The Pentagon Loves First-Person Shooter Video Games

Video games are the most popular entertainment media on the planet — and one of the American war machine’s most effective propaganda tools.

Still from Call of Duty: Warzone. (Activision)

On July 8, 2020, as millions of people turned to video games to escape the monotony of the COVID-19 lockdown, the US Army’s e-sports team was streaming Call of Duty: Warzone on Twitch. A Washington, DC–based activist logged in to the stream chat, asking “What’s your favorite u.s. w4r cr1me? [sic],” followed by a link to a Wikipedia article on US war crimes. He was promptly banned from the chat.

The episode drew national coverage, even from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who introduced legislation that would stop the military from using Twitch to recruit. AOC’s largely symbolic measure failed to pass. But the incident helped to highlight the tight working relationship between the US military and the video game industry that has existed for decades.

While Hollywood flaunts its relationship with the US military, game studios tend to be coy, preferring to keep quiet about their collaboration with the world’s biggest war machine. Game designers use military consultants to help with story and level design in order to give games a sense of “authenticity,” particularly in the tactical shooter genre. For its part, the military uses games as a tool for recruitment and propaganda. Sometimes this propaganda is obvious. More often, it’s more insidious, as when consultants help shape the narrative of blockbuster games like Call of Duty.

The big first-person shooters like Call of Duty, which have become synonymous with gaming, are extremely profitable. The Call of Duty series itself boasts over $30 billion in total revenue, and the various Tom Clancy–branded games have sold an estimated seventy-six million copies. They generally exult the lone soldier, solving the world’s problems with his assault rifle, and cast even the most suspect military activities in a favorable light. With hundreds of millions of players worldwide, they’re a constant advertisement for US military might.

Partners in Propaganda

From academic research centers to designing training and war game simulations in the 1980s, the US military helped develop gaming’s foundations. Today, the military actively helps to shape the art and design of games. Video games are an increasingly popular medium — industry revenue has grown steadily for a decade but jumped 23 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and will likely hit $222 billion in 2022 alone — and the military wants to ensure its depiction in them is positive.

This desire led to the launch of the America’s Army series in 2002, a free-to-play shooter that sought to capitalize on the popularity of the military shooter genre. The game, released at the outset of the so-called “war on terror,” was a straightforward piece of propaganda designed to recruit players to enlist in the US Army. When it was finally shut down in May 2022, it had reached an estimated twenty million players.

In every respect, however, the series paled in comparison to its inspirations, Call of Duty and Battlefield. These two juggernauts in the world of commercial entertainment tell stories about armed conflict that focus on valor and heroism. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War went so far as to include Ronald Reagan, portraying him as a straight shooter willing to bend the rules of international law in service of “the free men and women of the world.” An earlier installment of the series sent players on covert missions in Latin America, and featured consulting work by disgraced Colonel Oliver North, a key figure in the United States’ sordid involvement in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Still from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. (Activision)

The forthcoming shooter Six Days in Fallujah purports to be more sensitive to the realities of war. Set during the second battle of Fallujah, the game is a dramatic retelling of the bloodiest conflict in America’s invasion of Iraq and, in some ways, a typical military shooter. Like Call of Duty, it equips the player with realistic weapons and asks them to advance through missions by gunning their way through a virtual battlefield.

In other ways, the game is an outlier that has drawn fierce criticism and opposition. Fallujah, after all, was the site of the deadliest battle in the invasion of Iraq. An estimated thirteen hundred soldiers were killed on both sides of the fighting, and eight hundred civilians died in the cross fire. American forces used white phosphorus munitions during the battle, an incendiary weapon that burns human flesh down to the bone. The site of such atrocities then became the setting for a first-person shooter, a genre hardly known for its subtlety.

The developers behind military shooters claim that their art is a balance between fiction and authenticity. Developers and publishers are also terrified of bad PR and insist that their games are apolitical. Asked to explain his company’s relationship with Oliver North, Mark Lamia, the head of Call of Duty developer Treyarch, said, “We’re not trying to make a political statement with our game. We’re trying to make a piece of art and entertainment . . . for us to have met with him as we’re creating our fiction is totally appropriate.”

Striking a similar chord, Peter Tamte, CEO of the company behind Six Days in Fallujah, told Polygon that the game is about empathy and understanding. “We’re not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea,” he said. “It is really about helping players understand the complexity of urban combat. It’s about the experiences of that individual that is now there because of political decisions.”

War Can Be Fun

There are reasons to be skeptical when developers claim their games are apolitical. Indeed, the very structure of modern tactical shooters, in which the player advances through the game by moving into hostile territory and gunning down (often brown) enemies, serves to normalize the imperialist world order.

As Jamie Woodcock explains in Marx at the Arcade, military-themed shooters “are experienced through the first-person perspective, allowing players to ‘see’ war, not only through virtual eyes, but also mostly from the perspective of American imperialism. Although players may code and decode these experiences in different ways, they are all asked in some way to reflect and act upon the ideology of military conflict and imperialism.”

A well-designed game casts that ideology in a favorable, fun, light. The politics of a game do not need to be explicit to be effective. Military-style games help create a common sense around the state’s use of force. Players exert near-total control over how the protagonist moves through the virtual world, and the consequences of failure are limited and short-lived. The medium gives players a fantasy of idealized military action, cementing certain attitudes about how a modern imperial power conducts war, while obscuring the real-world horror and devastation that goes along with it.

The realistic gear and tactics featured in franchises like Call of Duty are intended to facilitate immersive gameplay. In one recent installment, developers employed sophisticated 3D scanning technology to translate real-world objects into digital copies. Developers drew on the expertise of former Navy SEALs to ensure maximum accuracy. The result, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, marked both a noteworthy technical achievement as well as a new level of sophisticated military propaganda in video game form.

None of this is to say that the games themselves aren’t fun. At their best, Call of Duty games have tight game mechanics that reward skill. Quickly identifying and eliminating enemies, moving to strategic locations on the map, and gaining new skills and weapons are all a blast. As Woodcock argues, “This powerful feedback loop has drawn in huge audiences to play FPS games . . . . It is an experience that is much more rarely found with other forms of contemporary culture.” A game’s plot and politics matter less in multiplayer gameplay, which is typically far more popular than the single-player campaign.

But regardless of the developers’ politics, games about war inevitably raise political questions. Like movies and books before them, video games have become an important medium through which millions of people experience collective myth-making and memory. Two decades after the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, video game creators are, intentionally or not, also telling a story about how American society should remember those wars and the motives that led it into them.

Perhaps it is true that Six Days in Fallujah is designed to help players empathize with the soldiers depicted in the game. But empathy always has a political dimension. What does it mean to empathize with the invading side of a war started under false pretenses? And what does it say about our concern for the war’s biggest victims, the Iraqi people?

Another War Game Is Possible

There is nothing inherently wrong with exploring war in a video game, nor are all war games necessarily propagandistic. This War of Mine, by independent Polish developer 11 Bit Studios, brilliantly uses survival game mechanics to depict the life of civilians caught in the middle of urban warfare. Bury Me, My Love is a mobile game that puts players in the shoes of refugees escaping Syria while trying to maintain contact with loved ones left behind.

Still from This War of Mine. (11 Bit Studios)

The military shooter genre itself can be used to explore the darker realities of war and subvert the pro-military messaging implicit in much of the genre. In 2012, the German development studio Yager and publisher 2K released Spec Ops: The Line. On the surface, the game feels similar to other first-person shooters. Players take on the role of Captain Walker, a protagonist leading an elite team of American special operations forces on a rescue and recon mission in a post-apocalyptic Dubai. The mission, however, takes a dark turn as Walker pushes deeper into the city, killing most of the people the team encounters, including civilians. As he descends into madness, the game becomes frenetic and hallucinatory.

Spec Ops: The Line was groundbreaking in how it used game mechanics and storytelling to present a compelling criticism of the military shooter genre itself. Inspired by the classic antiwar film Apocalypse Now, the game explores the very real psychological effects of war on those who do the killing, and what it means for video games to offer shallow simulations of this violence. The game regularly breaks the fourth wall, asking the player provocative questions like, “Do you feel like a hero yet?”

For all the purported realism in military shooter games, their exploration of war is incomplete and inauthentic. They obsessively focus on replicating the tools and tactics of war without bothering to reflect on the “why,” or on how war can change someone for the worse. Compare this to Spec Ops lead writer Walt Williams’s approach, who witnessed how friends and family in the military were changed by war: “Seeing them come back and seeing the little differences between them, playing the military shooters has always felt a little off to me, because it was not a representation of what the people I know actually went through.”

Still from Spec Ops: The Line. (Yager / 2K)

Outside of game design and aesthetics, the military’s role can also be contested in material ways. Unions are finally gaining a foothold in the gaming industry, giving workers more leverage with which to push back on objectionable practices and relationships. Tech workers at Google organized a walkout in 2018 to protest the tech giant’s involvement in a Pentagon artificial intelligence program. A year earlier, workers at Facebook, Intel, and Google joined a rally outside data analytics company Palantir, protesting the company’s partnership with the Donald Trump–era Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. There is no reason why game workers couldn’t follow suit, disrupting or limiting the role the military plays in the industry.

With video games more popular than ever, the ongoing partnership between the military and game studios should attract the attention of anyone concerned with the growing militarization of the world. Fortunately, military involvement does not indelibly taint games as a reactionary medium. It’s little surprise that, in a society dominated by the military-industrial complex, the military plays an outsized role in structuring games. Whether things stay that way will depend on the people whose labor makes the games possible, and the millions of gamers whose money keeps production going.