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Why the Air Force Thinks It Can Turn Gamers Into Its Next Top Guns

In late May, the U.S. Air Force announced its intention to release an advanced video game [1] simulation. The theory is that the game, if successful, will be an effective recruitment tool among high school students.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the U.S. Army already did the exact same thing with a game called “America’s Army [2],” launched in 2002. That one was for a while relatively popular, but as a recruitment tool there’s little doubt it failed. Indeed, it was panned early and often [3] for claiming to offer a realistic soldiering experience while glamorizing it as an exciting and largely consequence-free adventure. The game, of course, never showed the tedium or the dark side of military service in conflict—but what proper recruitment propaganda ever does?

Not content to merely copy a failed program, the so-far untitled Air Force game seeks to combine the allure of video games with the Orwellian realities of modern “big data” applications that the government is so fond of. In this case, officials have suggested they are literally going to monitor players to spot particularly talented ones they can recruit.

Call it recruitment recon.

As an example, imagine that the Air Force identifies a player who is particularly good at controlling the game’s simulated planes, so they offer him/her a $100,000 signing bonus to sign up for the real thing. But isn’t it possible that video game talent might not translate into real-life skills in combat? Incredibly, that seems to have been lost on the USAF.

Which is why this could be an even bigger disaster than the “America’s Army” folly—and much more expensive, too. While the Army’s gambit cost millions to design, it at least had a limited return on investment. The Air Force is prepared to throw major bonuses at good video game players on the notion that, like the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, that’s where you’re going to find real talent.

The reason this makes sense to the Air Force (but nobody else) is because, with the advent of drone operations (i.e. remote control targeting), a number of people actually are employed in joystick-based warfare. It’s not clear whether the game will feature a drone operator mode (based in some outpost in the Nevada desert), as it seems to be focused on advanced warplanes in the heat of battle, not blowing up Pakistani wedding parties from thousands of miles away. This should come as no surprise because the life of an actual drone operator is reportedly pretty miserable [4], and the point of the Air Force’s game is to get kids to play so you can collect all sorts of data from them.

So far, Air Force officials aren’t providing a lot of specifics, just ambitions. They’ve also avoided estimating what the program will cost. Creating a game advanced enough to reliably attract an audience gets more expensive every year. At this point just developing a game can be counted on to cost a minimum of $100 million, to say nothing of all of the server and metadata processing costs, and the costs associated with marketing the game.

This is precisely why high-end video games don’t attempt to survive as advertising platforms. The cost of developing games has grown precipitously over the years, and players are focused on playing. They don’t want to be sold anything—not by companies, not by Uncle Sam.

This is why using a war simulation video game as a marketing tool is a terrible idea. Even in the highly unlikely event that the U.S. Air Force actually does make a popular video game, that doesn’t mean its fan base is going to be inclined toward military service, let alone suited to it. This is what happens when you combine lofty recruitment goals with a bottomless pit of taxpayer money: the military is encouraged to make reckless attempts to engage the public. The Air Force now appears to be lining up one of the most reckless of blunders yet.

Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com [5], a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, the American Conservative, the Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Why the Air Force Thinks It Can Turn Gamers Into Its Next Top Guns"

#1 Comment By One Guy On June 1, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

The military would make a blunder? I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you.

Well, not that shocked.

In the interest of transparency, I’ve played America’s Army, and if the Air Force makes a decent free game, I will play it, too. I probably won’t get recruited, being old and all.

#2 Comment By David J. White On June 1, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

Isn’t this basically the premise of the 80s movie The Last Starfighter? An alien civilization needed to recruit crack fighter pilots, so they distributed a video game throughout the galaxy — including on Earth — to identify them.

#3 Comment By GregR On June 1, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

I wonder if they have figured out yet that the population of people who play video games has a high crossover with people who smoke weed. Since they can’t recruit weed smokers I can’t even imagine their targeted demographics…

#4 Comment By Youknowho On June 1, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

Ender’s Game anyone?

#5 Comment By grin without a cat On June 1, 2018 @ 4:39 pm

I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The Air Force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.

— Ronald Reagan

I don’t think anybody from the Air Force backed up this assertion.

#6 Comment By Kodos the Executioner On June 1, 2018 @ 7:10 pm

David J. White said:
An alien civilization needed to recruit crack fighter pilots, so they distributed a video game throughout the galaxy — including on Earth — to identify them.
“I did NOT use the Excalibur Test! It was called a ‘video game’.”
“That particular Starfighter game was supposed to be delivered to Vegas! Not some flea-speck trailer park out in the middle of nowhere!”
– Centauri; The Last Starfighter

#7 Comment By Ken T On June 1, 2018 @ 8:49 pm

Youknowho:

Yes, that was my first thought, too. But remember – the premise of Ender’s Game [spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read it] was that Ender didn’t know that he was really fighting the war – he believed that he was still just playing a game, and that there were no real casualties. He only learned the truth after it was over. At least the Air Force isn’t taking things that far. Yet.

#8 Comment By Nelson On June 2, 2018 @ 1:10 am

This article has many assertions not backed up by data. The author could be correct in his conclusion but the argument itself has many holes.

#9 Comment By DR On June 2, 2018 @ 3:24 am

The US military has been involved in the development of video games since the last decade at least. I can only guess they consider it the new means for propaganda and conditioning, since Hollywood has been (relatively) uncooperative recently.

#10 Comment By Roger On June 2, 2018 @ 9:26 am

The Marine Corps has consistently met their recruiting goals while the other branches have struggled. One big reason is that they market exactly who the are. There are no big promises of higher education, high tech gizmo training, great travel destinations or a ticket out of nowhere-ville that guarantees you will be all you can be. As a result they get the recruits they are looking for. Everyone knows what the Marines are all about so there is no reason to play to the latest trends or try and obfuscate the truth. The Army and Air Force have tried all the tricks in the book and yet they have problems attracting and retaining talent. Ditch all the phony attempts at being cool or making big promises and just sell what you are. In the process you’ll save a ton of wasted taxpayer dollars and a lot of frustration. The Air Force flies and fights in the air. In order to do that you need to be in decent shape, and want to make a future for yourself, so get off the couch and do it for real. That should be the message, not sit around some more in your parents basement and play our game for free. Same goes for the Army. Why would you want to try and recruit a kid that would play your watered down game? Besides you’ve competing with Call of Duty and it is no competition. You’re better served saving the money or offering it as a re-enlistment bonus to those that are already in uniform.

#11 Comment By George Hoffmam On June 2, 2018 @ 10:01 am

There is a simpler, more pragmatic reason for this program. I recently read the US Air Force ( in Defense Times, I think) had a shortfall in its recruitment of jet pilots (around 2,000) and Air crewmen (around 3,200). More drones have replaced manned jet fighters, and this program could target potential recruits in the future. .

#12 Comment By b. On June 2, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

America’s Army had an interesting twist – in multiplayer, players’ characters are always represented as U.S. soldiers regardless of the team, while the opponents always appear as non-U.S. soldiers. It’s like the Civil War, it’s Americans all the way down…

#13 Comment By Garry Kelly On June 2, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

Every drone operator should be required to view in real time the results of his work

#14 Comment By Nora On June 2, 2018 @ 6:12 pm

The government will never get the best IT talent, be it gamers or hackers, as long as they drug test for marijuana.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 2, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

So the “killing” in video games isn’t going to be just virtual after all. Turns out it was the gateway drug to war.

#16 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On June 3, 2018 @ 2:48 am

I guess that the killers of many families and children playing in fields in the Middle East and Afghanistan from bombers and by using drones aren’t slaughtering enough. And going into peoples homes and murdering and raping (like many times in Iraq) and having all the back up of helicopters and planes.
Bomb and have brave American troops do stuff like Abu Ghraib.
Real brave. Yeah, against people in their own country.
Gotta recruit more mindless, no conscience people for that.
There are a lot out there.
There are millions of shallow/low character people, go ahead recruit and keep showing us your ‘American values’ you creeps in the pentagon and the creeps that tell you what is what.
The words My Lai and a thousand other like that committed in Vietnam come to mind..? come to think of it.
To all you mindless, historically ignorant phony super patriots, I don’t give a damn what you think.
How ’bout that?
sincerely,
Dear Fayez

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 3, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

“The government will never get the best IT talent, be it gamers or hackers, as long as they drug test for marijuana.”

There are already waivers.

Just as our warlord allies are allowed to molest children, right on U.S. bases overseas.

The main impetus for keeping the drug war going, is the beneficial financial impact for the prison-industrial system, and for the same for military-industrial wing of that same drug war.

Ironically, it’s all “on automatic pilot.”

#18 Comment By Buckeyewhite On June 3, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

Sorry, but the US government doesn’t have much of a history with internet sites that work. For example, Obumercare, the IRS web site, Medicare and Medicaide.

#19 Comment By David J. White On June 3, 2018 @ 9:47 pm

Kodos (great moniker, BTW) — thanks for the correction! It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen it.

#20 Comment By Rick On June 3, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

The main issue is risk. If a pilot is under fire or given orders that may get them killed they find a way to ignore them. They always have.

But now, with zero risk it’s doesnt matter what the target is. There’s no personal risk of loss of life.

Drones are already showing this trend. Mass murder with zero risk.

It will only get worse if we expand it to remotely operated fighter jet and bombing platforms.

#21 Comment By furbo On June 4, 2018 @ 6:48 am

This is silliness.

Someday when I’m the SECDEF: most pilots will be Warrant Officers, drone operators will be Flight Sergeants. You don’t need a degree in engineering and a commission to fly a plane. Cargo fleet will become quasi commercial like they were under the Soviet Air Force and the 130’s & A10’s will go to the Army.

#22 Comment By A Moderate On June 9, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

GregR:

You are wrong. I put on my enlistment papers in 2016 that I smoked marijuana, on occasion, for years. I didn’t even need a waiver. It isn’t even disqualifying for a top secret clearance anymore, as long as it wasn’t heavy use and the habit was halted.

#23 Comment By A Moderate On June 9, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

Roger: The Air Force flies and fights in the air.

Actually we fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace.