Shooting Sprees, Ender’s Game, and the U.S. Military

I’m not sure if it is fascinating or horrifying—perhaps both—to discover that life is like a video game.  At least since the Columbine shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and certainly into the more recent Aurora shooting, pundits have lamented the fact that young men are inspired by video games to enact cruelty on a shocking scale.

The moralizing that goes hand-in-hand with anti-video game rhetoric often targets parents. During his 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama pulled no punches, saying that parents needed to stop blaming teachers for failing to raise good citizens.  Tell your kids to put down the video games and read a book, he said.  And keeping to this theme of growing up, he exhorted us as a nation to set aside our petty squabbling.  During his 2009 inaugural address he referenced the Bible—specifically, a passage from Corinthians—and told us to set aside childish things.  When we were children, we spoke and thought as children, but when we grew up, we were supposed to put away childish things.

Okay, fine.  So we’re not supposed to act like kids.  And parents are bad to encourage violent video games.

But if I may be forgiven a Michael Jackson reference, let’s look at the man in the mirror, shall we?  The U.S. government is a big promoter of video games, and spends a lot of money making them.  And some are quite, quite violent.

It turns out that the most “grown up” thing you can do—fight, and possibly die, for your country—is fully intertwined with the technology of video games, itself the knee-jerk symbol of all bad parenting.  The U.S. government treats its soldiers like children.  Let’s leave aside the fact that you can join the military at 17, just a year after getting behind the wheel of a car, before you can vote and long before you can drink alcohol legally.  Instead let’s focus on the fact that the U.S. government’s recruitment campaign is to appeal to what children love to do.  Namely, to play games.

You’ve probably seen ads similar to this one.  Here the U.S. Marines describe joining up “as more than a trial by fire,” and then go on to show a young man wielding a sword, negotiating an incomprehensible but fairly Super Mario-esque geared contraption, pulling a sword from a stone, and then fighting a—what is that, a fire golem?  I can’t tell.

Tying military recruitment to games or sports is not a new idea.  Here’s an ad that aired during football games in 1981.  Its production values are WAY less than the above, but it does draw links between playing football games and joining the Marines.  It is interesting to note that thirty years ago, the Marines courted athletes, whereas now it courts video gamers.

Today, the U.S. Army has completely abandoned the idea of forcing its recruits to grow up, and instead adopts a mentality that is very like the characters in the award-winning 1985 Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card.  It’s soon to be a movie starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford.  In the book, a cadre of children is recruited to play games, simulating command of a space fleet to fight alien invaders.  Turns out (spoiler alert!) they are partaking, from afar, in actual battles without realizing it. The hero, Ender Wiggin, is the best gamer around.  It’s a fascinating premise, to use those young kids whose dexterity and mental prowess, not to mention their subtle mastery of game controls, are far superior to those of grown-ups.

In reality, the U.S. Army has invested considerable sums in its America’s Army franchise (rated T for teen!), which has its own YouTube page:

The Army decided some years ago that, if kids were going to play games anyway, they might as well be playing out scenarios that might, conceivably, help them on the battlefield.  If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll give away what’s in the game: there’s lots and lots of shooting and blowing things up.  Also some tactics that really are only going to be useful in certain settings.

I still remember my discomfort about the hazy line between our love for violent games and our selectively favorable views of human violence when I would talk to soldiers in Atlanta, Georgia (this was when I was teaching history at Clemson University, in South Carolina).  I did a lot of traveling then, and I would often depart from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.  There were almost always soldiers there in desert fatigues, waiting around for their flights or, just as often, for a bus to take them somewhere.  If I had time to spare I would make conversation with them.  Some were coming home, some were shipping out.  Men and women.  Some didn’t even have uniforms yet, but instead had these fat envelopes with recruitment info inside.  Most seemed far too young to be in uniform.

Do you know what struck me most about these soldiers? The vast majority of them had portable video games!  At the time, the PlayStation Portable (PSP) was the system of choice among the military, at least in the airport.  The image of a kid (yes, a kid) slumped down in an airport chair, playing a video game, about to be shipped off to Iraq, is a hard one to process.  I wondered, “Are PSPs standard issue now?”  That was right before I wondered what percentage of these kids would make it home safe from Iraq.

Military analysts, and historians of science and technology like myself, continue to debate not just the past but also the future of war and the role of technology in it.

To me, there appear to be two broad schools of thought: one wants to use technology to improve the American soldier: to make him a better fighter, to keep him in the best shape, to equip him with the best technology, etc.  The other is to rely less on soldiers, but instead to deploy unmanned vehicles and drones.  (I’ll give you three guesses which the Air Force prefers!)

One side emphasizes fighting with boots firmly on the ground, with all the personal risk involved, just like in America’s Army. The other is based on remote operation, with humans fighting in Ender’s Game fashion, from afar, without much at stake personally, like a kid in a video game.

In gaming terms, one is a first-person shooter, and one is a flight simulator.  For a gamer, there’s no question about which one is more fun (sorry, flight simulator fanatics).  But for the United States, which one is the most wise?

I remember that during the crisis in Kosovo, then-President Bill Clinton caught some flack for not being realistic about what it takes to win a war.  Clinton was committing the apparently mortal sin of using drones and remote technology to fight.  It seemed amateurish and non-committal.  General Wesley Clark and others complained—to use the memorable phrase—that you’ve gotta have “boots on the ground.”  Years later, Clark and other still underplayed the role of remote warfare—an attitude some Air Force aficionados didn’t care for.

Well, we’ve had plenty of boots on the ground since then.  And between Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, I feel like I know which one caused the least trauma to Americans, and least long-term repercussions worldwide.

Either way, we’ve passed the point of no return on integrating video games into our military.  And in fact this is the case in other domains too.  We’re a “gaming” culture now, apparently.  Even President Obama, who has made some pretty anti-game statements in the past, has embraced them as part of promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, in projects like the “National STEM Video Game Challenge.” 

The United States does flex its military might around the world, and it does operate in ways that mimic computer and video games—or it creates games that mimic battlefields, with all the shooting and mass killing that it entails.

So next time you want to blame parents for allowing these video games to ruin the next generation of kids, maybe you could—again, quoting Michael Jackson—look at the man in the mirror, or at least consider where your own tax dollars are being spent.

3 responses to “Shooting Sprees, Ender’s Game, and the U.S. Military”

  1. At the risk of being overly pedantic 🙂 and at producing more spoilers, I’m oddly compelled to point out that in Ender’s Game, while Ender and the other “commanders” are playing the game from afar, they are sending actual (human) soldiers (the futuristic equivalent of fighter pilots and their support crews, etc) to their deaths (I don’t know why OSC didn’t envision fighting the entire war remotely, rather than just controlling strategic and high-level tactics remotely, but he didn’t).

    I’m tempted to go on a bit about the importance in the book of Ender’s reactions to this, and the importance of his reactions to the expectation that he be less concerned about the “enemies” he killed than the subordinate soldiers whose deaths he was responsible for, and the further expectation that he be particularly upset by the people he himself killed, as opposed to those whose deaths he was merely responsible for, but that would be another, weirder post.


    • You can be a pedant, that’s fine with me! I do remember that now, there were real people involved, and I can’t quite recall (having read it 20 years ago!) if he was actually controlling equipment, or giving orders, or what. But the idea of remote control is still there… and certainly gaming… though one could argue this is just generalship. What would the equivalent in gaming terms be, if not flight simulator, real-time strategy? By the way, this blog post already is pretty weird, so you can weird it up further, to your heart’s content, JK! The link you provided, also, is priceless. Xenocide was, by all accounts, an inferior book.


      • Oh, my word, Xenocide was appalling.

        Since Ender’s Game was told primarily from the standpoint of Ender (and, to a lesser extent, his sister), we don’t get all the details on why it was children that were used. It was Ender because of who he was (and perhaps, it is sometimes hinted, who he was designed to be) — particularly fast, smart, ruthless, but also with the kind of great warmth and empathy that permitted him to gain the trust (and near-worship) of his subordinates. The point about using children was mixed — there was a lot of concern expressed by the ‘adult’ military commanders that Ender was “too young” — ideally, it seemed, they would have preferred that he be significantly older. But, we are led to believe, they had been training and selecting for people like him for years and years, and he was the closest they’d gotten to the kind of person they needed.

        In the war itself, fleet-level tactics and strategy were handled remotely; individual fighter-level tactics were handled by the pilots themselves (who were present w/ their ships, and died in great numbers in the fighting), and “squad-level” tactics appeared to be mixed — sometimes handled remotely, sometimes by the commanders on the ships themselves.

        Ender (and the other children/young adults in change of the fleet from afar) were not told it was real, in part because it was felt that they would be overly cautious about putting people in harms way if they knew that that was what they were doing. If they believed it to be a ‘game,’ they would be able to act “rationally” — to figure out the best way to achieve the goals set, with the minimum of loses, and be able to execute those plans w/o being “distracted” by the knowledge that they were sending people to die.


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