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Figure 1. Cut suits and blood concentrate kit. Source: Strategic Operations website.

Inside the bizarre world of the military-entertainment industry’s racialized gamification of war
 
“OUR heritage is unique,” proclaims the unruffled radio-announcer voice, as a rocket flies across the screen leaving a trail of white smoke. A bomb showers orange flames in the foreground, and panicked screams battle to be heard in the distance.

“Strategic Operations (2016 Business Card).” YouTube. September 12, 2016. Accessed October 1, 2016.
Graphic images of combat flash by as the voice calmly explains how one of the largest independent television and movie studios in America created a child company called Strategic Operations in 2002, forever changing the face of training, simulation, and education. As the movie goes on, the voice peppers its message with sexy promotional phrases referencing the magic of Hollywood, dynamic recreations, TV and movie special effects artists, and the fog of war. Meanwhile, the macabre carnival continues to unfold on screen. Legless bodies are dragged through gravel, explosions erupt like firecrackers, men in uniforms point guns at men in keffiyeh, and actors have their faces carefully painted in blood.

Strategic Operations is the brainchild of Stu Segall, a San Diego makeup effects artist- turned-pornographer-turned-mainstream TV and film producer-turned military contractor. He is described by friends and associates as kind-hearted, down-to-earth, fiercely patriotic, and a savvy business man.

Rother, Caitlin, and Erin Hobbs. “Modest Mogul.” San Diego Union-Tribune, October 8, 2006. Accessed October 1, 2016.
His original film studio, Stu Segall Productions, which focused mainly on low-budget crime and action dramas, began to flounder post-9/11, when television networks started shying away from violent themes. Luckily for Segall, he stumbled upon a lucrative new business model when local Drug Enforcement Administration agents responded to gunshots heard on set. An impromptu tour of the facilities convinced the agents to rent the unused film sets as training grounds, and, as word got out and demand for training environments increased, Strategic Operations was born.

Perusing the Strategic Operations website and reading their product descriptions is a surreal experience. Some of the products available on demand include a post-blast severed head to practice facial recognition and dental record identification, and an artificial blood concentrate kit that can be reconstituted to 5-10 gallons, depending on the desired viscosity of the simulated blood.

Strategic Operations also has the impressive capacity to provide hundreds of skilled actors to serve as civilians, opposing forces, or personnel of partner nations. For maximum realism, many of these role players have pertinent areas of expertise, including knowledge of local language and customs, military experience, weapons training, and insurgent tactics. Strategic Operations has even created a special unit, comprised entirely of bilingual Iraqi and Afghan actors with military backgrounds, to replicate special operations units of partner nations who train with the tech. Actors are supported by battlefield effects personnel and pyrotechnicians who can simulate horrific wounds and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives effects, all while maintaining a high standard of safety.

In addition to providing actors, Strategic Operations can create and mobilize Hyper-Realistic™ training facilities, which feature city-like textures and architectural treatments along with other atmospherics: props, elaborate set decorations, fully-outfitted residences, shops, mosques, markets, schoolrooms, etc. These high-fidelity sets are designed with changeable facades and lightweight, modular units for maximum flexibility. They can be shipped anywhere, set up in hours, and updated quickly to reflect changes in troop deployment abroad. Each additional layer of realism facilitates participants’ ability to “suspend disbelief that they are not in the real world,” becoming completely absorbed in the excitement and violence of the simulated version.

Figure 2. Training environment. Source: Strategic Operations website.
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With its constant references to reality (indicated most expressively by the frequent use of the trademarked term Hyper-Realistic™), Strategic Operations sells itself on the accuracy and true-to-life details of its products. However, its confident marketing (and one might say philosophical) claims beg considered examination of other real details it has chosen to omit. A training facility on the website, for instance, shows a classroom complete with wooden tables and benches, a globe, an atlas pinned to the wall, and Arabic writing on the blackboard. Every detail of the set has been considered, yet any evidence of children ever using the space is eerily absent. Is the Hyper-Realistic™ world of Strategic Operations one in which young lives are not disrupted and destroyed by war? Is the reality of children at war–child soldiers, child accomplices and informants, child hostages, and child casualties–too real for Hyper-Real?

The decision made by the military and its contractors to omit children from its live action-style combat simulations contrasts with longstanding efforts to specifically market war to teens and young adults. Central to these marketing efforts is America’s Army, an award-winning first person shooter game franchise developed by the U.S. Army and released in 2002 for console and computer use. It has been called the pièce de résistance of the military-entertainment complex and is part of a larger rebranding campaign begun in 1999 to improve the Army’s low recruitment rates. America’s Army has since expanded to include additional games, action figures, comics, apparel, and arcade and amusement products. The game and its spinoffs have been distributed at recruiting events, college campuses, NASCAR races, state fairs, amusement parks, music festivals, and retailers, causing controversy in 2007 when a line of True Heroes action figures was released at Toys “R” Us.

Nichols, Randy. “America’s Army and the Video Games Industry” in Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Ed. Nina Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2009
While the America’s Army video games and comics series include characters of diverse races and backgrounds, the True Heroes action figure line–which claims to highlight real heroes of the past, present and future–is comprised almost entirely of white characters, reflecting an ambivalence in the military’s marketing approach to diversity.

Figure 3. America’s Army: Proving Grounds screenshot. Source: America’s Army: Proving Grounds game trailer.
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Figure 4. True Heroes Troop Transporter Playset. Source: Toys “R” Us website.
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The army seeks to further mobilize the franchise by shifting away from game-by-game development, investing instead in a set of flexible video game assets (animations, environments, textures, avatars, etc.) that can be reused and stitched together with other military simulations and software. In order to accomplish this, the military partners with university research centers and private video game companies, creating a mutually beneficial and extremely lucrative new industry that some have termed the military-entertainment-education complex. The original America’s Army was developed at the Naval Postgraduate School in collaboration with Epic Games and the THX division of Lucas Films, costing taxpayers approximately $8 million, while marketing costs brought the total to around $16 million.

King, C. Richard, and David J. Leonard. “Securing American Empire in Virtual Space” in Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Ed. Nina Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2009; Nichols, Randy. “America’s Army and the Video Games Industry.”
The military also frequently works with the Institute for
King, C. Richard, and David J. Leonard. “Securing American Empire in Virtual Space; Nichols, Randy. “America’s Army and the Video Games Industry.”
Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, to which it has awarded contracts as large as $45 and $100 million. Money spent on military training and simulation worldwide is estimated to be around $6 billion, with the U.S. accounting for 68 percent of that total.
Erwin, Sandra I. “Military Simulation Market to Remain Flat.” National Defense, December 1, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2016.

Apart from the protests of concerned parents’ groups, America’s Army has received criticism from both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the U.N. for its unlawful targeting of young children. A 2008 study by the ACLU, entitled Soldiers of Misfortune focuses on the “U.S. military’s recruiting tactics that target children as young as 11 and disproportionately target low-income youth and students of color.”

Soldiers of Misfortune: Abusive U.S. Military Recruitment and Failure to Protect Child Soldiers. Rep. American Civil Liberties Union, January 28, 2010. Accessed October 1, 2016.
The game and the U.S. military’s general tactics were found to violate the U.N.’s Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which protects the rights of children under 17 from recruitment and deployment to war. Colonel Casey Wardynski, the mastermind behind the franchise as well as the army’s chief economist, has defended the franchise insisting that, “If you don’t get in there and engage them early in life about what they’re going to do with their lives, when it comes time for them to choose, you’re in a fallback position.”
Nichols, Randy. “America’s Army and the Video Games Industry.”
The overall strategy, communicated so effectively in battlefield terminology, is to strike when and where children are most vulnerable.

The military’s focused recruitment of children of color becomes even more exploitative when we consider how many of its training tools are reflective of racial privilege and prejudice. Back in the Hyper-Realistic™ world of Strategic Operations, we can see that black and brown-colored medical training models, for instance, are conspicuously absent. While the models might be made-to-order in a variety of flesh-toned silicone, the only products on the website that feature brown skin are the “humanoid 3-D targets” capable of “withstanding approximately 3,000 rounds.” It seems our soldiers are being taught that darker-skinned bodies don’t lose limbs, explode, bleed, and need urgent medical attention the same way white bodies do. Is white skin the only skin that a military doctor or first responder should be trained to care for? A quick online image search for the existence of racially diverse medical and military training models evidences a disturbing lack of non-white bodies and skin tones.

Figure 5. 3-D targets. Source: Strategic Operations website.
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Strategically reimagining which bodies are present, which ones get hurt, and to what extent they do is nothing new as far as military-themed simulations go. Gotham Games’ Conflict: Desert Storm, for instance, reimagines the Gulf War as a battle between the largely white American-British forces and the bearded, darker-complexion Iraqi forces, while ignoring the historical involvement of militaries from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Kuwait fighting for the coalition side.

King, C. Richard, and David J. Leonard. “Securing American Empire in Virtual Space.”
Injuries and death in the game generate very little blood, minimizing the horror and gore of war to a small, clean puff of red smoke. Many military-themed games make civilians absent or un-killable, creating a fantasy version of reality where innocent people are immune to violence, do not suffer, or do not even exist. America’s Army provides optional controls for concerned parents to sanitize game violence–blood can be turned off and death can be represented by soldiers simply sitting down. In normal gameplay there are no dying noises or blood produced when the player’s own character dies, a design decision made partly to ensure that America’s Army would qualify for a Teen (T) rating.
Nichols, Randy. “America’s Army and the Video Games Industry.”
Teen games depict minimal bloodshed and are considered suitable for players aged 13 and up, while mature games, for ages 17 and up, contain intense violence, blood, and gore.

Actual death, and all of its consequences, is an aspect of reality that is edited out of the Hyper-Realistic™. During an interview for the 99% Invisible podcast, Segall provides a succinct description of his business, stating, “It is real…except nobody dies, nobody bleeds out, and you can do it again.”

Mars, Roman. “Worst Smell in the World.” 99% Invisible. December 2, 2015. Accessed October 1, 2016.
Training soldiers are able to witness what they perceive as life-threatening events without any actual fear of death. The ultimate goal of the training is for the individual to become “stress inoculated,” so that they can engage in the violence of war with composure, and hopefully prevent any stress-related trauma. The benefits of stress inoculation, still tenuously understood, are of great interest to the military, which commissioned the RAND Corporation to conduct a report on the subject in 2014.
Enhancing Performance Under Stress. Rep. Santa Monica: RAND Coporation, 2014. Accessed October 17, 2016.
While stress inoculation may be an effective way to maximize performance in the moment, the idea of making soldiers less sensitive to violence and suffering is an unsettling one. Could it be that, instead of rehearsing a response to suffering and death, our soldiers are learning to view death as if it were merely a rehearsal? In other words, it seems naïve to think that we can condition a detached response to violence without also fundamentally changing how violence itself is conceptualized.

Popular criticism of military simulations and games usually focuses on the particular way combat is portrayed, often failing to bring up the larger issues of compartmentalization and context (or lack thereof). These simulations assume violent interactions, but often do not provide global perspective on foreign policy decisions or opportunity to avoid conflict through diplomatic intervention. While this may be a critique of military training at large, it is especially salient in regard to how children are educated and advised about military matters. In America’s Army there is no level where you play a leader deliberating over going to war, or a diplomat at a U.N. peace talk. Interactions with enemy soldiers are limited to violence, and civilians are virtually non-existent. There is no appreciation for the lives people had before the combat commenced, the struggles of life in a conflict zone, and the difficulty to carry on afterwards. There is only Hyper-Realistic™ violence happening in a vacuum.

Because violence prevails in military-themed games, there is a tendency to focus on the amount of gore in the simulation as a measure of its intensity. The more insidious aspect, however, is the presentation of a particular highly selective version of reality as very “realistic” or hyper-real. Although gaming and the military have been tied since the creation of the ancient Chinese board game Go, past games used abstractions to teach military strategy, rather than using sophisticated technology and effects to blur the lines between game and reality itself. No matter how many seductive details these simulations may include, the fact remains that they are strategic instruments–lavishly financed, precisely manufactured, and aggressively marketed in the name of capitalism, warmongering, and American imperialism. While the amount of gore may vary, the manipulative use of high-tech military games and simulations to muddle reality, train and recruit children, and desensitize soldiers is constant, meaning these simulations are never innocent, even if they are devoid of blood.