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Story Publication logo February 14, 2024

The US Military Is Embedded in the Gaming World. Its Target: Teen Recruits

Call of Duty

Online gaming spaces are popular with minors, many of them not yet 13 years old. Image by Federico Tramonte/The Guardian.

Amid a recruitment struggle, branches are using huge hits like Fortnite as marketing tools. Some veterans see the practice as unethical – especially given the age of the gaming audience.

In a small room tucked into a US navy facility outside Memphis, Tennessee, uniformed personnel sit hunched over monitors, their eyes focused on screens as they speak into headsets with clipped efficiency. Computer towers and glowing red keyboards crowd their desks. This is top-of-the-line gear, used for executing combat missions and coordinating strategy — but not with fleets stationed across the world. These sailors are playing video games. On the other end of their headsets and screens are young gamers they hope to inspire.

“In 2019, we did a big look at where we were spending our money, looking at where the next generation is,” says Lt Aaron Jones, captain of the navy’s esports team, as we sit in his office after touring the facility. A naval press officer hovers a few feet away. “This is where they are,” Jones continues. “Whether it’s Twitch or YouTube or Facebook Gaming, this is what they love.”

His esports team — navy personnel who compete with gamers online under the name Goats & Glory — consists of 12 enlisted sailors who used to work as flight officers, sonar techs and even a chaplain’s assistant. A navy recruiting command spokesperson says the navy allocates 3%-5% of its marketing budget to esports initiatives annually. That amounted to up to $4.3m from Oct 2022 through Sept 2023, according to budget information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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Since 2018, the US military has been ramping up its use of gaming to recruit more people, at a critical time when the US armed forces face the worst recruitment struggle since becoming an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam war. Targeting gamers makes sense from the military’s perspective, as it gives them access to the young, tech-savvy population they want joining up. But some veterans told me that marketing the military with video games — essentially making a game out of war — is unethical.

Of primary concern is just how young the military’s gaming audience is. Online gaming spaces are popular with minors, many of them not yet 13 years old, and the military deliberately capitalizes on games that appeal to them. If the military’s recruiting efforts are successful, these kids and teens will end up applying the skills they honed while playing games they love to warfare — piloting drones to kill from afar, for example.

"If I’m patrolling in Afghanistan with my assault rifle and a kid gets too close ... That's not what they put in the advertisements."

— Jeremiah Knowles, former army intelligence analyst

One young gamer I spoke to, Katie K, age 12, spends hours a day watching livestreams of people playing warlike games on YouTube and TikTok Live. The thought of fighting for her country intrigues her. She thinks it would teach her better discipline. Also: “I would think about all the people that would thank me — like, that would be pretty cool.”

The reality is starkly different.

“I was in a country fighting a population that lives on less than $1 a day with gigantic weapons and armored vehicles,” says a former US army intelligence analyst, Jeremiah Knowles, “and if I’m patrolling in Afghanistan with my assault rifle and a kid gets too close …” He pauses. “That’s not what they put in the advertisements. That’s not what they talk about on their Twitch streams.”

The military is gaming online — and in schools

In the late 1990s, the military was struggling to meet recruitment goals, prompting the army to release its own video game aimed at younger people. “When a kid starts thinking about what he’s going to do with his life, it’s not at age 17, it’s more like age 13,” a colonel who oversaw the project told Corey Mead, author of War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict. “You can’t wait until they’re 17, because by then they will have decided that they’re going to college or to a trade school.” The resulting game, America’s Army, was hugely successful. According to Mead, the relationship between the military and the games industry remains “symbiotic”, with the military loaning resources to game developers in exchange for the insertion of pro-military narratives.

In 2018, the army formed the first military esports team but was accused of unethical recruitment practices in its Twitch stream, including censoring questions about war crimes in its chat and holding a fake Xbox controller giveaway. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a ban on Twitch recruitment that did not pass. The army stopped streaming on Twitch, but gaming recruitment continued.

Video by Jordan Uhl.

These days, the US military’s gaming content sprawls across Twitch, YouTube, Instagram and Discord. The army and navy esports teams host tournaments for some of the most popular games among young people, including Fortnite and Valorant. The air force and coast guard formed esports teams of their own, while US Marine Corps recruitment has partnered with gaming influencers including TheWarOwl and Melonie Mac. Young gamers who I interviewed report being targeted with recruitment ads that mirror the graphics of their favorite games. “Last year, we had over a million impressions on Twitch,” says Joshua Silva, religions program specialist with the navy esports team.

Internet users are supposed to be at least 13 to use social media sites such as Twitch and YouTube; users under 18 are supposed to have parental permission. But such age limitations are easy to bypass.

Plenty of 13-year-olds in the online gaming community are starting to form opinions of the US military. Kaitlynn Considine, a former marine linguist, gives her 13-year-old brother as an example. “He is a very young child. His brain isn’t fully developed,” she says. “What he knows about the military is his older sister went and did that, and he has pictures of me in front of equipment that he thinks is super cool.”

Considine is a member of the anti-video-game-recruitment initiative Veterans for Peace, called Gamers for Peace. She says she would worry if her brother were to watch a military Twitch stream or military-sponsored content from a favorite influencer, or be targeted by a recruiting ad. She acknowledges that the military must advertise itself, just as military service is sometimes the best (or only) option for young adults.

"No matter what your job is, you are supposed to help the military kill."

— Kaitlynn Considine, former marine linguist

“I can’t tell someone that they can’t join, especially if you’re in a precarious financial situation. But people need to be able to understand what they’re getting into,” she says. “No matter what your job is, you are supposed to help the military kill. You might not ever pull a trigger, but you’re still part of that mission.”

Most members of Gamers for Peace are anti-war veterans in their 30s and 40s and lifelong gamers. They understand both the influence that video games can have on young people and the gravity of what it’s like to serve in the armed forces. “As a person who played a lot of video games as a kid, it kind of pissed me off,” says one member, Jeff Parente, a US Marine Corps veteran with three deployments. “There are a lot of younger kids that watch Twitch to watch other people play video games, and to think [the military is] going into that space to go after these kids that don’t know any better …”

Officially, the military does not recruit anyone under age 17. In this case, “recruit” means the formal process of signing a legally binding agreement to enlist. The military does, however, advertise to and interact directly with minors for the purposes of military recruitment.

Katie, the 12-year-old, has watched gaming streams from military accounts “once or twice”, though she has not yet seen recruitment ads. She likes playing first-person shooters like Call of Duty, which let players experience combat through their characters’ eyes: “It’s, like, pretty fun to shoot things,” she says. She acknowledges that compared with real warfare, Call of Duty is probably not “100% realistic”, but she adds: “I’m pretty sure you use real guns like how they actually are, and the healing is pretty realistic.”

Choosing games that draw in young people is part of the military’s recruiting calculation. “Shooters are the No 1 genre that I find people playing,” says Silva. His navy esports team also makes a point of playing the racing/sports game Rocket League because it’s “one of the bigger games that universities and high schools play”. And when I visited the Memphis facility, Goats & Glory was hosting a championship for Fortnite, the third-person shooter that is massively popular with kids Katie’s age and young adults — so popular that it will soon be folded into the Disney/Pixar/Marvel/Star Wars universe. (As it happens, Katie’s favorite Fortnite weapon is the combat SMG, an abbreviation for “sub-machine gun”.)

In a video posted to Instagram last fall, you can watch a navy esports team member slipping a Meta Quest VR headset on to a child’s head in an elementary school library in Utah. The boy plays with the headset, punching his fists, before images of sea vessels appear in the frame. The graphics read, “United States Navy: where gamers thrive” and “Press start to protect!”

Military recruiters are allowed to talk to children in schools — a practice that boomed in the 2000s when the No Child Left Behind Act ensured military access to campuses. In 2008, the ACLU reported to the United Nations that the US military was violating international children’s rights conventions by “heavily recruiting” students under 17 on high school campuses. In response, the state department reiterated the military’s age policy and said recruiters were prohibited from using “coercive measures or deception”. Meanwhile, the UN expressed its “concern” and issued “recommendations” for improvement in recruiting practices.

Jordan, 20, who asked to use a pseudonym in case he wishes to join the military in the future, remembers when the army came to his high school in Mineola, Texas, in March 2021, when he was a junior.

“They had just like a regular trailer, like the ones we use for band,” he says, “and on the inside, every station had a cubicle where everyone could play a game.” He recalls that the army brought a spinoff of America’s Army called Proving Grounds. “Everyone was excited to play the game — but not really to join the military.”

Sheena Young, an air force veteran with Gamers for Peace, had recruiters come to her high school, too. “But they weren’t going out and joining conversations. They had their table in the cafeteria. You had to approach them,” she says. “When a 12-year-old goes on to watch somebody play Twitch, they’re not approaching a recruiter. They’re in the same space.

And unlike at a high school, there are no other adults around to supervise interactions in online gaming spaces, notes Knowles, also of Gamers for Peace. Knowles is now a licensed social worker at a university, where he primarily works with young adults. “They follow these streamers, and the amount of influence those personalities have on young adults is pervasive,” he says. “When it comes to the military recruiters on Twitch streams, they’re giving them an incomplete view of that world.”

By 17, gamers see recruiting tactics

Since she was a kid, Amber Cronin has enjoyed watching professional streamers play her favorite games — like TheWarOwl, a Twitch streamer with 1.46 million followers on YouTube. Cronin, a 21-year-old computer science student, has also logged more than 800 hours on Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter in which players can either fight for a team of terrorists or a unit of military and police forces.

When she was 18, Cronin noticed TheWarOwl had released a series of videos in which a gamer trained with the marines for 100 days, matching his gaming skills “against the real world battles that marines fight and win for the country”. Then, last school year, the algorithm started feeding her recruitment videos when she scrolled YouTube Shorts. “Even if they’re not directly providing a link to join the army or whatever,” Cronin tells me from her dorm room at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, “they are trying to appeal to the cool factor of ‘ooh, we do mid-air refueling’ and ‘we jump out of planes and shoot guns’.”

"They are trying to appeal to the cool factor of ...‘we jump out of planes and shoot guns.'"

— Amber Cronin, student

In March, Cronin was contacted directly by a marine recruiter, who asked if she wanted to attend Officer Candidates School.

By the time gamers are old enough to join the military, at 17, they will probably have been exposed to video game recruitment. Bodhi B, 17, says he “gets ads from the military super often on YouTube” – usually while watching his favorite gaming content. Bodhi and his twin brother, Dashiell, high school seniors from suburban Massachusetts, have played games like Rainbow Six Siege and Counter-Strike since they were 12. “I see the army’s team sponsoring Valorant tournaments or sponsoring teams,” says Dashiell.

The military says online gaming spaces provide an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with young people.

“A recruiter in high school — he’s in uniform,” says Jones, the navy esports team captain. “You see him, you know what he is. When you play against us, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a regular person?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, the navy is regular people. We are just like you — we have the same hobbies, the same loves.’”

The navy emphasizes that its team members are not official “recruiters”. After the army was accused of unethical practices on Twitch, the navy refined its own streaming practices to avoid similar blowback. Jones says the team talks about life in the military while streaming, but members are trained to direct anyone who expresses interest in the navy to a recruiting website, where they can connect directly with an official recruiter.

“When we started about three years ago, a lot of the negative stuff that we saw was really a bleed over from [the army’s] stream and the way they were operating,” says Jones.

Still, every navy team member does attend the recruiting orientation unit, where they learn basic public speaking skills, according to Jones. Then the team undergoes more public affairs training at the esports center itself, where members are taught team lingo and how to moderate a Twitch stream.

“You kind of have to explain [to those watching the Twitch stream] that we’re not robots, we’re people,” says Jones. “I’m not gonna, like, put you in a chokehold. They think that soldiers just kill people and all that stuff.”

He says that Goats & Glory likes to “position ourselves as the Blue Angels of esports”, referring to the navy aerobatic team that performs at air shows and sporting events. “The Blue Angels go out and fly; they don’t try to get people in the navy. People want to know more about the navy because they see the Blue Angels.”

The reality of combat

Moses Lemann, 21, a University of Pittsburgh junior, often gets recruitment ads that look like his favorite game series, Battlefield“It really looks like they’re jacking the aesthetics of a video game,” he says, with the ads mimicking Battlefield’s loading screen, complete with a topographic map and prompts for players to “pick your class”. “It’s clearly trying to tap into that, like a specialization in the military is exactly like picking a class in Battlefield,” says Lemann.

Since the end of the cold war, military superpowers like the US have largely moved away from conventional warfare and towards “asymmetric warfare”, in which powerful states rely on sophisticated technology to defeat less equipped opponents. To maintain the technological upper hand, the US military needs to recruit from a pool of young people whose skills include being “detail-oriented”, being “problem solvers under time pressures” and showcasing “perseverance in the face of frustration”, per the navy’s recruiting guide for streamers.

Jones puts it more literally: “We look for those we consider ‘high quality’, the people who are very technically savvy, your Stem people” who can help when the navy needs “more nukes” or “IT stuff”. “Just by being a hardcore gamer, you already [have] this affinity for technology.”

"Without the esports team in the navy? You would never talk to these kids."

— Joshua Silva, navy esports team

Virginia-class attack submarines use Xbox controllers to operate photonic masts, and some combat vehicle controllers resemble Nintendo 64 controllers. Then there is the obvious parallel between combat drone piloting and gaming. While drone pilots often reject the comparison (primarily due to the psychological toll of operating a real machine that remotely kills people), research does show that gamers excel at this work.

Scientific research has consistently shown that video games do not make people more violent. Playing games can, however, improve perceptual and cognitive functions, says Dr C Shawn Green, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Office of Naval Research funded Green to research how certain games (mainly shooters) improve warrior performance. “These games have lots of speed in them,” he says. “There’s lots of what we call ‘transient events’ – things pop up on the screen and disappear.” He says this can improve basic visual perception as well as heighten levels of cognition (such as working memory).

But video games can’t fully convey the psychological toll of combat, the moral injury, or even the physical toll. “I remember wearing the armor,” says Knowles. “You’re adding 80lb on to your body, you have seven magazines across the front of your body, and then you’re carrying your 8lb M4. Heaven forbid you have a grenade attachment, which adds another 5lb to your rifle. And then you have to try and get in and out of an upper armored Humvee in a combat zone while you’re getting shot at. That’s not in Call of Duty.”

A scene from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III. Image courtesy of Activision Blizzard.

As potential conflicts with Russia, China and in the Middle East loom, personnel is considered critical for maintaining combat “readiness”. But the branches are scrambling: in December, the Department of Defense reported that the branches had collectively missed their 2023 recruiting goals by 41,000 recruits — even after they lowered their goals significantly. The military points to the fact that most young people are ineligible to serve due to their weight, drug use or criminal records. Others attribute youth reluctance to recent publicity about a culture within the military that allows for racismwhite supremacy and sexual violence; gaping holes in the US’s veteran support system; the legacies of the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; and ideological opposition to war itself.

But when recruiting teams go into gaming spaces where there are kids and teens, “they’re trying to get their attention and start to glamorize the military as a lifestyle — or try to minimize it”, Young of Gamers for Peace says.

The military does not release data on how effective video game recruitment is, but the teams consider the efforts successful.

In December 2021, the air force launched an online “Aircade” of video games that require “real-life skill that airmen use”. In Command the Stack, for example, players can pilot aircraft in an augmented reality mission simulator constructed from satellite scans. “I had some folks come up to me saying, ‘Hey, I actually joined the air force because of Air Force Gaming,’” says Maj Oliver Parsons, founder of the air force/space force esports team, adding that it has “made the overall Department of Defense more relatable to folks and put us in a better light”.

Silva says: “Without the esports team in the navy? You would never talk to these kids.” He and Jones list Goats & Glory’s recent accolades: partnerships with influential streamers and esports leagues; videos of sailors playing Madden NFL with professional athletes; and their own competitions, including a 2022 tournament in Denver that was “one of the largest amateur League of Legends events in all of North America”, per Jones. The navy says it will expand its Memphis facility into a more sophisticated esports center this year. “There might be a stage with extra seating,” Jones says excitedly.

Notably, the marines have thus far refused to use esports for recruitment. Although there is a Marine Corps Gaming team, it does not officially represent the branch. “It’s a very serious decision to serve, and there’s concerns over gamifying what we do and the translation between video games and actual military service,” a US Marine Corps communications officer told in 2020.

Another way to game

Military gaming goes beyond recruitment. Video games can improve mental health and build community, issues that the military sorely needs to address, not least because mentally healthy fighters are capable of making better moral decisions. And the military’s openness to channeling resources into gaming can be a force for good — like funding immersive VR therapy for veteran trauma treatment.

Parsons created Air Force Gaming as a grassroots project with fellow airmen. He says esports help build psychological resilience across the branch. He tells me that a drone pilot who was “in a very dark place” told him: “If it wasn’t for my Overwatch team, and these airmen and guardians that I met all around the world, I wouldn’t be here today.”

As veterans like Considine and Knowles point out, kids and teens are simply not old enough to comprehend the seriousness of enlistment, or the toll active service takes.

Cronin, the computer science student, recently learned about military propaganda in a college history class: “I was naive and I said, ‘What is the current form of military propaganda? Why don’t they make those posters any more?’ And the answer was: it’s the advertisements, and it’s the cool videos and social media engagement.”

She has no immediate plans to enlist. Though career and money pressures make it tempting, she’s not as open to the idea as she was as a teenager. She says she’s become much more critical of the military as she’s matured.

Sources under the age of 18 are named using first name and last initial.

In the US, call or text Mental Health America at 988 or chat You can also reach Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741741. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. Other international helplines can be found at


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