My wife and I struggled endlessly this holiday season about what to do regarding gifts for our twin 8-year-old boys. As for the kids themselves, they’d made it clear some months ago that an Xbox One digital gaming console sat at the top of their wish list. Those who know me realize that I almost never make a significant purchase without first conducting a significant amount of research. I first wanted to read what the experts had to say about appropriate levels of “screen time” for children. After that, I moved on to reading about the digital gaming industry more generally. What I learned astounded me.
The global video gaming population grew to an estimated 2.2 billion people in 2017. This included around 64 percent of Americans. Given this level of participation, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised that the industry in 2017 generated some $149 billion in revenue. And all the forecasts show that these numbers will continue to grow in the coming years. The demand for competitive gaming — popularly known as “eSports” — seems particularly remarkable to me. According to a recent report, the revenue generated by that sector grew by some 41.3 percent over the last year. And people are interested in watching these events. Some 194 million individuals did so in 2017; by 2020, an additional 100 million are expected to join them.
The Geopolitical Connection
Many Stratfor subscribers may no doubt find themselves wondering about the relevance of this topic to the broader state of geopolitics. I myself became interested in Stratfor because it was the very best place to learn about those military, economic and political dynamics that collectively serve as the heart of global affairs. And so … let me assure you that a link between such matters and the virtual world of gaming does indeed exist.
U.S. defense contractors and the U.S. military for decades have been interested in digital gaming. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, military and civilian strategists began using computers to game out various war scenarios. But it was not until the 1990s that the true battlefield potential of digital technologies was realized. Early in the decade — during Operation Desert Storm — the United States employed a number of information-age technologies in its command-and-control and targeting networks. These capabilities helped American and allied forces to quickly overwhelm an Iraqi army that was, at the time, one of the largest in the world.
Observers of the conflict argued that the U.S. military’s performance demonstrated no less than a revolution in the way war could be conducted. Given these lessons, U.S. officials became ever more creative in their efforts to take advantage of digital tools. It was in this atmosphere that, a few years later, the Marine Corps modified a popular, off-the-shelf computer game called “Doom II” into a virtual training tool for small-unit tactics. In 1999, U.S. Army Col. Casey Wardynski began working on a project with the goal of creating a digital platform to provide participants a virtual military experience. The release three years later of the first-person shooter video game “America’s Army” gave the service a powerful new recruiting tool aimed at the country’s tech-minded youth. By February 2009, that game had more than 9.7 million users.
The military employment of digital gaming technologies has accelerated ever since. A 2014 documentary titled “Drone” revealed that specially designed video games were being used at U.S. military recruiting fairs to attract prospective pilots for unmanned aerial vehicles. According to the Air Force, gamers possessed a set of skills that made them better candidates for the position than traditional pilots. Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper featured a quote from the documentary by former drone operator Michael Haas, who described the similarity between digital gaming and “real” drone warfare: “I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world … play video games all day. … And then the reality hits you … that then you may have to kill somebody.”
Not to be left behind, defense contractors have emulated gaming culture in their product designs to create interfaces familiar to today’s gaming youth. Boeing Co. employed an Xbox control pad as the command mechanism for its High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, a weapons system designed to shoot down mortar rounds and unmanned aerial vehicles. Similar control devices are used to operate robotic ground vehicles, unmanned airframes and even U.S. Navy periscopes.
Competition From Abroad
Such practices have been adopted by both state and non-state actors around the world. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army released its game “Glorious Mission” in 2011. The product serves as both a propaganda tool and a training device, placing Chinese soldiers in large-scale battle scenarios involving the United States. In 2003, Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party with a militia arm, published a computer game called “Special Force,” another entry into the first-person shooter genre. The game placed players in direct action scenarios against the group’s chief enemy, Israel. In the words of one Hezbollah official, “This game is resisting the Israeli occupation through the media. … In a way, ‘Special Force‘ offers a mental and personal training for those who play it, allowing them to feel that they are in the shoes of the fighters.” Following in their footsteps, the Global Islamic Media Front (affiliated with al Qaeda) modified a popular Western game called “Quest for Saddam,” calling its version, “Quest for Bush.” The game, which was offered free online, provided virtual terrorists with six levels of play that culminated in an attack on U.S. President George W. Bush. And rebels in Syria took a cue from U.S. defense contractors’ integration of Xbox components, designing a homemade tank with a machine gun operated via a Sony PlayStation controller.
Game-based tools offer militaries a cost-effective solution that builds on the skills of today’s tech-saturated generation. The possibilities afforded by virtual-reality gaming displays such as the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift seem particularly interesting in this regard — especially if they can be integrated alongside traditional training methodologies. The 3-D software engines through which game designers create and manage their products also possess incredible potential. As the leader of Lockheed Martin’s Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory, Darin Bolthouse has seen what such platforms offer: “You start by creating your virtual world in a 3-D game engine, put on a virtual reality headset, add full body motion tracking and haptic feedback, and your virtual world starts to look and feel real. Now you’re a virtual avatar within your own personal holodeck capable of assembling a virtual spacecraft or aircraft with virtual tools.”