MediaMedia PlanningGamer Get Your Gun

Gamer Get Your Gun

How the Pentagon uses digital games to build tomorrow's military.

A fascinating relationship has been forming over the years between the United States military and gamers. Seemingly an odd match, the relationship is mutually beneficial and generally applauded on both sides.

For the gamer, the military is infusing capital, through sponsorship, into this form of entertainment. Sponsorship dollars are the lifeline for many of the independent enthusiast sites that gamers flock to. As well, game offerings from big media companies are propped up with military spending. Additionally, gamers have been treated to very successful game offerings developed by the armed services.

For the U.S. military, the game industry delivers a male-skewing, 18 to 24 demographic, in droves. Reaching this audience is critical and certain pockets of the game industry deliver unmatched concentrations of this target audience. Of course, a little unofficial but expected spillover into the 12 to 17 demographic is welcome.

In delving deeper into the motivations of the U.S. military and the role games and gamers play we begin to see how important the relationship is to the future of the military. In the analysis, we also witness tried and true marketing practices being deployed brilliantly.

Target audience: The Pentagon knows its target. It seeks primarily middle-class men in their teens to early 20s. It also knows its target audience has evolved over the years and is spending far more time online and playing games.

Gaming as a critical vertical: Aside from delivering mass concentrations of the target audience, the branches of military services are striking parallels between game evolution, gamer skills, and the military’s future.

Game evolution: As technology has advanced, so has realism in games. As noted in past columns, this realism doesn’t always make a game better. However, in the case of combat simulations and military strategy games, realism in-game is tantamount to a title’s success. Gamers of these genres demand a tireless pursuit of reality from the game developers. The virtual world in combat simulations and military strategy games is becoming more real with every new release.

Combat simulation: Many of the most popular games on the market are combat simulations. More, the most popular are first person shooters (FPS). These are games in which the player has a first-person perspective of the game environment. If you’re not familiar, understand that within an FPS, you are not controlling a character on a screen like you would Mario or Pac-Man. Instead, you are seeing the battlefield and your combatants through the character’s eyes. You are the character, surveying the world around you with your virtual hands and weapons — the only visible parts of “you” in the game.

Gamer skill and experience: Gamers, by nature, persistently strive to achieve. They compete with their old scores, artificial intelligence, and now, through networked play spaces, human adversaries. As relates to the military, this relentless pursuit of perfection applied within realistic combat simulations equates to a digitally trained soldier. Studies have proven that physical and emotional reactions to situations in virtual combat are akin to those in real combat situations. A player’s brain activity and physical and emotional responses are not much different than those of soldiers in real combat. Therefore, a player’s ability to keep cool under fire, make decisions, and achieve objectives in virtual combat is a litmus test for how they would perform in real combat. If they are good in game, they will likely be good in battle.

Weapons interfaces: The weaponry and vehicles of the modern military have come a long way from your father’s army. Computers and graphical user interfaces are an integral part of weaponry, machinery, and vehicles. And these user interfaces are strikingly similar to those of video games and consumer computing devices. This makes the gamer a quick study of the systems they will need to engage if enlisted.

High-tech associations: The military desires an association with high tech, and the game industry is an excellent vertical to provide that association. The military constantly pushes technology forward, as a Navy slogan best describes it, to “Unman the Frontlines.” Our military has technology and weaponry that scares our enemy, can annihilate our enemy, and keeps our soldiers out of the line of fire. On a parallel path, the game industry is constantly advancing technology to create better games and more immersive and realistic experiences.

Audience segmentation: The armed services have spent enough time working with and in the game industry to realize there are many sub-segments and audience concentrations that deliver specific types of gamers. The armed services concentrate spending against the game genres (e.g. first-person shooters), games (e.g., “Counter-Strike“) and industry pockets (e.g., high-tech mod developers and machinima makers) that not only deliver the demographics they seek but also the psychographics, attitudes, and predispositions that will deliver the highest marketing return on investment and the best recruits.

Message testing and optimization: Armed services messages within the gaming vertical have varied from U.S. Special Forces recruitment to “military as a force of good in the world.” As is the case in any marketing plan, the military is constantly testing messaging, swapping in new creative, and optimizing placements.

Messaging through multiply media vehicles: The U.S. military has demonstrated a strategy in its marketing to gamers that has proven increasingly effective. It looks to own the experience by messaging through all available media channels that reach the enthusiast. Taking it one step further, the military has also owned the experience, literally, through the development of wildly successful games.

Broadcast: Armed services ads can be seen within game programming on Spike, G4, MTV, and other channels that broadcast gaming programming.

Events: The armed services have presences at many game events to meet and greet gamers face to face. A stand out example: the Army had paratroopers repel from a helicopter at E3 to promote “America’s Army.”

Online: The armed services have prominent placement and continual presence within game enthusiast Web sites. They can be seen running banner ads, sponsoring channels within established game media properties and also underwriting online events within up and coming enthusiast Web sites. Sites that armed services have spent on include IGN, GameSpot, FileFront, 1UP, FileShack, Shacknews, GameDaily, Xfire and many others. And the Navy was a sponsor of the Mod Awards.

In game: The armed services benefit greatly from reality in games. Many combat simulations serve as marketing campaigns for the armed services without even requiring a budget.

Game development: The armed services are very involved with game development. Two notable examples:

  • Army and US Navy: “America’s Army“. An FPS that was first released as a free download. Since its transition to commercial release it is one of the most popular franchises of all time. The game touts nine million registered players and 205 million hours of online play.
  • U.S. Navy: “Strike and Retrieve“. A free downloadable mini-game, it targeted a broader casual player base. It did not see the same success that America’s Army has, but it was effective in offering something of value to the consumer for free, expanding message reach from hardcore gaming into casual gaming, and opening a dialogue with gamers to refine the game in subsequent releases.


In sum, the military has accomplished its mission. It demonstrated it:

  • Knew their audience.
  • Discovered a growing passion for games within their target’s activities.
  • Identified the possibilities and benefits that the gaming vertical could afford.
  • Executed campaigns to begin a dialogue within the vertical.
  • Continually optimized and enhanced their messaging.
  • Owned the experience through all touch points.
  • Created experiences for their target by developing games.

Although the relationship between the armed services and the game industry is a unique one, a message holds true across all industries. Somewhere within the game industry there are audience concentrations relevant to your brand, product, or service. Identifying them and opening a dialogue in the language of games will provide significant return on investment.

Thanks for your mind share.


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