reality environment where users interact with both the physical and virtual worlds seamlessly.” FlatWorld was conceived of and designed by video game designers, special effects artists, research scientists, and Pentagon personnel working together to create the army version of Star Trek’s fictional “holodeck,” a simulated-reality facility that mimics the environments of alien planets. The military’s goal in creating this type of fully immersive domain was to give soldiers the most accurate training environment possible outside of live field exercises.
   As I walked through FlatWorld, Jarrell Pair, my guide, led me through a door into a tiny room fronted by a large digital screen. Onto the screen (the “flat”) was projected the computer-animated version of a deserted city street lined with squat gray residential buildings, a white mosque with two minarets, telephone wire, and palm trees. A Middle Eastern carpet covered the floor of the room, with pieces of concrete and wrecked furniture heaped in one corner. Broken ceiling panels hung overhead. After instructing me to put on a pair of polarized 3-D glasses, Pair began pressing buttons on a small controller pad. Suddenly, in the open wooden doorway to my right, there appeared a life-size, computer-generated army officer yelling at me that the enemy was approaching. Just then a computer-animated helicopter roared in overhead and began strafing the street, as insurgents and U.S. soldiers appeared along the road, each group firing at the other. One insurgent popped up in the open doorway where the American officer had been. He pointed his machine gun in my direction and started firing, and the wall to my left began sending out virtual clouds of plaster dust, which cleared to reveal pockmarks where the bullets had lodged. The ground in the room began to shake, and the volume of the helicopter overhead and the gunfire in the street increased to the point of near discomfort. A little boy ran into the street and shouted, “U.S.A.! Over here!” Pair pressed another button and a tank rounded the corner at the end of the street, then headed straight toward me. As it bore down, the combination of the noise, the rumbling ground, and the tank cannon pointing at my face stirred genuine anxiety in me. The anxiety built for several seconds until, at the moment when the tank appeared about to run me over, Pair pressed another series of buttons and the room returned to its original state—no tank, no insurgents, no U.S. soldiers, no helicopter, no noise, no rumbling ground, just a panel projecting the digital image of a now empty city street.
With its virtual, immersive nature, FlatWorld—currently in use as the Joint Fires and Effects Training System at Fort Sill, Oklahoma—is a large-scale example of the U.S. military’s changing approach to training and educating its soldiers. While live field exercises and training manuals are still crucial, they are increasingly being supplemented and supplanted by video games and digital simulations, which are used to teach everything from battlefield operations to cultural interaction to language skills to weapons handling. Though the specifics vary, today every armed forces service member engages in some form of virtual learning. Helping troops protect themselves or gain the advantage against the endlessly mutating insurgencies that mark today’s wars requires a constant shifting of strategies and tactics and the kinds of rapid adjustments in scenarios that print-based manuals, which are updated every six months at the most, can’t keep up with. Video games, in contrast, allow for near-instantaneous user modification, meaning that soldiers in the field can, on a daily basis, input the enemy’s latest fighting tactics, so that troops who are stateside can keep their training up-to-date. As one Marine officer said to me, events in military gaming are moving “at the speed of war.” The military’s use of video games also extends beyond the battlefield: games are used to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and they aid veterans who are reintegrating into civil society.
   The military’s desire to harness game technologies stems in part from the realization that its traditional approach to learning, and to the role of soldiers, often no longer applies. Standardization and functionality, the longstanding military paradigms for instruction, don’t always fit the problems of America’s new hybrid wars. The reality is that soldiers are themselves now a form of information technology, responsible for a far broader range of roles, decisions, and systems-based interactions than in any previous conflict. This is the extension of a process that began during World War II, when the military emphasis on selection, classification, and “human factors” training came to the fore. At the time, military psychologists argued that the “human-machine system,” not just the machine itself, was the fundamental military unit, a claim supported by many military leaders. In the intervening years, this view has only become more prominent. Today soldiers’ skills are measured largely in relation to the technological systems the soldiers will be using.
   To a sizable extent, the military is turning to gaming for scenarios that involve new and unexpected roles for soldiers as well as the mental and physical side effects of multiple deployments. Take the rise of nontraditional soldier roles: soldiers today use games to learn skills such as cultural negotiation, because in our post-9/11 wars they must deal with disputes between tribal elders or with the complexities of building a police force. In past wars, when issues related to civil affairs arose, the government farmed them out to other agencies, but those duties are now increasingly under the Pentagon’s control. This, then, is part of why the military now relies so heavily on gaming: it helps to plug the holes, to address the issues that previous military instruction wasn’t set up to address.
   The hype over video games extends far beyond the military, of course. These games suffuse our popular culture and the lives of our young people, generating more yearly profits than the movie and music industries combined. And though video games have long been criticized as being harmful to kids, even mainstream educators and administrators across the country are beginning to follow the military’s lead and treat games as potentially revolutionary educational tools. Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard, caused a stir by declaring, “Games are the future of learning.” President Obama, meanwhile, has identified the creation of good educational software as one of the “grand challenges for American innovation.” (To meet this challenge, the Obama administration created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education, which has as a major goal the creation of educational software “as compelling as the best video game.”) For many years, a rapidly expanding “serious games” movement has been pushing the use of video games as teaching tools in schools and workplaces.
   As we will see, if games are the future of learning, it is a future that the military already inhabits. At the same time, the military’s use of video games is just the latest entry in its long history of learning innovation. Though the fact is rarely recognized, over the past century the military has helped shape the contours of American education. Mass standardized tests? Computer-based learning? Adult education? A functional approach to education? All of these have been launched or refined by the military. We don’t have to look far to see that the paradigms of military training—standardization, efficiency, functionality—are everywhere apparent in our schools and workplaces alike. If the historical pattern continues to apply, we can expect to see the military’s use of video games having a deep influence on our public institutions, not only in terms of methods of instruction but in regard to the skills that people will be expected to master. And yet, while the growth of virtual and game-based learning represents a potential sea change in American education, the military’s role in this potential transformation has gone almost entirely unnoticed by both the public and the media.
   What is unique about the military’s employment of video games is that it is deploying them on a broad, institution-wide scale. While any number of other institutions—businesses, schools, health-care organizations, government agencies—are using games for learning, the military is the first organization that has substantially moved into video games, using them at every organizational level for a broad array of purposes. Moreover, although commercial interests have had by far the largest influence on video games as a cultural phenomenon, the military is the first institution to use video games in direct support of state purposes, and the most serious of purposes at that: the use of force to protect the state’s interests.
   An overarching theme in this book is the military’s long history of technical and instructional innovation. We see that today in its use of video games, but the scenario has shifted so that the military is now following the entertainment industry, not leading it. At the same time, the military—that conservative, hidebound institution—is showing more flexibility and openness about learning than our public schools are. The Pentagon may be following the entertainment industry, but it is leading the education industry. This, too, has gone entirely unremarked upon in the media and public spheres.
   One of the ironies here is that gaming technologies were initially created for military needs and were developed in military-sponsored projects and labs. For decades the military took the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the technology used in video games, while game companies were the happy beneficiaries. The entire game industry rests on a technological foundation established by large amounts of military-funded research and infrastructure, including advanced computing systems, computer graphics, and the Internet.
   Not until the late 1990s did the technological balance between the military and the game industry shift for good, as the military’s budget was reduced and as cheaper, smaller, more powerful computers became commercially available. Today the video game industry far surpasses the military in technological expertise, with the result that the military now procures its game technology from commercial game companies. By partnering with these companies, it is granted access to proprietary technology, while game makers receive the military’s money and occasionally its official stamp of approval. This exchange has led scholars to dub the partnership between the military and the video game industry the “military-entertainment complex.”
   While the army is the largest military user of video games, the other services rely on gaming technology—and, more broadly, on modeling and simulation—as well. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, more than three hundred virtual worlds are in development for military purposes, and that figure is likely to grow. The 2012 Department of Defense budget allocated at least $224 million specifically for modeling and simulation; the research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that DoD spending on modeling and simulation will reach $24.1 billion by 2015.
   Two questions that remain unanswerable are the number of games and simulations that service members will encounter in their training and what percentage of their training will be virtual. The simple fact is that nobody knows, because no larger set of requirements is guiding virtual training. It’s up to each company commander to determine how much simulation he or she wants to use, but that’s not something the military keeps track of. Thus, the only concrete answer that my interviewees (backed up by secondary sources) have given me is that every service member encounters game-based learning at some point in his or her training.
   There are major consequences of the military’s video game use both within and beyond the services. For the military itself, the combined outcome is potentially paradigm-shifting. As defense expert Peter Singer points out, “game-based training can be tailored to specific scenarios as well as to an individual’s own rate of learning, sped up or slowed down based on how quickly he or she is learning.” This is not to mention the untold millions of dollars in savings that virtual training enables, a factor that will only grow in importance as defense budgets shrink.
   Taken as a whole, the trend lines for gaming in the military point to enormous growth. While the army has been ahead of the other services in exploiting the benefits of game-based learning, for example, this will not be the case in a few more years. At the same time, the Pentagon, as I mentioned, has yet to develop an overall policy or set of metrics for its use of video games, even as its reliance on games continues to grow. There remain a number of critical questions that the Pentagon must answer, including how game-based learning can be placed in its proper perspective and what an effective balance between virtual training and “muddy boots” training might be.
   These concerns become even more pressing in regard to such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder. The use of video games to treat PTSD, for example, points to larger issues involving the soaring rate of mental health problems, as well as suicide, in the military. This is an issue that the entire country, not just the Pentagon, should be debating, and yet it remains distressingly absent from our public discourse.
   Nor do the concerns end there. As defense expert John Arquilla points out, issues surrounding virtual reality become particularly blurred in the area of cyberwarfare, which to date has been almost exclusively a virtual phenomenon. Military thinkers warn that in the future cyberwarfare will increasingly intrude on the real world, as developments like the Stuxnet and Flame computer worms deployed by the United States and Israel against Iran’s nuclear program illustrate, in Arquilla’s words, “how zeros and ones can have real effects on physical phenomena.”
   For the past several years I have been investigating the historical foundations of the military-entertainment complex as well as how it operates today. During this time I have traveled the country interviewing the leaders who are pioneering the military’s use of video games as learning tools. I have visited the sites where the military’s games are being developed and put into practice. I have spoken with dozens of military, civilian, and academic experts. This book is an account of what I’ve learned during my travels and my research. Readers looking for the technical details of military video games will not find them here; nor will readers looking for a detailed analysis of commercial first-person shooters like the Call of Duty series find what they are seeking. But anyone concerned with the present and future of war and education will find in the following pages a map of the immense—and consequential—changes swirling around both.

Meet the Author

COREY MEAD is an assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York. He has researched and written about the subject matter of War Play since 2005.

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