The Air Force is preparing to release a video game later this summer. But this game isn’t just for kicks. It’s designed to help the Air Force identify gamers with sought-after skills. Once these gamers are identified, they (or their parents) would be contacted by the USAF and given the opportunity to ‘Aim High’. Many organizations are turning to “gamification” and other tactics in order to court a younger generation. However, given recent controversies regarding Silicon Valley, pop culture, and the defense industry, the public’s reaction is up for debate.
How Does the USAF’s Video Game Work?
The game is still under development – along with the details of how it will work. But unlikely previously released games from the service branches (the U.S. Army was first with its ‘America’s Army game in 2002, with more than 40 iterations and updates to follow), the U.S. Air Force hopes to leverage Big Data to not just entertain potential recruits, but identify them. The game could be designed to test for the ability to code. It could also examine courage, flight skills, and reaction time.
Based on an experimental program called NextPilot, the games use a lot of biometric data, follow exact movements and show the skills in which that player excels. By tracking that player’s IP address, Air Force Officials could identify the players and reach out to them, their parents, or their school with an offer for recruitment that is uniquely suited to that player’s talents.
Gamification of the Military: Genius or Data Controversy Waiting to Happen?
Many observers may hear that a branch of the U.S. military is collecting biometrics on users and shout, “Big Brother.” But we need to remember that we already have a kind of Big Brother living in our pockets: our cell phones. If someone uses their face or finger to unlock their phone, a step counter to measure their pulse, or voice controls with Alexa or Siri, their biometric data is being collected, as well. Selling this data for targeted advertising is one of the ways that companies make their money. The same technological magic that makes a pair of shoes keep popping up while you’re browsing the web could also be used to protect the nation. Sounds great, right?
Many will likely not think so. Depending on how this game is marketed or what kind of permissions users grant the game’s creators, users will likely be issuing the same kind of access to their data as they do to other games or social media platforms. However, given recent controversies with companies like Cambridge Analytica, people are growing more sensitive to how their personal data is gathered and used. No U.S. laws currently regulate the collection or use of this kind of data. However, recent enactment of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) covers this issue in detail.
With a public gradually more in-tune with how their personal data is used (and sometimes exploited), critics may cry foul. Even if users explicitly agree to the permissions of the game, that the military is gathering biometrics on citizens—potentially minors—is sure to raise an eyebrow.
The Uneasy Marriage of Military and Pop Culture
Last October, the press had a field day when Marvel Comics announced a partnership with Northrop Grumman. The union was intended to create and market a comic book depicting The Avengers partnering with a squad of Northrop Grumman employees to defeat a common foe. Interspersed with the comic were advertisements for the defense giant, encouraging readers to investigate open positions with the company. The idea was to demonstrate how Northrop Grumman does the real-life job that superheroes do in comics. Unfortunately, the backlash was so immediate and so severe, that the plug was pulled on the whole project.
Most recently, Google has been in ongoing turmoil over its involvement in a DoD Artificial Intelligence contract, “Project Maven.” Employees are flooding message boards, sporting anti-Maven bumper stickers, and a few have even resigned in protest, arguing that “Google should not be in the business of war.”
Given these ever-growing cultural fault lines, it is hard to imagine that some will not rebel at the idea of the military using gaming data to help it identify the next Maverick. But frankly, if the Air Force can use this data to recognize potential in young people that they may not realize themselves—and offer them an excellent opportunity to be educated and serve their country.
“If I find a 15-year-old kid that’s just brilliant, I’ll probably send a message to that IP address saying, ‘Go tell your mom and dad that you are special and that I will offer you a $100,000 signing bonus and I will send you to Harvard for four years for free,’” said Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, head of Air Education and Training Command, speaking before a group of reporters at a recent event.
World of Warcraft probably knows all the same stuff about them already – but it’s not sending anyone to Harvard.