America's Digital Army: Games at Work and War

America's Digital Army: Games at Work and War

by Robertson Allen

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America’s Digital Army is an ethnographic study of the link between interactive entertainment and military power, drawing on Robertson Allen’s fieldwork observing video game developers, military strategists, U.S. Army marketing agencies, and an array of defense contracting companies that worked to produce the official U.S. Army video game, America’s Army. Allen uncovers the methods by which gaming technologies such as America’s Army, with military funding and themes, engage in a militarization of American society that constructs everyone, even nonplayers of games, as virtual soldiers available for deployment.

America’s Digital Army examines the army’s desire for “talented” soldiers capable of high-tech work; beliefs about America’s enemies as reflected in the game’s virtual combatants; tensions over best practices in military recruiting; and the sometimes overlapping cultures of gamers, game developers, and soldiers.

Allen reveals how binary categorizations such as soldier versus civilian, war versus game, work versus play, and virtual versus real become blurred—if not broken down entirely—through games and interactive media that reflect the U.S. military’s ludic imagination of future wars, enemies, and soldiers.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496201911
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2017
Series: Anthropology of Contemporary North America
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 228
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Robertson Allen is an independent scholar and ethnographer who researches digital games, war and violence, and food cultures. 

Read an Excerpt

America's Digital Army

Games at Work and War

By Robertson Allen


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4962-0061-7


America's Digital Army

The action takes place in an oppressed yet stubborn country — Poland, Ireland, the republic of Venice, some South Americanor Balkan state ...

Jorge Luis Borges, "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero"

PJ Goes to War

PJ's world is limited and intense. It is confined to one large street that is about four blocks long and filled with an array of abandoned shops, hotels, vehicles, and restaurants. This street is bordered by smaller parallel and interconnected alleys — two to the east and one to the west. A bright but cloudy sky casts brilliant shadows upon brownish gray buildings and shattered rubble in the streets of this city called Travnizeme. PJ, however, gives scant attention to these details, as he knows that he and his fellow squadmates have a critical mission to undertake. PJ's squad leader, named TehLux[o]r, explained in the mission briefing moments earlier that a group of Czervenian enemy soldiers is fast approaching, escorting one of their VIPs to safety. PJ does not know who this VIP is or why he is so important, nor is he aware of the strategic and political implications of his mission. This information is not relevant. He knows only that his squad's mission is to kill this VIP at all costs before he can make it to the extraction point on the other side of the city.

Five of his squadmates, Fire Team A plus the squad leader, head west to cover the exits from a side alley. PJ's unit, Fire Team B, is responsible for covering the eastern sector for possible enemy VIP extraction attempts. As two soldiers in PJ's fire team run toward stairs that will take them to a rooftop overlooking the main street, his fire team leader, LawBringer, calls out the full name assigned to PJ when he first joined the U.S. Army: "Perplexed Jaguar, follow me!" "Sure thing LawBringer," PJ answers. They dart north down an eastern side alleyway, up a short flight of stairs, and around several corners. LawBringer continues north down the alley at a dead run. PJ follows, but hesitates, knowing by experience that such incautious tactics are one way of getting quickly killed. Instead, PJ checks his flanks and squares off, bringing up the iron sights of his M16A4 machine gun. He covers LawBringer's headlong sprint down the dark alley, but realizes there is little he can do to protect his fire team leader.

PJ is still a rather inexperienced soldier himself, but he understands that LawBringer is demonstrating what his squadmates have disparagingly referred to as "noob" soldier behavior. LawBringer can only learn through experience, PJ tells himself. Sure enough, as his fire team leader runs down the alley past the open back door to a hotel, PJ hears the dreaded sounds of a Czervenian Obran being fired at close quarters, and he knows that disregarding LawBringer's orders was the right decision. He watches through his iron sights as a hidden enemy soldier unloads rounds of bullets into LawBringer from inside the hotel. PJ's fire team leader falls to the ground, severely injured and incapacitated but not dead. "I can see him. He's right inside the hotel door," LawBringer communicates through PJ's headset. Moments later, though, the enemy soldier edges into the alleyway in hopes of securing LawBringer to immobilize him from taking part in further combat. In the shadows, PJ waits until the enemy is centered in his sights, then fires repeatedly. The enemy soldier falls to the ground next to LawBringer.

PJ patiently waits, thinking that perhaps there is another enemy nearby covering his fallen teammate's flanks. But PJ can hear the injured enemy soldier speaking in his own language over his communications headset, presumably calling for medical aid and informing his teammates of PJ's location: "Priypa Hesti! Enepria Verdite! Enepria Verdite!" PJ knows he needs to silence quickly the incapacitated enemy soldier, but he hesitates to kill him since this would be a severe violation of the U.S. Army's rules of engagement (ROE). ROE violations happen regularly in this particular theatre of conflict, but PJ knows that the consequences for such dishonorable actions include a prompt imprisonment in Fort Leavenworth. PJ has been there in the past and he does not want to go back. Choosing not to become a war criminal this time around, he cautiously secures the enemy soldier, an action that removes the ability to communicate with teammates or participate in further combat operations.

PJ has been listening to the tense chatter of Fire Team A's squadmates, now apparently engaged in a firefight to the west. In the meantime LawBringer has been bleeding severely, having been shot multiple times in the right arm, chest, and right leg. Although PJ now seriously doubts the benefit of having LawBringer as a teammate, he knows that healing him would at least get an injured teammate back into the action, if only to cause a short distraction for the enemy soldiers. It would also earn LawBringer's gratitude, increase PJ's honor in the eyes of his squadmates, and maybe even get him a medal. PJ crouches over LawBringer, and after about fifteen seconds of first aid treatment — just as he was taught during training for basic combat lifesaving — LawBringer's multiple bullet wounds are patched and he is again on his feet. The fire team leader's injuries prevent him from moving very fast, but he is an extra gun and an extra set of eyes for PJ to use to his advantage.

Two shadows of enemies almost immediately emerge from the foliage in a square to the north of the alley. "Two Czervos coming this way," LawBringer calls out, as PJ hears the report of two Obrans and the subsequent impact of bullets into both LawBringer's flesh and PJ's body armor. PJ does not pause to check on the state of LawBringer. He very likely is dead now. Instead he turns around and sprints into the hotel, away from the fast approaching enemies. He sprints up some spiraling stairs, down a hall, and into an empty room. Crouching down, his back against the wall, PJ waits. He feels like a coward, camping in the hotel bedroom like this, but if he plays it right it might just be the best strategy. He assesses his wounds: a light bullet scrape on his left shoulder, but without severe bleeding; and a direct hit to his chest, but the body armor prevented injury. His radio communication with other squadmates is still active, so he relays the vital information to the rest of the surviving U.S. Army soldiers in the area: "There are two who just came in through the back door of the hotel. One looked like he could be the VIP. I'm in the second floor, side room." "I'm on it," the voice of his squad leader TehLux[o]r, responds, "I think we're the only two left."

As he waits for the arrival of his teammate and the opportune moment to emerge from hiding, PJ reflects upon his experiences in recent weeks. It was a quick journey from boot camp to Travnizeme, but a journey that involved hundreds of deaths and failures in addition to emotional victories. PJ has learned and improved his skills with every mistake, and he has made friends — brothers in arms — for whom he would risk his life. He has already done so multiple times, and even died for them, in this theater of conflict. Several days ago he and two others were killed in this very room by a hand grenade tossed into the open window by some lucky noob Czervo.

PJ is brought out of his reveries as he hears gunfire downstairs in the hotel lobby. TehLux[o]r apparently has found one of the two enemies that had been chasing him. All becomes silent following the deafening boom of a grenade from downstairs. Maybe an enemy was killed by the blast, or maybe not. TehLux[o]r, though, is dead; his voice commo is down. PJ hears dull sounds of movement in the second floor's back room overlooking the alley. He moves quietly down the hall, readying his weapon. He turns the corner and sees the VIP facing away from the door and looking out a window. Hearing something suspicious, the VIP moves as if to turn around, but it is too late. A barrage of bullets leaves PJ's rifle and enters the head of the VIP. It is an immaculate death, clean of any bone fragments or slippery bits that would otherwise splatter out the window. Only a slight puff of red appears as the VIP ragdolls and flops to the floor.

PJ has completed the mission. Celebratory music plays as time stops in PJ's world, and the glorious, disembodied dead from PJ's squad shout in jubilation. They had all been watching the action from their purgatorial state. TehLux[o]r congratulates him: "That was awesome, man!" "Hey, thanks for helping me out," says LawBringer. Two minutes later a different scenario plays itself out in this world of alleys, and with the same respawned soldiers. This time, however, PJ isn't as cautious or lucky, and he takes a bullet to the neck. As he bleeds and audibly gasps for air, the screen turns red, then fades to black. The same alley scenario replays itself again and yet again. Perhaps the next time Perplexed Jaguar is protecting theVIP instead of trying to kill him; maybe in some lives he actually is the VIP. The possible permutations of this thread multiply as PJ's career in the U.S. Army expands, but the constant variables of killing and death, victory and defeat, and honor and teamwork through armed combat are all that PJ ever knows or understands.

The Army Game Project

In PJ's spectacular war story, a clear delineation of war from its representations is lacking. There are elements that point to an uncanny, inhuman element in PJ's interactions with both enemies and teammates. In fact PJ is an amalgamation of human and computer, a prosthetic extension of a human user within an online digital game. Perplexed Jaguar (i.e., PJ) was the name the video game America's Army 3 automatically generated for me upon my first time playing the game. (Players can create their own name or go with one that is given to them.) PJ's narrative may be an overdramatic war story, but for a gamer who has temporarily suspended disbelief long enough to become immersed in this environment, PJ's experiences, and by extension the experiences of PJ's human player, are very real, embodied, and physically stimulating. Video games are part of a "magical spectacle" of stimulation and perception that involves real adrenalin rushes, real increased heart rates, and other real sensory experiences and interpersonal communications (Virilio 1989, 6). These real sensations and emotions, as well as PJ's war story, might be a novelty for many who are unfamiliar with military-themed video games; but for the tens of millions of gamers worldwide who play first-person shooting (FPS) games and other competitive games, they are not very exceptional.

Despite its unexceptional position as merely one narrative among the vast array of other virtual war stories that have been enacted within video game worlds since at least the late 1970s, PJ's story still stands out for one reason: it takes place within a public and freely accessible PC (personal computer) video game environment that has been entirely funded and produced by the U.S. Army. A hardcore player of the game America's Army 3, published in the summer of 2009, would be able to identify PJ's firefight as having taken place within a game scenario known as "Alley (Day Cloudy)," with the mission type being "VIP" (see fig. 1). He — most players of America's Army have been men — would be capable of identifying many of the rooms and doors that PJ passed and imagining the nuanced clinks of grenades and ricochets of bullets hitting cinderblocks or bricks. (Many of the game sounds were recorded from real weapons at army firing ranges.) He would intuitively understand the unwritten rules and interfaces of PC gaming that might leave many uninitiated people lost.

This hypothetical gamer playing as PJ would most likely not be in the army, nor would he be interested in joining it, even though many people who play America's Army are military veterans or prospective recruits. America's Army, after all, is an elaborate interactive advertisement for the U.S. Army. As with most ads, only a small portion of people who experience it fully buy into the product.

The army does not need or expect every player of the game to be completely persuaded to enlist, though. An America's Army player who, through his play experiences, comes to more readily accept the status quo of army norms, priorities, and ways of thinking about the world counts as a success as well. This is the essence of the rationale behind the U.S. military's long-term investment in entertainment and interactive technologies that possess a persuasive power, investments considered by many to be outside the sphere of what the military does or should do.

After the army released the original version of the game on July 4, 2002, for free download and online play, initial reactions saw the game more as a novelty than anything that would significantly influence the future of gaming, army recruiting, or military training. Game journalists wondered whether the military could even produce a good game in the first place, especially when one of the game's self-proclaimed (and not very fun-sounding) goals was "to educate the American public about the U.S. Army and its career opportunities, high-tech involvement, values, and teamwork" (Army Game Project 2002, 1). The appeal of "free," coupled with a compelling game design and the rising popularity of online networked competitive FPS games like Counter-Strike, worked in the game's favor. Numerous gamers worldwide quickly began playing it as a form of entertainment and socializing. The post-9/11 but pre–Iraq War context of the game's release further contributed to its initial success, as news media outlets persisted in implying a connection between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraqi government under the presidency of Saddam Hussein, thus justifying the Bush administration's calls to war in Iraq. Playing a parallel story of the U.S. Army engaged in combat operations in a vaguely Middle Eastern setting, gamers interested in vicarious wish fulfillment found that the game's thin narrative met their desires (Li 2003).

The game continued to grow through the first decade of the twenty-first century, transforming itself into a franchise of multiple games for multiple audiences and purposes. The PC game released periodic updates and consistently ranked among the most played online games. In 2009 Guinness awarded the franchise five world records, reflecting its historically substantial influence on the evolution of interactive media and military gaming. These awards, which seem politically tailored so that only this one game could receive them, included the Largest Virtual Army (9.7 million registered users, about eight times the total size of the actual U.S. Army), Most Downloaded War Video Game (42 million downloads), Most Hours Spent Playing a Free Online Shooter (231 million hours as of August 2008), Earliest Military Website to Support a Video Game, and Largest Travelling Game Simulator. Successive versions of the game, such as PJ's world of America's Army 3 (2009), supported additional modifications designed to train army soldiers, as well as applications aiding in the development of future weapon technologies. The once small America's Army project whose developers were, in their own words, "flying by the seat of our pants," quickly expanded to encompass a large network of commercial and military institutions known as the Army Game Project.

The Army Game Project attempted to integrate a dynamic, and often difficult, nexus between a fast-moving knowledge economy and business contracting model, on the one hand, and the slower-moving procedures of a hierarchical military and bureaucratic government, on the other. The contrast between the lifestyles of game development work and military work could not have been starker. The project was at the forefront of the trends in "serious games" and military entertainment for the better part of a decade, and its ramifications have been widespread, spanning not only the "interactive entertainment" (i.e., games) industry, but also the growing military simulations industry and the U.S. government. In 2002, when the army recruitment rate was falling due partly to deployments in Afghanistan, the Army Game Project and America's Army contributed to a new push by the army to market itself to potential recruits and the public at large. It also spearheaded the development of software packages for arms development, weapons and leadership training, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rehabilitation.

A wide network of commercial, government, and military studios in Raleigh, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Orlando, and elsewhere designed entertainment and government adaptations of the America's Army game, and offices at the U.S. Military Academy and at the Redstone Arsenal military base near Huntsville, Alabama (where the platform continues to be managed), oversaw the entire project. On the interactive entertainment side, America's Army established contractual agreements with well-known game companies. Game industry giant Ubisoft published PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Xbox 360 versions of the game, and Epic Games licensed its commercially successful Unreal game engine, commonly used in many FPS games, to the Army Game Project. The franchise at its height included several PC and console games, an active online community of game users, two product lines of America's Army plastic G.I. Joe–like action figures, a coin-operated arcade game, a cell phone game, and a graphic novel series.


Excerpted from America's Digital Army by Robertson Allen. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. America’s Digital Army
2. The Art of Persuasion and the Science of Manpower
3. The Artifice of the Virtual and the Real
4. The Full-Spectrum Soft Sell of the Army Experience
5. Complicating the Military Entertainment Complex
6. The Labor of Virtual Soldiers

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