The U.S. military has long used video games as a recruiting tool, and more recently the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force have each embraced the so-called “esports,” where teams of military gamers can even compete in different events. In addition to showing off the skills that military gamers possess, these teams help create awareness about the opportunities the services provide.

The U.S. Army created the first military-branded esports team to enter into video game competitions back in late 2018, and it was populated with a mix of active personnel, reservists and even veterans. All that was required to apply was some skill in FPS video games such as Call of Duty, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and the breakout hit Fortnite. The Army’s esports league is part of the broader Marketing and Engagement Brigade based at Fort Knox, KY where other military marketing teams are also stationed – including such units as the Golden Knights parachuting team.

Training and Recruiting Tools

The U.S. military has long seen video games as both a tool for training and recruiting. These past efforts have included America’s Army, a series of FPS games that were financed by the U.S. government. A total of 41 versions of the game were released from 2002 to 2014, and distributed as a free download for the PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and even mobile platforms. It was also used to provide a virtual military experience at air shows and sporting events around the country.

Fast forward to today, and video games have been seen by the military as a way to reach Generation Z – and not just from the games directly, but via recruitment ads placed on the popular Twitch streaming service.

Not everyone is happy about it. In July, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) proposed an amendment to a House appropriations bill that would permanently ban the U.S. military from recruiting on the platform. The bill failed a House vote, but Ocasio-Cortez – who is known to be a fan of video games – gave an impassioned speech on the House floor in advance of the vote.

“Children should not be targeted in general for many marketing purposes in addition to military service,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Right now, currently, children on platforms such as Twitch are bombarded with banner ads linked to recruitment signup forms that can be submitted by children as young as 12 years old. These are not education outreach programs for the military.”

Unity Against the Military

It isn’t just Rep. Ocasio-Cortez who has been vocal in her belief that the military shouldn’t use games as a way to reach younger people. And now some game developers are even expressing concerns that the technology they are developing won’t just entice people to sign up for service, but that it could even be militarized by the Department of Defense.

Employees at Unity, which has produced a multiplatform game engine, are reportedly unhappy with the company’s partnership with the DoD. The gaming technology isn’t being used on the battlefield, but the game engine has been utilized by several defense contractors in virtual simulations and modeling, PC Gamer reported. The fact that the company’s technology was used for the largest defense contractors has left some employees upset to say the least.

According to a report from Vice, Unity was contracted by the DoD at least three times in 2020 alone, including a $428,000 contract from June of that year with the U.S. Air Force to develop a “modeling & simulation prototype,” while another contact with the service from October was for an additional $220,583. The third contract for $23,500 was for a Unity Pro subscription for the U.S. Army. However, the company has also been direct that its work for the government “does not directly involve the loss of life, harm of the planet, or a person’s right to equity and inclusion.”

Conflict of Interests?

It seems that even as some employees have raised concerns, it may be a handful of overzealous individuals who are being especially vocal.

“The question of who gets to choose customers, Unity corporate or Unity employees,” explained Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.

“Those concerns attributed to a handful of Unity employees are nothing new in the industry,” Purtilo told ClearanceJobs. “Many technologists have strong preferences for how they’d like to see their work applied, and when selling end products it generally works out. With development tools, though, it is harder to limit what people can create, and Unity is struggling with the difference between the two.”

Unity’s software is essentially a tool that is intended to help people make their own products, which can be anything.

“Including systems to be used by the Defense Department,” added Purtilo. “There’s not much the company can do about that. It would be like Microsoft making office tools available but only to people who won’t use them to do business with the wrong political party or similar. That’s not going to happen. But Unity also makes advanced products specifically for DoD. The contention between Unity corporate and its employees is about where to draw the line.”

Valid Concern or Overreaction?

The timing of the report from Vice and other media outlets is what could make this seem like a far bigger deal than it may actually be. With people’s feelings are all over the board in the shadow of Afghanistan, some may have misgivings about working on a military contract. But that’s not a wise choice.

“Weakening your military because you don’t support what they did is ill-advised since that military is also missioned to protect your country,” said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.

“In this instance, game technology is being used to create simulations that assure weapons systems work as intended and that soldiers are adequately trained to use them,” Enderle told ClearanceJobs. “If those efforts are blocked and lack of training or development results in lives lost, part of the cause would be this decision not to support the military.  By not assuring our military has access to the best technology, you aren’t hurting the decision-makers; you are only hurting the soldiers and lowering the country’s safety, putting you and your family at risk.”

One issue is that while the video game industry may churn out military-themed as well as crime-themed video games that don’t hold back on the violence – and even include extreme language and other adult content – some may not take kindly to its DoD connections.

“Doing this can also brand the employee as a problem adversely impacting their careers and making it so others won’t hire them. It is generally best to leave a firm that is doing something you don’t like then effectively blackmail them into doing what you want regardless of what that is,” explained Enderle.

“Far bigger companies have chosen not to work with DoD in some areas,” added Purtilo. “Google famously declined U.S. military work that involved artificial intelligence, for example, yet at the same time partnered with People’s Liberation Army on research in China at Tsinghua University. Someday U.S. sons and daughters on the battlefield may face AI-driven weapons systems that were enabled by Google research.”

 

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.