Playing with Our Heads

Why Video Games are Making our Kids Smarter-and more obedient

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

On a Monday evening in fall 2005 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. 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. And 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 in February of 2005 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.'

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 the New York Times Magazine (Aug. 22, 2004). 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 that teach weapons handling, like those displayed at the Marriott, don't reward indiscriminate slaughter-the shoot-first-ask-questions-later bluster that hard-core 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 games that are designed to do more than entertain. Games have been devised to train emergency first-responders, to recreate ancient civilizations, to promote world peace. The Swedish National Defence College has developed a game to teach United Nations peacekeepers how to interact with and pacify civilian populations without killing them. Food Force, an America's Army imitator, educates players about how the U.N. World Food Program fights global hunger. A group of Carnegie Mellon University students, among them a former Israeli intelligence officer, is developing PeaceMaker, a game in which players take the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president and work within political constraints toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The very phrase 'serious games,' however, suggests that unserious games may well be the societal blight that many believe them to be. It's easier to vilify games such as those in the Grand Theft Auto series, in which the player's goal is to rise to power in various criminal organizations by carjacking vehicles and killing their owners with a variety of weapons, including a baseball bat, a Molotov cocktail, and an AK-47. But Grand Theft Auto and its sequels are popular not just because of their transgressive content, but also because they are designed to allow players to roam freely across a gigantic three-dimensional cityscape. (With their combination of technical accomplishment and controversial subject matter, the Grand Theft Auto titles might be the video-game analogues of movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and, more recently, Pulp Fiction.)

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