Back in the 1971 a friend took us to the Stanford University campus we were taken to visit a massive mainframe computer that was probably about as powerful as the processor in today’s cell phone.
Ushered into a large , dark room, we were escorted to a man sitting in what resembled the command module of a high tech [for those days] spaceship featuring a comfortable upholstered chair positioned in front of a large black-and-white monitor
The screen displayed a solar system, and the fellow in the chair was controlling a moving objects we soon realized was a spaceship. The game was amazing, precisely the sort of thing you’d expect from a bunch of nerds with advanced degrees, with planets and sun all functioning as gravity wells that could trap the ship. Then there was that enemy ship. . .
When we got our chance to take the helm we were hooked.
But it took at 1960s mainframe to run it, so Spacewars! Was strictly a plaything for academic and corporate nerds.
It wasn’t for another 20 years that we could find a comparable home game, a Spacewars! version for the now-forgotten Vectrex home gaming system.
But the fascination of the game, which goes back to early fascination boys seem to have with playing solder, didn’t come into full blossom until 1990s, with the arrival of the first almost-realistic war games enabled by advances in hardware and software.
And once the games became realistic, they drew the attention of the Pentagon.
And therein lies the tale.
The Pentagon’s war games fascination at its costs
Two European doctoral students, Scott Nicholas Romaniuk of the University of Trento and Tobias Burgers of the Freie Universität Berlin, looked at this unique intersection of popular culture and the military/industrial complex.
They detail their findings in The Conversation, a plain language, open source, online academic journal:
Violent video games have become embedded within American culture over the past several decades and especially since 9/11. First-person shooters, in particular, have become increasingly popular.
These games – in which players are positioned behind a gun – have turned a generation of kids into digital warriors who fight terrorists and battle alien invaders. Many play first-person shooters for pure, innocent enjoyment. Some like achieving objectives and being a part of a team. And, for others, it simply feels good to eliminate an enemy – especially someone who’s trying to harm them.
For the U.S. military, the rise of first-person shooters has been a welcome development. In recent years, the military has encouraged many of its soldiers to partake in the thrill of violent video games as a way to continue combat training, even when not on active duty. (In fact, using games to teach military tactics has been a longstanding practice in the U.S. military: Before video games, troops were encouraged to play military-themed board games.)
The games allow soldiers to take their combat roles home with them and blur their on-duty responsibilities with their off-duty, noncombat routines and lives.
But what effect have these video games had on U.S. soldiers? How accurately do they depict military life? And do they actually help recruit, train and retain troops?
From battle screen to battlefield
As part of a study, we interviewed 15 current and former members of the U.S. military who were between 24 and 35 years old to understand the role violent first-person shooter games played in their recruitment and training.
The majority of interviewees told us it was important to stay in the mindset of a soldier even when not on duty. To them, first-person shooters were the perfect vehicle for doing this.
Game preferences varied among the soldiers we interviewed, but popular titles included “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2” and “ARMA 2,” which a current member of the Army said was “one of the most hardcore assault experiences in gaming.”
Meanwhile, an Iraq War veteran described “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” as “the ultimate first-person shooter experiences ever” and “intensive and highly realistic approaches to tactical combat. The choice of attacking with stealth or unleashing an all-out frontal assault full of mayhem is yours. It’s violent, it’s chaotic, it’s beautiful.”
In this, the Iraq War veteran seems to say that video games can reflect real-life combat situations, an attitude that others share.
But it’s tough to make the case that games accurately simulate what a soldier’s life is really like. First, military tours of duty are not solely made up of hard-charging, chaotic battles, like those in first-person shooters. The majority of soldiers won’t participate in any full-frontal combat operations.
Second – and, most importantly – in the digital world there are no legal and ethical considerations. When things go wrong, when innocent people are killed, there are no ramifications. If anything, the games warp these real-world consequences in the minds of players; in 2012, psychologists Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten and Helena R.M. Radke were able to use brain scans to show that playing violent video games had the potential to desensitize players to real-life violence and the suffering of others.