Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Playing with Our Minds: Violent Video Games Teach Our Kids to Point and Shoot, Say Their Critics. the Truth May Be Every Bit as Frightening to Members of a Generation Raised to Believe They're Thinking outside the Box

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Playing with Our Minds: Violent Video Games Teach Our Kids to Point and Shoot, Say Their Critics. the Truth May Be Every Bit as Frightening to Members of a Generation Raised to Believe They're Thinking outside the Box

Article excerpt

ON A MONDAY EVENING LAST FALL, IN THE Crystal Gateway Marriott a few blocks from the Pentagon, a group of academics, journalists, and software developers gathered to play with the U.S. military's newest toys. In one corner of the hotel's ballroom, two men climbed into something resembling a jeep. One clutched a pistol and positioned himself behind the steering wheel, while the other manned the vehicle's turret. In front of them, a huge, three-paneled television displayed moving images of an urban combat zone. Nearby, another man shot invisible infrared beams from his rifle at a video-screen target. In the middle of the room a player knelt, lifted a large, bazooka-like device to his shoulder, and began launching imaginary antitank missiles.

The reception was hosted by the Army Game Project, best known for creating America's Army, the official video game of the U.S. Army, and was intended to demonstrate how the military's use of video games has changed in just a few years. America's Army was released in 2002 as a recruiting tool, the video-game version of those "Be All You Can Be" (now "An Army of One") television ads. But the game has evolved beyond mere propaganda for the PlayStation crowd into a training platform for the modern soldier.

If you have absorbed the familiar critique of video games as a mindless, dehumanizing pastime for a nihilistic Columbine generation, the affinity between gaming and soldiering may seem nightmarishly logical: Of course the military wants to condition its recruits on these Skinner boxes, as foreshadowed by science fiction produced when video games were little more than fuzzy blips on the American screen. The film The Last Starfighter (1984) and the novel Ender's Game (1985) depict futuristic militaries that use video games to train and track the progress of unknowing children, with the objective of creating a pools of recruits. (The code name for America's Army when it was in development was "Operation Star Fighter," an homage to its cinematic predecessor.)

Some members of today's military do view video games as a means of honing fighting skills. The director of the technology division at Quantico Marine Base told The Washington Post last year that today's young recruits, the majority of whom are experienced video-game players, "probably feel less inhibited, down in their primal level, pointing their weapons at somebody." In the same article, a retired Marine colonel speculated that the gaming generation has been conditioned to be militaristic: "Remember the days of the old Sparta, when everything they did was towards war?" The experiences of some soldiers seem to bear out his words. A combat engineer interviewed by the Post compared his tour in Iraq to Halo, a popular video game that simulates the point of view of a futuristic soldier battling an alien army.

To view video games merely as mock battlegrounds, however, is to ignore the many pacific uses to which they are being put. The U.S. military itself is developing games that "train soldiers, in effect, how not to shoot," according to a New York Times Magazine article of a few years ago. Rather than use video games to turn out mindless killers, the armed forces are fashioning games that impart specific skills, such as parachuting and critical thinking. Even games such as those displayed at the Marriott that teach weapons handling don't reward indiscriminate slaughter, the shoot-first-ask-questions-later bluster that hardcore gamers deride as "button mashing." Players of America's Army participate in small units with other players connected via the Internet to foster teamwork and leadership.

Nor is the U.S. military alone in recognizing the training potential of video games. The Army's display was only one exhibit at the Serious Games Summit, "serious" being the industry's label for those games that are created to do more than entertain. …

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