U.S. military focuses recruiting efforts on video-game playing teenagers

The U.S. Military is intensifying its efforts to meet young people where they spend their time: online and on their devices. But, as John Yang reports, there are critics who say these new recruiting methods also raise new concerns.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pivoting from veterans to new recruits.

    The U.S. military is intensifying its efforts to meet young people where they spend their time, online and on their devices.

    But as John Yang reports in this report, there are critics who say these new recording methods — recruiting methods also raise new concerns.

  • John Yang:

    Among the make-believe superheroes and Stormtroopers at this San Antonio car show and comic convention, the Air Force hopes to find its next generation of real-life warriors.

    So, in a hall filled with iconic cars from TV shows and movies, the Air Force's star attraction, a 70-foot trailer filled with touch-screen games and F-35 fighter jet simulators.

    Air Force recruiter Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Cabrera.

    How valuable is this in terms of generating leads for you as a recruiter?

  • Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Cabrera, Recruiter, U.S. Air Force:

    Oh, it's extremely valuable. The reason being is, I'm not just out here by myself. I have done multiple events where I'm just by myself at a table, and I don't get as much foot traffic.

    With assets like this, it does generate that foot traffic, 100 percent.

  • John Yang:

    The price of admission? Giving Air Force recruiters contact and demographic information.

  • Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Cabrera:

    Whenever you're ready, just going to start the game.

    Cabrera says the games are intended to reflect real-life skills like defusing an explosive device.

    So I have probably blown up.

  • Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Cabrera:

    I would say so.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    It's an in person element of the Pentagon's push to reach Generation Z, those born after 1996. Almost 90 percent of them play games on phones and other devices. So what better way to get their attention?

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr., Commander, Air Force Recruiting Service:

    A basic rule in recruiting is, you got to go where your market is.

  • John Yang:

    Major General Edward Thomas Jr. is commander of the Air Force recruiting service.

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr.:

    If we're looking at the average recruiting population, ages 17 to 24, we have got to be where they are in those virtual spaces.

  • John Yang:

    Last year, the Air Force released two new free games. One is called "Command the Stack." Aimed at those 13 and older, it's an augmented reality mission simulator that uses real satellite scans. The games can be played on the Air Force Web site or downloaded from app stores. They're promoted through targeted online advertising.

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr.:

    So about 80 percent of all our advertising and all of our outreach is done online. It's done in those virtual spaces. At a very broad level, it's done from everything from Twitter to Snapchat to Facebook.

  • John Yang:

    All just to show Gen Z that they have a place in a service that this year marks its 75th anniversary amid what Pentagon officials say is the toughest recruiting environment across the military in decades.

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr.:

    It's been an unusually difficult recruiting market, as our recruiters have gone out and reengaged at the end of COVID, fought through the labor challenges that we have going on.

  • John Yang:

    Among the big reasons? About three-quarters of young Americans don't meet the military's qualifications because they're overweight, have a criminal record, didn't graduate from high school or don't meet some other requirements.

    And a shrinking military has meant fewer young people have family connections to the armed forces. In 1995, 40 percent, had a parent who had served. By 2017, it was 15 percent. Recruiters also say Gen Z is more skeptical than their elders. That attitude was evident in this April TikTok video showing Ball State University students mocking a mass e-mail from Army recruiters and criticizing U.S. foreign policy.

    The Pentagon's use of gaming in recruiting has drawn some high-profile critics.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY):

    This amendment is specifically to block recruitment practices.

  • John Yang:

    In 2020, New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, herself a gamer, tried unsuccessfully to kill the Army and Navy's e-sports livestreaming, teams of soldiers and sailors competing on Twitch, a gaming platform which has millions of visitors a day.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez:

    Right now, currently, children on platforms such as Twitch are bombarded with banner ads that link to recruitment sign-up forms that can be submitted by children as young as 12 years old. These are not educational outreach programs, but recruitment forms for the military.

  • John Yang:

    Not all service branches think e-sports is a good idea. In 2020, the Marine Corps said it would not field a team.

    "Issues associated with combat are too serious to be gamified in a responsible manner."

    Chris Velazquez, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, agrees. He's a leader of Gamers For Peace, an anti-war veterans group whose members livestream to counter what they call the military entertainment complex.

    Chris Velazquez, Gamers for Peace: The recruiters have access to kids and kids are consuming recruiter content in any and all environment. It can be on their cell phone or in front of their computer in their home, where their guard is down and nobody else is around monitoring what an adult is telling them.

    We're trying to soften the impact and influences recruiters have on children.

  • Lisa Ling, U.S. Air Force Veteran:

    I believe that video games do trivialize war. They do trivialize death.

    Air Force veteran Lisa Ling was a drone program technician.

  • Lisa Ling:

    If you're trying to recruit people, or you're trying to attract people into the military using a video game, you're attracting them to something that is not real. And, in that way, what happens to these young people, should they experience the realities of war, will be devastating.

  • John Yang:

    The top recruiter in the Air Force, which does not have an e-sports team, despite its video games, acknowledges the criticisms.

    There are some people who say that some of these games are too realistic, that they desensitize young people to violence and to these sorts of acts.

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr.:

    I think maybe in some senses that could be true. And, as a parent, a grandparent of four, I would really encourage a lot of involvement in what's right for each individual, because it is important that people understand that real life and real warfare is not a game.

  • John Yang:

    And he says encouraging those younger than the military's minimum enlistment age of 17 to play the Air Force's video games is not the same thing as actively recruiting them.

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr.:

    We're not recruiting anybody under the age of 17.

    Now, there are a lot of young Americans that we want to inspire through a variety of different ways, so they're thinking about the military as a career.

  • John Yang:

    Help me understand that, the difference between inspiring and recruiting.

  • Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr.:

    Really, what it is, it's about the active conversation. When they're 17 or older, we will get that conversation in earnest started about how you actually come and what steps you take to join the United States Air Force or the United States Space Force or any other service.

    Under 17, we're just not having those conversations. It's not the time to do it. It's not appropriate.

  • John Yang:

    At the convention, the Air Force's gaming display struck a chord with Nick Booker-Brown, a sophomore who plays football at the University of Texas in San Antonio.

    Had you been thinking about the Air Force at all before?

  • Nick Booker-Brown, College Student:

    No, I never thought about it until I just got in there. That kind of, like, changed my mind. Like, that's probably going to be my plan B, the Air Force. It kind of made my day too.

  • John Yang:

    What's your plan A?

  • Nick Booker-Brown:

    NFL.

  • John Yang:

    A maybe that the Air Force hopes can turn into a yes.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in San Antonio.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So fascinating to learn about that.

    Thank you, John Yang.

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