The Simpsons predicted the future again
After a very contentious series of events, the U.S. Army is heading back to Twitch to do what people normally do on the platform: stream footage of some random guy who’s talking while playing a game. Outside of a now-failed attempt by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to ban the military from Twitch, it turns out that there is no technical reason why the government organization can’t use the popular game-streaming site. For all intents and purposes, Twitch is treated the same as any other social-media platform when it comes to interacting with the public.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. military got involved in the entertainment business. A Freedom of Information Act request in 2013 revealed that the military was involved in the production of dozens of films since the early 1900s. There is little doubt that some of these films received such assistance in exchange for making the military look good to the general public. Top Gun for example had very pro-military themes, and it apparently did boost Naval Aviator recruitment numbers by some 500%. In fact, the Department of Defense called the military entertainment complex a mutually beneficial arrangement.
On the other hand, it seems implausible that anyone would want to join up because of Transformers. Quality of the movies aside, getting steamrolled by giant alien robots doesn’t seem very appealing. It’s also likely that some films simply needed access to historical records or other research materials. Films based on World War II or the Space Race would qualify as being research intensive, and thus they would need access to official government information. In such cases, the cooperation between Hollywood and the military could be seen as incidental.
Regardless of whether it’s beneficial, the military isn’t beyond inserting themselves into all facets of American culture. Jingoistic displays at major sporting events, recruitment officers at high schools and colleges, countless ads on all forms of media, the list goes on. That this would expand to modern media, social or otherwise, is an inevitability. Case in point, the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force have esports teams and associated Twitter accounts that at one point posted “UwU,” which is definitely where things got a little too surreal.
This invasion of culture (unsurprisingly) extends to games as well. Long before Twitch existed, there was a game series that was literally called America’s Army. As you may have guessed, it was developed and published by the U.S. Army. Even when there isn’t a direct link between the U.S. military and game developers, there’s still decidedly pro-war and or pro-U.S. military themes in games. Modern iterations of Call of Duty are likely the biggest offender, with almost every single-player campaign playing out like Cold War fan fiction. Tom Clancy games are a very close second, for obvious reasons. There’s so little nuance in the main stories of these games that they practically parody themselves.
Interestingly enough, you may find that many of these same games (and movies) carry plenty of anti-war messages once you get past the cookie-cutter main plot. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare certainly didn’t hold back on the torture sequences. It also attempted to somewhat humanize a few of the antagonists by giving them more logical motives. Spec Ops: The Line is infamous for its brutal depiction of war and its effects on the mind. Grand Theft Auto V definitely didn’t look too kindly on the foreign and domestic actions of the American government, again with an emphasis on torture and private military companies. In this regard, modern games have done a reasonable job at minimizing the glorification of war and the military.
Perhaps that is why the Army decided to develop their own game and have their own esports presence. It’s not like there’s a reliable alternative if you want to make real war look as fun as fake war. Yet games as a medium are demonstrably bad at turning kids into potential killers. No small number of politicians have tried to prove otherwise, and each and every one of the them have failed. The effectiveness of games as a recruiting tool is thus questionable at best. There simply isn’t enough of a human element to make in-game actions translate into real-life actions.
This is where Twitch and esports come back in. It provides a human element to more effectively push a point of view. Most of the time, streamers don’t care about how you interpret a game’s themes. They might provide their own opinions which skew a certain way, but the viewer is generally free to interpret a game however they want. But what if the streamer had an agenda to push? What if they wanted to look good when a game directly called out their previous actions as horrible? Nothing’s stopping the streamer from influencing their viewers then.
Is there a chance that the U.S. military’s Twitch accounts and esports teams are just innocent ways for soldiers to enjoy a huge part of gaming culture? Of course. Everyone has a right to gaming regardless of their profession. No one would complain if doctors, scientists, or teachers had Twitch streams where they talked about their jobs. Yet it’s hard to imagine that anyone who was sincere about using Twitch would hold a fake giveaway that basically directed people to a U.S. Army recruitment page—especially when games are a form of escape from the real world, not some interactive recruiting space.
Speaking of which, the Army and the Navy’s Twitch streams haven’t exactly been fun places to visit. Good streamers aren’t particularly ban happy. Moral streamers don’t have some nebulous series of rules to follow. Smart streamers definitely don’t go on Twitch when well-documented historical events (that have their own Wikipedia page) prove that said streamer committed some crimes. The only reason why anyone with a mildly shady past would go onto Twitch, in spite of the fact that anyone can instantly look up what they did, is if they are selling something or if they are so blind to how the rest of the world perceives them that they legitimately think that stating facts equates to trolling.
Disregard all of that and there are still some serious ethical concerns that arise due to Twitch’s unique interactive nature. Unlike movies or games or books or TV shows, Twitch’s barrier to entry is low. So low that it’s trivial for actual children to access it—children who, coincidentally, are very impressionable when it comes to anything related to gaming. Should we be comfortable that an official government entity is trying to marry the horrible business of war with one of the most unique parts of gaming culture? It is direct and unfiltered propaganda without any oversight; a disgusting and gross abuse of technology and art.