America’s Digital Army: Games at Work and War

  • Published

America’s Digital Army: Games at Work and War by Robertson Allen. University of Nebraska Press, 2017, 228 pp. 

On a superficial level, America’s Digital Army appears as nothing more than a historical recap of a now defunct army recruiting program that used a video game called America’s Army to attract teenage recruits. But, upon closer inspection, its author, Robertson Allen, an anthropologist and ethnographer, now working in the private sector at the Hartman Group, plumbs deeper meanings within this framing device of a video game’s life and death. His thesis is a two-sided coin—its visible top side being a straightforward exploration of “recruitment and training through digital technologies” (9), while its more covert underside delves into whether such a campaign militarizes civilian relationships in America as a whole, by constructing “everyone, even nonplayers of games, as virtual soldiers, whose labor is available for deployment” (10).


Because Allen’s thesis is multilayered (“militarized relationships,” recruitment, and gaming) his work has few, if any, peers. His study does enter the anthropological discussion of a militarized society that echoes Catherine Lutz’s Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century. Both Lutz and Allen suggest that a physical military presence on home soil can too easily “gobble up” civilian reality. But so, too, does Allen’s book explore the difficulties outlined by the National Research Council’s monograph on recruiting an all-volunteer army. Works on games studies, such as Simon Parkin’s Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline, round out Allen’s topics of interest.


First-Person Shooter gaming is, in fact, what initially attracted Allen to study America’s Army. His opposition, as a graduate student, to the Iraq War progressively became discordant with the very games that he enjoyed playing. Not only for their forms of violence but also for the obviously “underlying ideological and political messages that were [being] voiced. . . .For example, the games Conflict: Desert Storm and Conflict: Desert Storm II—Back to Baghdad celebrated the 1990s Gulf War in Iraq but were strategically released as commercial products during the period leading up to, and immediately following, the 2003 Iraq invasion” (14). Allen was forced to admit that his antiwar stance as an individual was at odds with such beloved games that “speak about war, and maybe not in ways that I entirely like” (14).

Curiosity aroused, Allen began to look at the issue critically; focusing on one combat game in particular. Becoming attached to the Army Game Project through the good graces of the project’s director, Dr. Casey Wardynski, in 2006, Allen obtained the green light to begin anthropological and ethnographic fieldwork among the software developers and military veterans involved in the creation of America’s Army. His findings, like his thesis, are diverse.


As an anthropologist, he found a “process of pervasive cultural militarization, enacted in part through the harnessing of high-tech labor and the intermeshing of the technologies and economies of entertainment and war” (31). But as someone in a position likened to that of an embedded journalist in a semimilitary environment, he also uncovered the real difficulties of recruitment in an increasingly digital age where brochures handed out by Army recruiters hold little interest for teenagers.

Such problems with recruitment were what first led project director Wardynski, who conceived of the Army Game Project, to ask, “Could we do [the recruitment process] virtually by getting kids interested in the army, by test-driving, by virtually being a part of it?” (48) Tactical war games, of course, are nothing new. There are the games of chess, created in India sometime around the sixth century, the Chinese game GO, which dates back at least 2,500 years and is believed to be the oldest board game still being played, and the latecomer game of Kriegsspiel, created in 1812 to train Prussian officers in strategic maneuvers. But, it was with the visual component added by computers in the late-twentieth century that the move to a whole-body war simulation was spawned, a development that began pushing us ever closer to a true virtual reality.


The question arises in such games then as to what exactly is real? The player’s physical and emotional responses are real. The visual narrative is not. How does this hybrid reality affect the game’s representation of combat? Is the “test-drive” recruiting analogy then at all accurate? Real and virtual are further confused when actual human soldiers are used as templates for the game’s “Real Heroes” characters. But these characters, like the spritz of blood players see when online characters are killed, are “highly sanitized and polished” (81) with no trace of the real-life problems suffered by their inspirations who might be struggling with PTSD or a rocky reintegration back into the home front.


For these and other reasons, America’s Army was not without its critics, despite having garnered an impressive array of software awards and being “consistently ranked among the most played online games” (7). Complaints ranged from how it trivialized actual combat to its glorification of violence. Vocal opponents warned of its effects on children.


But neither success nor public outcry would affect its eventual fate. Due to a rise in military recruitment during the Great Recession, funding for the Army Game Project was “extensively cut in 2009” (11). Allen explains that as:

. . . of 2016 the program is dramatically diminished, with an uncertain future, but the questions raised by the circulation of America’s Army. . . are [still] very much apropos in a society shaped by the economy of war, immersed in the interactive spectacles of conflict, and distracted by a pervasive overload of information (11).


I found the book profound in its anthropological discussion but a bit too scattershot with its inclusion of technical aspects of the game, the poor relations between the army and the software developers, and the personal idiosyncrasies of the project’s director. All are interesting, but diluting what is, essentially, a fascinating start to studying the military’s use of dual-reality (both actual and virtual) systems to train soldiers or to aid them in combat. 

                                                                             Diana Clark Gill
Memphis, Tennessee


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."