In September 2017, the U.S. Military’s chief news source, Army Times, reported the U.S. Army had missed its target for recruitment by 7,500 soldiers. That was something of a surprise given the Army had offered a number of incentives, including shorter enlistment periods, student loan repayments, and up to $40,000 in bonus payments.
Now, the U.S. Army has decided to take a new tack to encourage enlistment: creating its own military-backed esports team. This digital squadron intends to enter high-level esports competition. It’s much the same way the Army, Navy, and Air Force have representative teams in American college football.
Announcing the move on the Reddit Ask Me Anything forum, the U.S. Army stated their teams would comprise only active army personnel, reservists, and veterans. The focus will be on popular first-person shooters, such as Call of Duty, PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, and Fortnite.
In addition to competing in these events, the Army will also send recruitment officers to various esports events.
However, as one writer from the Independent pointed out, such a move does provoke some serious ethical issues for esports.
Shrewd move or cynical exploitation?
Depending on your point of view, the U.S. Army’s move into esports could be either perfectly logical or callously exploitative.
Esports is a good fit for the military in many respects. The main demographic of players are young men. Furthermore, many esports games, such as the aforementioned Call of Duty, PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds, and other games such as Rainbow Six, are all heavily influenced and inspired by military combat.
However, there are many who feel esports is not an environment that should be encouraging its competitors to put down their controller or keyboards and pick up a real gun.
Here’s the aforementioned Indepedent writer James McMahon stating the crux of his case:
“Video games are capable of such societal good. Recent research has suggested that playing video games can slow the natural breaking down of cognitive functions, increase accuracy within training surgeons and be as effective as treating depression as therapy. Even the US Army uses games to combat soldiers’ PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. It would be a tragedy to use them to propagate bloodshed.”
Should esports accept official military involvement?
While many commentators have been asking whether it is morally dubious for the military to recruit via esports, what has not yet been examined in any great detail is whether the esports community should accept military involvement in its tournaments and games.
Answering in the affirmative would seem to run counter to the “safe gaming” principles of esports. After all, why would you ban one fan for “flaming” another with words while you are allowing army officials to enter teams into events and recruit soldiers who will go on to serve in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
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Granted, there are some considerations to be made too. In order to achieve the realism found in games like Call of Duty, the game developers do pay arms manufacturers a fee to use their products within the game. There’s also the salient point that many of the top esports titles are based on military operations. Even games that have a fantasy element, such as Dota 2 or League of Legends, still have plenty of opportunity for players to indulge in combat.
What is clear, however, is that there is an unequivocal line between what happens on screen in esports gaming and what happens in the real world. Tragic events like the recent mass shooting at a Madden tourney in Jacksonville led to a clear and consistent response in the community that guns are in no way acceptable at any esports events.
My final word
Many esports event attendees are younger than 18, some younger than 16. Is it morally right for impressionable teens to be actively recruited, even for a time in the future when they are able to sign up? How will esports officials monitor how recruiting officers are interacting with minors?
The American military’s involvement in esports is a thorny issue, but it is one that the esports community can handle in the correct way. As an inclusive form of entertainment, the military could well have a role to play in esports’ future by entering teams. However, I think the esports community should resist any attempts to allow military branches to actively recruit at their events.