The Pentagon Invades Your Xbox

Nick Turse is a doctoral student in the program for the history and ethics of public health and medicine in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

In 1998, the band Rage Against the Machine decried “the thin line between entertainment and war.” Today, even that thin line is in danger of vanishing.

In a new twist on President Eisenhower’s concept of a “military-industrial complex,” a “military-entertainment complex” has sprung up to feed both the military’s desire for high-tech training techniques and the entertainment industry’s desire to bring out ever-more-realistic computer and video combat games. Through video games, the military and its partners in academia and the entertainment industry are creating an arm of media culture geared toward preparing young Americans for armed conflict.

Such cooperation wasn’t always the order of the day. In the late 1980s, the creators of the combat-simulator video game M1 Tank Platoon weren’t allowed by the Army to even set foot inside an actual tank. But by 1997, everything had changed. That was the year the Marine Corps signed a deal with MAK Technologies to create the first combat-simulation video game “to be co-funded and co-developed” by the Department of Defense and the entertainment industry. A year later, the Army signed a contract with MAK to develop a sequel to its commercial tank simulation game “Spearhead” for use by the U.S. Army Armor Center and School and the Army’s Mounted Maneuver Battle Lab. The military has been gaming ever since.

Some examples:


* In 2001, the Department of Defense drafted the video game “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear” into service to train military personnel in how to conduct small unit operations in urban terrain.

* In 2002, the Army launched “America’s Army,” a training and combat video game developed at the Naval Postgraduate School with the assistance of entertainment and gaming industry stalwarts including Epic Games and the THX Division of Lucasfilm Ltd. The game, which is free to potential recruits either online or at recruiting stations, cost taxpayers between $6 million and $8 million. It has been, in the Army’s eyes, a huge success, becoming one of the five most popular video games played online.

* This year, a sequel to “Rogue Spear,” “Rainbow Six: Raven Shield,” was adopted by the Army to test soldiers’ skills. The Army also signed a $3.5-million deal with There Inc. to create a virtual environment for warfare-simulation training. One project already underway is the creation of a virtual Kuwait that can be used to train personnel to anticipate and defend against an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City.

* The Navy, not wanting to be out of the action, assisted Sony in producing the video game “SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs,” which was released this year.

Though initially the Pentagon saw in the video game industry only a means of training young, computer-savvy recruits more effectively, the mission has evolved into a two-way street in which the military has embraced entertainment titles at the same time the entertainment industry has embraced the military.

“Kuma: War,” developed by newcomer Kuma Reality Games in cooperation with the Department of Defense and slated for general release next year, is being billed as the first shooter game that will allow players to re-create actual military missions, such as the raid that killed Saddam Hussein’s two sons. Each combat assignment will be introduced by television footage and a cable news-style anchor. Kuma boasts a team of military veteran advisors, who " ... make sure the missions ... are as realistic as possible.” A retired Marine Corps major general leads the company’s military advisory board.

Next year will also mark the release of the next generation in militarized war games: “Full Spectrum Warrior” -- a video game for Microsoft’s Xbox system. The game is a realistic combat simulator that allows the gamer to act as an Army light infantry squad leader conducting operations in the invented nation of “Tazikhstan ... a haven for terrorists and extremists.” And “Full Spectrum Warrior” is not just any old military-themed video game. It was developed under the watchful eye of personnel at the Army’s Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Ga., and is actually a revamped version of “Full Spectrum Command,” a PC game/combat simulator used by the military to teach the fundamentals of commanding a light infantry company in urban environments. Thus, unlike other shoot-'em-ups that use violent imagery and military themes strictly for entertainment purposes, “Full Spectrum Warrior’s” pedigree is that of a combat learning tool.

The “Full Spectrum” games emerged from a new kind of partnership being forged at the Institute for Creative Technologies, a $45-million joint Army/USC venture designed to link up the military with academia and the entertainment and video game industries. In addition to creating “Full Spectrum Command” and “Full Spectrum Warrior,” the institute is involved in a number of other military projects. These include “Advanced Leadership Training Simulation,” a partnership between the institute and entertainment giant Paramount Pictures designed for training soldiers in crisis management and leadership skills; and “Think Like a Commander,” a collaboration among the Army, the Hollywood filmmaking community and USC researchers designed to “support leadership development for U.S. Army soldiers” through software applications.

With military spending budgeted at nearly $400 billion in 2004, a video game industry generating more than $10 billion a year, a transnational entertainment and media industry with annual revenues of some $479 billion, and no public outcry over the militarization of popular culture, the future of such collaborations seems assured. Can the day be far off when the Department of Defense gets a producer credit for a Paramount film and Kuma Reality Games is granted office space in the Pentagon?

Before that happens, we need to start analyzing the effects of blurring the lines between war and entertainment. With more and more “toys” that double as combat teaching tools, we are subjecting youth to a new and powerful form of propaganda. This is less a matter of simple military indoctrination than near immersion in a virtual world of war where armed conflict is not the last, but the first -- and indeed the only -- resort. The new military-entertainment complex’s games may help to produce great battlefield decision makers, but they strike from debate the most crucial decisions young people can make in regard to the morality of a war -- choosing whether or not to fight and for what cause.