Videogames and the Military: A Love Story


“This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.” ― William S. Burroughs

[This article about Unity working on a variety of military projects]( was recently shared on the forums. It confirmed for me some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the past year about the intersection of the videogame and military industries, so I wanted so share some thoughts I’ve been having.

I started to really get the brain itch about this subject just over a year ago when I was doing research for my [“Virtual World”]( post and discovered this line in an [article from 1993](


Virtual reality technology comes from aerospace flight simulators, and many of the companies now providing the technology for the games are offshoots of aerospace suppliers faced with declining defense dollars. Iwerks’ virtual reality attraction was developed with Evans & Sutherland, a Salt Lake City firm that helped pioneer flight simulation technology.

The part about “declining defense dollars” made me wonder what the circumstances were in 1993 that was causing a dearth in availability of defense funds, something that before had apparently been plentiful enough. I think it's often too easy to forget in 2021 that the earliest forms of "VR" did not comes from the games industries, but the aerospace and military industries, as a very expensive training aid.

[upl-image-preview url=//]


“In name only, Cyberspace had its origins in science fiction: its historical beginnings and technological innovations are clearly military (from NASA's primitive flight simulators of the 1940s to the ultra-modern SIMNET-D facilities in Fort Knox, Kentucky)…” - James der Derian, Antidiplomacy

I find it fascinating that the history of electronic training simulations are much older than "Spacewar!" (1962), [Tennis For Two (1958)]( or whatever else typically gets talked about as the "birth of videogames". Prior to any of those, virtual spaces were already being used as training aids in various industries. The line between a "simulation" and a "game" can be quite fine, and gets murkier with how in our modern age "simulation" is now itself a sub-genre of game. Early simulators were crude and expensive, but these virtual aids were extremely useful as a training aid because compared to training with a real plane or tank, they were safer, cheaper, and it was easier to standardize the training experience.

[upl-image-preview url=//]

The historical junction of these two industries is an [enormous subject (pdf warning)]( But what's most fascinating to me is that the influence moves in both directions. Games, from Spacewar! to Call of Duty, would often replicate armed conflict of one sort or another, while the Battlezone arcade machine with its periscope optics would inspire the [SIMNET]( tank simulators of the 80's, and some modern military equipment literally can be operated with an XBOX controller. There's a huge number of examples of this cross-pollination of ideas.

[upl-image-preview url=//]

[upl-image-preview url=//]

I've been collecting links and notes about this in my free time over the last year, and I'm going to dump some here:

  • - The MGS series tackles this issue directly in both MGS2 and MGS4. When we confuse a simulation with reality we risk confusing the map for the territory, and dehumanizing both ourselves and our enemy in the process. Meanwhile IRL the military is pursuing a system very similar to MGS4's SOP
  • - When [this article]( dropped in Jan 2020, I was shook. The example I'd really like to dig into (maybe in a later response to this thread) is Master Chief from Halo. We no longer need real war heroes in our military propaganda, completely invincible invented ones work just fine (I REALLY want to talk about the [Halo 3 "Believe" ad campaign](, which I find deeply unsettling [but very memorable]). Government propaganda inserted into videogames to target children shouldn't sound preposterous to anyone who's ever seen a "WINNERS DONT DO DRUGS" screen on an arcade cabinet.
  • - The "Murder Simulator" panic over violent videogames largely evaporated overnight after the events of September 11th. It turns out that the violence itself wasn't the the issue, it just wasn't the right kind of state approved violence. This term "Murder Simulator" doesn't seem as funny when put into the context of actual military training aids. [Full Spectrum Warrior ]( an early experiment in creating a military training tool that could be played on a console. The civilian version came with a download code for the military version. The feedback from the military was that this product was not accurate enough to life to be an effective training tool. This is where I begin to wonder if someone had the idea that in the future, instead of trying to make the game true to war, if it might be easier to start making war look like a game. If console games were not realistic enough to be used as a technical training tool, perhaps they could be used as a different kind of training tool.
  • - Last year the [CIA launched its own federal lab]( for the study of "virtual and augmented reality", among other things.
  • - Activision and the Call of Duty franchise is a whole entire can of worms just by itself. From its hiring of former Trump "counter-terrorism" officials, to it's whitewashing and denialism of American massacres abroad, and even in-game availability of some very suspect neo-nazi imagery in their in-game apparel choices. [As I've said before in another thread](, I think the current Call Of Duty franchise is propaganda from an age where the government doesn't bother directly commissioning "[America's Army](" style games anymore.
  • - For reasons that feel to me to be both entirely predictable and also insane, a Holy Grail the military has been working towards is a sort of [Unified Command System.]( It's one thing to imagine a general somewhere moving units around on a map like playing an RTS, but thats not far enough for them. Generals have shitty APM, apparently. [The brilliant idea]( they're working towards is a world where human beings are directed around the battlefield by an [inhuman artificial intelligence]( I see no way this could ever go wrong.
  • - [Augmented reality for dogs]( is in development for the exact same reasons simulations are popular for training human beings: it's cheaper, safer, and easier to standardize. If only they can get it to work.

  • - There are cultural reasons why the Air Force for so long avoided the use of autonomous craft, and this article is a good summation of the history of that idea, which is only now beginning to be put into service, even though its been TECHNICLY feasible for decades.

    I'm going to cut myself off there. There's way more I could discuss and I might come back to highlight a particular issue or two later in the thread. Its an _enormous_ subject and I was not at all surprised when that Unity news story recently surfaced. I'm interested in discussing anything that touches on the connection between these two subjects, as to me it feels like the military and videogames have been in a half century long slow-motion head on collision.

    I'd be interested to know who is making the approaches on these collaborations. Is Activision seeking out a partnership with the DoD or vice versa? Did the facade devs apply for a contract seeking that kind of dumb bullshit?

    Wow which magazine called actual nazi sonic “great”?

    @“Moon”#p42193 Is it related enough to everything else to talk about the U.S. Army esports team? I wanted to troll them on Twitter by creating a twitter profile that was the People's Army of Vietnam esports Team


    yes, that's certainty related enough!

    @“Moon”#p42208 here's what I have to say about it

    I hate it!!!!!!!!!!


    @“Moon”#p42193 The part about “declining defense dollars” made me wonder what the circumstances were in 1993 that was causing a dearth in availability of defense funds, something that before had apparently been plentiful enough.

    Well, quite obviously the crumbling of the Soviet Block must have been a huge blow to the entire industry. It’s also when GEA (later absorbed into Lockheed Martin) started licensing its technology, leading to the creation of the Model 1, 2 and 3 arcade systems together with Sega.


    @“Moon”#p42193 the current Call Of Duty franchise is propaganda from an age where the government doesn’t bother directly commissioning “America’s Army” style games anymore.

    [They don’t even hide it.]( Simon Parkin penned an article on the blurrying relationship between COD and the military for [The Guardian]( a few years ago.

    i wonder if alex from sheffield grew up to vote for ukip/brexit or if they saw sense eventually. jesus christ, nazi fucking sonic. too much for today. great thread though, will read through again.

    edit: removing potential libel re the band artcic monkeys

    The military framework is so deeply ingrained in video games you'd need surgery to remove it. I wanted to commend @“Moon”#220 for his research into illustrating that here. I think next to predatory financial structures, this is one of the biggest “what the hell is wrong with vidro games” things to me.

    @“Polaco Yunque”#p42198

    I've talked before about the ["entertainment liaison program"](, where government propaganda officers "advise" on projects. But this unity dust-up is I think an interesting microcosm to look at. If you read the [original story]( and [the follow up]( you can see the way that differing opinions can collide inside the company.


    “The reactions are mixed,” said the same source. “The largest group is angry to be finding out we‘re working with the military at all. There’s a group that is confused or upset, but is withholding full judgement until they read the article. There‘s a group repeating some version of the ’slippery slope‘ argument over and over, and then there’s a small contingent of men (mostly executives and upper management) who think we should all just Support ‘Our’ Troops and anything short of actually dropping the bombs ourselves is totally fine.”

    I think you've got a lot of support for this kind of thing at the executive level, and relatively less the further down in the company you go. I point to Activision/Blizzard's [recent hiring of former President Bush counterterrorism advisor Frances Townsend]( and [former Trump adminstration member Brian Bulatao]( as examples. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick publicly spoke highly of both these hiring decisions.


    Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who made almost $100 million in bonuses over the past four years, called Townsend a “highly regarded public servant” in a press release yesterday, while the newly appointed compliance officer called Kotick a “transformational leader.”



    “Brian is a rare talent, and the perfect fit for Activision Blizzard; his unparalleled combination of business, military, and government experience makes him ideally suited to accelerate our organizational transformation and deliver on great opportunities for future growth,” Kotick wrote in the email to employees.

    I happen to know an acquaintance who works at Blizzard, I asked him about some of my conspiratorial opinions of what is going on over there. He was not offended, but said that he thinks "not that much thought goes into it". I dont know if that defense makes things better or worse when you're talking about [whitewashing american warcrimes.](

    it's worse and weirder than I imagined somehow

    I want to recommend a movie that I think is a good allegory for the way the technology behind electronic entertainments was coopted by the military very early on in its development: Brainstorm (1983)

    I love this movie! Aside from being Natalie Wood's last film before her death under suspicious circumstances, it's also notable for being filmed in two different aspect ratios, which it switches between throughout the film.

    [upl-image-preview url=//]
    (Christopher Walken in a prototype helmet)

    Brainstorm is about a team of researchers who are working on a technology that will allow people to record their experiences so that they can be played back later by others. It isn't very long before the military begins to take an interest in the project. The lead researcher objects, saying she doesn't want to allow the military to have control over this technology before they even really know what they have on their hands yet. It's a new medium of communication that could have irreparable ramifications on art and culture, but all the military sees in it is it's potential as a flight training tool and a torture device, and it's not interested in pursuing using this technology for anything loftier or more intangible.

    [upl-image-preview url=//]
    (the mass production helmet for training fighter pilots)

    I dont want to spoil too much of the film, but a good deal of it is about the team of scientists trying to explore the other uses of this technology under the nose of the financiers who are quite happy just to have a lucrative product it can sell to the military.

    Here in the real world something similar is happening. [Here's a long talk by a former Google and Oculus employee about "practical telepathy"](, and how tech that can read your mind will firstly be sold as [a videogame peripheral]( You've even got [Gabe Newell out there publicly talking about "brain computer interfaces", "cybernetic limbs", and calling the body a "meat peripheral"]( This should be cause for some concern. Just like the Unity story that inspired me to make this thread, I think that some technology that is being worked on, that has truly terrifying applications, is flying under most people's radar because it's being done under the banner of "gaming", which makes it appear relatively harmless.

    Brainstorm is available for rent or purchase on Amazon prime.

    no judgement against anyone enjoying VR because it is interesting but I will never put any kind of device on my head in order to play a video game! Just my opinion

    @“Moon”#p42193 Wow, this is fucking awful and deserves more attention. Thanks for putting all of this in one place and providing helpful links. Really paints a (bad!) picture.

    If things continue as they are the only video games will be smaller independent games for a niche audience and then there will be covert/overt drone trainers and social experiments. Kind of like the movies these days



    I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. -Albert Einstein

    Ladies and gentlemen: World War III will be fought with videogames.

    Apparently Activision wasn't alone in making light of The Highway of Death

    Image spoiler tagged because its a literal atrocity

    [upl-image-preview url=//]||

    Thought about putting this in the "[terrible magazine ads"]( but it fits too well here.

    at some point “soliders” are going to see the battlefield in facebook “Meta” virtual meeting space, and hey you're just zapping a pixar style avatar mission accomplished (malnourished honduran teen bleeds out in climate change blighted wasteland formerly south texas)


    Thats one way it could go, another one I like to imagine is that "war zones" become "game theaters" and whoever is caught inside of them is incentivized to collect "killstreaks" or perform other rewarded actions, and points can be redeemed for airstikes or other support that's lobbed into the fray by the US military sitting in the relative safety of a nearby green zone.

    I'm worried their going to invent an app to streamline the gamification of war using the familiar Call Of Duty format.

    Something like getting rewarded for maintaining a high accuracy might seem like a small thing at first but it's actually huge. WW1 was the first war where we were using rifles accurate enough for a problem to develop: soldiers were intentionally shooting over each other's heads. The leaders of both armies had to teach troops to actually shoot at each other. Early in WW1 things like neutral barbers stationed in no man's lands that served both armies were more common. Early in the war people on both sides would be stationed in the same trench for long periods of time. This all changed after the famous Christmas Truce, an event whose importance shouldn't be relegated to a footnote. The command on BOTH sides of the war understood they had a real problem if they couldn't get their men to fight one another. Shortly after the Christmas truce BOTH armies began to regularly rotate their men along the front every few months, so that there would be less of a chance of the rank and file getting to know each other.

    That's why the war propaganda that we live in like a fish in water came about. They have a deep need to convince us to kill, because left to our own devices, history shows many people won't.