No place for “Noobs: Computer games and the militarization of youth culture

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
e-mail icon
Computer games and the militarization of youth culture

John Martino -


Computer games and in particular military themed games play a significant part in the lives of young people, to the extent that their popularity and influence now rivals that of “Hollywood”. The impact these games have had on the evolution of youth culture over a decade or more has been the focus of attention from political leaders, medical and legal specialists and the mass media. Much of the work on these games has focused on the issues of violence as depicted in the games, and the perceived psychological and social costs for individuals and society of this form of media. What is not widely canvassed in the public debate generated by violent computer games is the role that military themed games play in the wider societal process of “militarization”. The significance of this genre of gaming for the creation of a militarized variant of youth culture warrants close interrogation.Military themed gaming genres range from First Person Shooters (FPS) such as the science-fiction based Halo series to Real Time Strategy (RTS) games such as RUSE. For the purpose of this paper I will examine the role-played by First Person Shooter (FPS) games, in particular the Microsoft Xbox games in the Halo series inthe militarization of youth culture. These types of games are also referred to as“Military Shooters”.

In this paper I will briefly describe how military shooters such as Halo extends the process of militarization through the shaping of what I will refer to as a“militarized mental framework”. Evidence for this study has been drawn from a range of Halo community web sites, blogs and a range of Halo themed wikis. The emergence of a militarized form of youth culture as a global phenomenon, driven by the growth of a “military-industrial-media-entertainment-network”(MIME-Net)has become a highly effective political cultural tool in the arsenal of what Negriand Hardt describe as “Empire” – the modern form of hyper-capitalism. 1


 The role played by computer games and in particular violent and military themed games play in popular culture and society is complex and at times contradictory. Games are often highlighted in the popular imagination as harmless fun, or conversely as potential breeding grounds for social misfits and future violent criminals. The latter notion often dominates media coverage of gaming and has drawn the interests of lawmakers in most advanced economies. Media accounts and public criticism of gaming does not debate the ideological function that gaming and in particular military themed gaming has come to play. It is my contention that military themed games act to promote a form of military ‘ habitus ’. 3

This military habitus draws on the gadgets and media produced by technologically advanced twenty–first century hyper-capitalism to build a particular way of thinking, as well as of interacting with others, one which to all intents and purposes helps to create an experience which is not merely a military simulation but is more akin to an intensive form of technologically advanced military training. In this paper I will refer to two examples of military themed derivatives of the ‘First Person Shooter’ (FPS) genre of games, also known as ‘military shooters’ - Halo and also the popular Call of Duty . The brief discussion of these games will help to elaborate the manner in which they embody a military habitus , one, which has enabled the creation of a militarized form of youth culture. This military habitus and the manner in which it helps build a militarized youth culture will be discussed within the context of the global expansion of what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have described as – the Empire. 4 2. The “Military Shooter” As I outlined above, the ‘Military Shooter’ is a military themed variant of the‘First Person Shooter” style of computer gaming. FPS games originated in the early 1990s with the publication of programs such the World War II based Wolfenstein (1992) and the science-fiction inspired Doom (1993). 5 FPS games such as these have as their defining characteristic a lone hero armed to the teeth and up against hordes of Nazis in Wolfenstein or trans-dimensional demons in Doom .Doom underwent a military make-over in the 1990s when the US military modified it to become Marine Doom which has since been used as an official military training tool. 6 Military Shooters differ from these early games in that they are often realistic in their use of plot, location and weaponry. Military shooters can also incorporate squad based tactics as in Full Spectrum Warrior .The technology behind today’s Military Shooters enables program designers to reproduce realistic war settings complete with sights and sounds and the ability to interact with others in an accurate, though virtual war zone. Using today’s high capacity computing technology gamers are able to immerse themselves within a synthetic war zone and use a range of accurate representations of weaponry in settings where the atmospherics of war; wind, light, terrain etc. are as important within the game as they would be in the real world. This in many ways lifts the modern Military Shooter out of the world of gaming and into the world of simulation and training.

The relationship between computer games and gaming and the military is complex due to a range of factors. The US military has funded much of the basic science, which has underpinned the emergence of today’s sophisticated games and gaming systems such as the Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Wii. Computer games and gaming consoles owe a great deal to the intimate and symbiotic relationship between the Pentagon funding and University based scientific research communities that emerged as a consequence of the Cold-War. This complex interaction has morphed into what has been described as the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment-network’ (MIME-NET). 7

Gaming, and in particular military gaming has its origins in the development of computer generated military themed simulations in the 1960s such as “ Spacewar ”an early proof of concept piece of software that was developed at MIT and ran on an oscilloscope. 8 This early experiment opened up the potential for emerging technologies to be harnessed for more than data collection, analysis and display. Itis not possible to give a detailed account of the evolution of computer games from Spacewar to Halo: Reach , however it is important to note that since its inception computer gaming has had a special interest in military themed games and the military have equally had a particular interest in the military application of computer games and gaming. 9

Militarism, Militarization and Gaming

Games with a military theme compliment the already powerful social, political and cultural forces at work in American society, as well as in other Western societies which position and privilege the military as one of, if not the most influential institutions within those societies. The end product of the creation and maintenance of a strong military establishment - which is the ability to engage in warfare, is thus privileged as a noble undertaking and as Gulf War II has demonstrated the first best option in the global politics of Empire. 10

The privileging of the military within society and its dominance over civilian authority has been described as “militarism”. 11 Militarism is also characterised bythe existence within certain societies of what Gillis has described as, … ‘war like values’. 12 Militarism in the Twentieth century was linked to particular state formations and political ideologies, such as National Socialism in Germany and Italian Fascism.

The American historian Michael Geyer has argued that ‘militarization’ can be understood as, … “the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence’. 13 This social process has at its center the weakening of the boundaries, … ‘between military and civilian institutions, activities and aims’. 14 The importance of the military in American culture as portrayed in literature, films, television, comics and the press and other news media for over a century has been pivotal in this process of boundary weakening.

It is my contention that computer games, in particular those with a military theme act in a manner which extends this process of boundary weakening between the military and the civilian institutions and activities that James Orr posits. 15 Militarization as a socio-cultural force has at its disposal the product of over four decades of close alignment between the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment-network’ (MIME-Net) to produce games such as Halo: Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops which to all intents and purposes are a type of military trainer. It is my contention that the emergence of the MIME-Net has coincided with rapid technological innovation (cheap high capacity video and other hardware components and the availability of high-speed broadband enhanced graphics and game design) and the manifestation of an unseen, unknowable enemy in the form of the “Terrorist” since 9/11. 16

Further, the socio-cultural process of militarization has been enhanced through the materialization of technological capacity and the popularity of Military Shooter games and other forms of military themed gaming. This coalescence has meant that the increased availability of advanced consumer technology (hardware and software) has provided a mechanism through which the mental framework of young people – “the players” has been shaped by what I referred to earlier as a military habitus - militarist language, values and practices. This is due in no small part to the immersive nature of these games, their scenarios and supporting infrastructure (tally-boards, websites, online forums, books etc.).

The popularity of gaming, and in particular online gaming such as the Halo series owes much to the opportunity for players to immerse themselves in these thrilling worlds and engage in the kind of violent interaction, which would in the real world lead to criminal charges. These military themed games and the military habitus that they embody the state of continuous “low-intensity” warfare we have seen in the past half-century.

Halo Reach as an artifact of the gaming-militarization nexus

Halo: Reach is a prequel to the ground-breaking Halo series released by Microsoft initially in 2002. 17 Halo: Reach is set in the distant future and pits a small team of super soldiers “the Spartans” in the form of “Noble Team” against an invasion force from the alien “Covenant alliance”. The Covenant engages in a genocidal assault against the planet Reach culminating in the destruction of the planet thus setting the scene for the eventual invasion of Earth which is depicted in the remainder of the Halo series.

It is my contention that the mythology of  Halo colonizes space and the future by presenting the audience with a vision of an “Americanized” interstellar humanity under the protection of an elite force of genetically enhanced Marines.

“Noble Team” the central characters in the game are an “upgraded” incarnation of the celebratory cinematic and television “GI” ensembles popular in the War movies of the 1940s-1960s which depicted the ethnic melting pot of modern America. Halo and its enemy the inhuman alien invasion forces present the player with the kind of faceless enemy that Hardt & Negri refer to as an “unknowable enemy” 18 .In a post-911 world this faceless enemy can be dispatched with gleeusing a range of weapons and graphically portrayed violence.

Head shots: Militarizing youth culture.

How do military themed games contribute to the process of militarization? Is there a clear causal link between the process of militarization and the popularity of the Military Shooter and other military oriented games? It is my view that the language, game play (head shots and kill points), high-tech weapons and gear (armour, uniforms and insignia) and other military elements of this form of gaming extend and amplify the process of militarization through what I referred to earlier as the creation of a military habitus. This emergent military habitus helps build a military variant of youth culture in a number of ways. The war simulation at the heart of these games helps construct a foundation upon which entry into and effective participation within military organisations becomes easier to facilitate.We can begin to understand how this process takes shape by referring to the concept of ‘anticipatory socialization’. Neil Stott describes ‘anticipatory socialization’ 19 as a process through which young people are able to rehearse and test future roles and occupations.

Military games in the form of the Military Shooter enable young people to rehearse military and war fighting practices and scenarios from the safety of their  bedrooms. Within these military games they are able to engage in military roles and activities whether within the futuristic Halo or the more realistic Call of Duty series. This process of testing out military scenarios, organizational structures, and the technology and technique of killing helps contribute to the military habitus which in-turn underpins the formation of a militarized variant of youth culture. For example in the game Halo: Reach the successful completion of the mission requires the player to act as part of a highly skilled and elite military unit, rather than as some kind of lone ‘ Rambo ’- like hero which was a future of earlier games in the series. Success in the game and in the real-world of the warfare is dependent on team-work, and the use of superior weapons and tactics. The level of military-like behaviour required to succeed in this game brings it much closer to a type of military trainer than to a simple game.


 In this paper I have only skimmed the surface of this process of the militarization of youth culture. There is much work still to be done. What I have attempted to do in this paper is to briefly signpost the manner in which these military themed games such as Military Shooters are contributing to the formation of a militarized form of youth culture. It is my contention that this militarized form of youth culture is being built and celebrated through interaction within web communities, the adoption of highly stylized forms of militarist language and the generation of digital and real-world artifacts (toys, books etc.) as well as through the camaraderie of the community of gamers (LAN parties and invited tournaments). This militarization of youth culture has at its core the emergence of what I have described as the military habitus a process which helps to form the mental framework of young people in a manner which is conducive to the military goals and aspirations of what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have described as – the Empire. 20


  1.  Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri, Multitude : (New York: Penguin, 2006), 15.
  2. 117649, ‘AnnihilativeRepentance/Combine Jargon’ last modified 20 May 2011, viewed 25 May 2011,
  3. The concept of habitus is drawn from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and describes the manner in which,…‘society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensitiesto think, feel, and act in determinate ways’. See: Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Citique of the Judgment of Taste .(London: Routledge and Keagan Paul), 112-114.
  4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, The Commonwealth .
  5. Mathew Thomson, Military Computer Games and the New American Militarism: What Computer Games Teach Us About War . (PhD diss., University of Nottingham, 2008), 70.
  6. See: James Hoeglund, Electronic Empire: Orientalism Revisited in the Military Shooter. Game Studies , 8(1) (2008).
  7. James Der Derian, Virtuous war: mapping the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (Milton Park: Routledge,2009).
  8. Nina Huntemann and Mathew Payne. ‘Introduction’. In Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games ,edited by Ian Bogost, Nina Huntemann, & Matthew Payne, (Milton Park, Routledge, 2010).
  9. Ian Bogost, Nina Huntemann, & Matthew Payne, Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games , edited by Ian (Milton Park, Routledge, 2010).
  10. Hardt and Negri, Multitude , 15
  11. John Gillis, “Introduction”. In The Militarization of the Western World , edited by John R. Gillis. (New Brunswick:Rutgers University Press), (2004), 1-3.
  12. Gillis, “Introduction”, 1.
  13. Michael Geyer, ‘The Militarization of Europe, 1914-1945’, 79.
  14. James Orr, The Militarization of Inner Space. Critical Sociology no. 30 (2), 451.
  15. Orr, The Militarization of Inner Space.
  16. Hardt and Negri, Multitude , 15.
  17. Stuart Moss, The Entertainment Industry: An Introduction. (Wellingford: CABI, 2009), 159.
  18. Hardt and Negri, Multitude , 15.
  19. Neil Stott, ‘Anticipatory military work; digital games as a source of anticipatory socilaization’ . Paper presented at theBritish International Studies Association, American Foreign Policy Conference. (University of Leeds, UK, September 15,2010) 20 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, The Commonwealth .



Geographic terms: