America's Army, an online combat game developed by the Pentagon, has helped boost military recruitment. The game's technology is not all that different from the tools used in today's war zones to guide unmanned drones and perform other tasks.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Peter Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, explored the question of how realistic that technology really is and the extent to which virtual and actual war have merged.
"It's what they call a 'first-person shooter,'" Singer tells NPR's Steve Inskeep; in the game, the player looks down the barrel of a gun on the battlefield.
Millions of people play the game. It ranks in the top 10 of all downloadable games; the Chinese government even sought to ban it. But its depictions of military training and combat were meant to be a recruiting tool — and America's Army has succeeded in that goal, Singer says.
"One study found that the game had more impact on actual recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined," he says.
With its graphics and compelling storylines, America's Army is just the start of a broader spectrum of something Singer calls "'militainment' — where the military is drawing from entertainment for its tools."
For instance, he says, the controls for remote-controlled weapons like the Predator and Pacbot are modeled after Xbox and PlayStation controllers.
Part of the reason behind that is that game makers had done millions of dollars' worth of research in ergonomics to make sure the devices fit well in the hand.
"But more importantly, the training costs had already been taken out because you hand these to an 18-year-old and they automatically know how to use it," Singer says.
But the military's use of games that can safely replicate complicated and dangerous situations also has its critics.
For example, Singer says, there's the "fog of war" effect. The game lets players vicariously experience an actual battle won by Green Berets during the invasion of Iraq. But when the virtual unit calls in an airstrike, America's Army leaves out a crucial real-world detail.
"The airstrike accidentally hit some of their own and also killed some of our Kurdish allies," Singer says.
Another downside is a phenomenon that some call "avatar fatigue" — the way a video-game player can be desensitized to on-screen deaths.
"Whereas if you lose in reality," Singer says, "you actually have to call your buddy's wife and explain what happened."
And then there's the "O'Brien Effect," so named because late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien challenged tennis star Serena Williams to a match — and then proceeded to beat her in a game played on a Nintendo Wii.
"The point here was that just because you excel in the video game of something, it doesn't mean that you excel in the real world version," Singer says.