Cutesy anime gifs and heart emojis are the latest dystopian effort to recruit Gen Z meme teens into the world’s most expensive imperial force. Social media, the virtual frontier, is now riddled with military propaganda in bite-sized relatable memes. Internet vigilantes have pushed back by spamming the US Army Discord server with links to the Wikipedia list of US war crimes, quote-retweeting the verified account with the friendly reminder that “Gamers can violate the Geneva Conventions in real life by joining the United States Army’s Esports team,” and otherwise trolling their social media team ragged. But none of that has deterred the Esports team from reaching its intended target: young, impressionable gamers.
As long as first-person shooters remain popular, video games will be the perfect breeding ground for the military to ask gamers to hone their skills before signing up for the real deal. After all, if recruiters know what the kids these days are into (apparently it’s Kawaii anime girls), they can convince us all that military service is like summer camp, a place where you can find the people just like you.
Coronavirus has temporarily halted typical recruiting methods like setting up tables inside malls or cajoling high school students, so the military has moved headlong into digital recruitment efforts. The constant stream of SpongeBob reaction gifs is not the work of some cheeky social media manager, but the extension of a decades-long project to use video games and video game culture as a means to target recruits. By 2015, the Pentagon had explicitly named “electronic games” that “may benefit Military Service recruiting and retention programs” as a future budget item for DOD assistance. By late 2018, the US Army Esports team was born, explicitly under the umbrella of the Army’s recruiting operations.
While irony-poisoned Twitter helldudes break their keyboard typing “Starship Troopers” references, the military carries out its plan to anime gif your kids into enlisting.
Casey Wardynski, a top recruiter, has been clear about his plans to enlist Gen Z in novel ways. “We have to confront this question of, will we wait until they’re 17, or will we start talking to them at age 12, 13, 14, 15…?” he said at a 2019 symposium. Wardynski and Major General Frank Muth have been the brain geniuses behind much of the military’s foray into gaming, including millions of dollars in game developments. Muth has credited the exploration of gaming as a huge success for recruitment efforts. While irony-poisoned Twitter helldudes break their keyboard typing “Starship Troopers” references, the military carries out its plan to anime gif your kids into enlisting.
Hot guys on military recruitment posters is a long-standing tradition. Using popular characters and platforms to persuade impressionable teens is not that. With limitless choice of preferred entertainment, militaries must decide where they will get the best reception and most enlistees. Video games are more popular than ever, and esports looks like the best venture.
Creating a rag-rag team of silly gamers who love nerd culture, but also want to serve their country, only works because nerd culture has been subsumed into the mainstream. Gamers aren’t scrawny or antisocial; they’re a massive subculture of eligible killing machines. And with gaming comes the culture, full of anime gifs, glib game references, and, of course, the UwU.
Of the six games the US Army Esports team fields, only two are war games. The rest feature fantasy and cartoon violence. The games they play are the most popular games in the world, but your mom and dad have hardly heard of them. As big as the video game industry is, it’s still a subculture. The armed forces needs manpower, even if it has to enlist a bunch of nerds.
The future of warfare will be ever more depersonalized than it is now. As Kelsey Atherton noted, annual advances in technology guarantee the longevity of drone programs, even if the merits of security by sky-sword are up for debate. Three decades later, drones have found a permanent stay in the US armory. The next step is to get people to pilot them. Drone programs are interested in the kind of person who has the skillset and the mindset for drone warfare, someone used to pressing buttons for virtual kills. Gamers aren’t going to make the wars winnable. Their perceived button-mashing skills are second to the spots they fill that allow the top brass to say their programs are worth continuing. They’re job-makers, after all.
The minor internet backlash to the US Army’s UwU-ing won’t put a dent in its plan to recruit kids by sending recruiters to play Fortnite with them. The military is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to recruit fresh meat, and that number will likely only grow as it tests out increasingly novel schemes to attract Gen Alpha. This year’s NDAA could very well give recruiters access to high school students’ email addresses. Who knows what they’ll send to their inboxes?
You don’t beat an army by tweeting at them (you don’t beat an army by writing at them either, but here I am), but we can talk to the siblings, cousins, and kids in our lives about what military propaganda looks like in the age of social media. We’re not going to win the culture war, at least not as long as the mouse and the brass are in cahoots, but we can take back our little subcultures, and resist their efforts to propagandize us.
Kate Kohn is a writer from Washington, DC. She holds an MA in political communication from American University and can be reached on Twitter @kathrwn.