The developers of the engine for creating video games Unity were worried that they were indirectly contributing to the killing of people: the company gained contracts with the American army for $ 672 thousand in the last year alone. It’s a drop in the bucket in the history of the Pentagon’s relationship with the game industry, but Unity has called on management to account. And they got it – disappointing.
“Do you want to use your designs to catch the bad guys? Maybe we shouldn’t be deciding who the bad guys are, ”says the developer of the Unity game engine. It’s not about the bad guys in the video game (and not about the demonization of Russians in Call of Duty, which set the teeth on edge even for people far from gaming), but quite real ones. The Pentagon ordered work from the company to simulate a prototype potential weapon simulator, on which, according to Vice (or rather, its gaming division Waypoint), the unofficial division of Unity Technologies GovTech is working.
Some of the company’s employees are tormented by the question: is the product they are working on ethically used? After all, the game engine was created by people who are convinced that “the world gets better when there are more creators in it,” says the company’s memorandum. Next to it, the site has a section dedicated to projects for the government and the aerospace industry.
Unity is a 2D, 3D and VR game development software. Games such as Genshin Impact (one of the three most successful mobile games in history), Hearthstone, Pillars of Eternity, Ori and the Blind Forest and many others are created on it.
The developers were hardly bothered by the very fact of the company’s cooperation with the Pentagon, which directly and indirectly has been working side by side with the gaming industry for over 60 years.
With the stream – in the field
Games meet recruits at the very doorstep of the army. “Do you play Call of Duty? Maybe someday you’ll be as good as I am, ”says an American soldier and also a professional gamer to a participant in a gaming exhibition and hands him a flyer. He invites video game enthusiasts to USArmyEsports, an esports army team.
It was collected in 2018, after the US military missed conscription targets for the first time in 13 years. In 2020, the role of USArmyEsports has only grown, with gamer soldiers joining the Twitch platform, doubling the number of views during the pandemic.
The soldier streams for 11 hours day after day, and gamers come to him with something like this. “Oh, are you here again? So you really play in the army? Is there really an esports team there? – retells the conversation by Sergeant Joshua David, the best player in the US Army in Call of Duty. – And then it seems like a gateway opens, full of surprise: how? why?”
True, recruits do not immediately get into USArmyEsports, if at all. First, they need to undergo standard army training, after which they, like other soldiers, can be sent on a mission. And it’s not about a virtual reality quest.
In the midst of a pandemic around the Twitch campaign (according to unconfirmed reports, the platform signed a contract with the US Department of Defense for $ 1 million), a scandal erupted: firstly, army streamers communicated with minors, and secondly, under the guise of playing gamepads, they entered the recruiting center’s website, and thirdly, they blocked in chats those who asked uncomfortable questions about the US war crimes in Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Service in Zekistan
The US Army initiative seemed like a fresh solution, although in reality the tactic is 20 years old. In the late 1990s, Lt. Col. Casey Wardinski, the father of two avid gamers, figured out how to attract tech-savvy recruits. Inspired by Counter-Strike, the military developed the America’s Army game on the Unreal game engine (the first on the Unreal Engine of the same name – one of the most along with Unity). And everything in this game was the same as in a real army, said the executive director of the game, Michael Capps. According to Vardinski, the initial development costs were $ 7.6 million, another 4 million – for new missions and technical support. If the game attracts 400 recruits, the investment will be considered to have paid off, then the authors of the projects reasoned.
The game was released in 2002, when the army was tasked with attracting 79.5 thousand recruits. In 2001, the United States sent troops to Afghanistan, in 2003 – to Iraq.
America’s Army subsequently grew into a series of games, was distributed free of charge, and was used not only as a propaganda tool, but also as a training simulator. In the same years, work began on the game, which later became the Full Spectrum Warrior. Its plot is set in the fictional country of Zekistan, where terrorists from Iraq and Afghanistan fled. Initially, it was conceived as another simulator, but as a result, a successful commercial project grew out of it (the average score on Metacritic is 84 points out of 100).
This is not the Ku Klux Klan
Although the history of military use of the Unity game engine is not as impressive as that of the Unreal Engine, it goes back more than one year. However, now the rates have increased. According to Waypoint, the company won three contracts with the United States Air Force in 2020. Two of them are for modeling and creating a prototype of a simulator of an advanced combat control system as part of a multi-domain operations advanced battle management family of systems strategy.
Developers interviewed by Waypoint report that a separate team, unofficially called GovTech, deals with contracts. And they are not convinced that GovTech is not indirectly violating the company’s memorandum that its products “will not be used in real-time combat.”
“Whether I work directly for a government team or not, I am empowering the products they sell,” the source says. Unity CEO John Riccitello reassured employees on August 26 that the company is not taking on projects that “directly help kill people.”
“Many employees are wondering if Unity has worked on projects that involve simulating the use of weapons, armed vehicles … Well, what are soldiers being trained? We are definitely working on a training system. We do not work on things that lead to the death of people directly, – Riccitello says evasively at a meeting with employees. – Training of soldiers is a very broad concept, because soldiers perform many humanitarian functions … But train drones to kill people? No”.
The leadership made it clear something else: it is not going to give up military contracts. According to Riccitello, projects with the military and government organizations account for only 5% of the total. At the same time, he let slip that Unity works for the military of other countries, because it prefers not to stand aside, but to influence from within – within the framework of its ethical standards. “I don’t think we will do anything for the Ku Klux Klan,” the CEO summed up.
Unity has provided press coverage of the scandal with two employees, including a daughter of Iraqi immigrants and a former military man. “Personally, as a veteran of the US Marine Corps and someone who has been sent to Iraq twice, I believe it is important in this discussion to respect the veterans of all countries who work at Unity,” said Michael Reis, a former military man, Partner Operations Manager, and chided disgruntled employees for mistrust.
It is not known how many people out of 4 thousand employees do not share the position of the management. The CEO hinted that those who disagree with the company are not on their way.
In 2019, a similar scandal erupted around Microsoft. About 50 employees of the company demanded from the management to terminate the contract with the Pentagon, on the order of which HoloLens augmented reality glasses were developed.
New tasks, old rules
According to research firm Research and Markets, in 2021, the cooperation of commercial gaming companies with the military is only gaining momentum amid interest in the strategy of hybrid warfare. “As the commercial games market has outpaced the defense industry in terms of game technology, game engines such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine are increasingly being used in the industry to develop simulators,” the study said.
The policy issue did not seem to have been a big deal for the Unity staff before. The game engine is known primarily as a favorite tool of indie developers, among whom there are many who advocate games as a stronghold of escapism. Unity is distributed free of charge, only companies with a turnover of more than $ 100 thousand and developers of console games should buy the paid version. Keeping track of the final product, and even more so subjecting it to censorship, is outside the company’s area of responsibility. It’s the same with the Pentagon: the military bought the engine and used it for their own purposes, but now they brought in Unity employees directly to create a product within the framework of the concept of multimedia warfare, which could define the shape of the US military for decades.
“The video game industry is built on technology that was funded for military research,” says Corey Mead, author of War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict.
The Pentagon sponsored the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which in 1962 created the first commercial computer game, Spacewar! It is listed as the 10 Most Important Video Game of All Time by the Library of Congress, along with Tetris, Super Mario Bros. 3, the Warcraft series and others.
War funding began to dry up in the late 1990s, according to Corey Mead, and many tech companies and simulation developers turned to the video game industry to make money. Thus, the American military and political forces began to use the technological advances of the gaming industry that surpassed them.
Call of Duty Propaganda Lessons
And this applies not only to technology and audience, but also to the ideological side of the issue. In 2013, the Atlantic Council of the United States (in 2019, its activities were declared undesirable in the Russian Federation. – Ed.) Hired Dave Anthony, a screenwriter and producer of the Call of Duty series of games. It was he who wrote the script for Call of Duty: Black Ops, one of the highest-grossing parts of the series, in which Soviet General Nikita Dragovich tried to strike at the United States with weapons of mass destruction developed by a Nazi scientist. Dave Anthony was called to the Atlantic Council to use his experience in fictional wars to predict real war conflicts.
If you think like an artist, indirectly, they can really be foreseen, says the former game developer. He explained the idea on the example of the 9/11 terrorist attack, for which he received a lot of criticism: “Think about it. There was a TV show called Lone Gunners – a spin-off of The X-Files – and in a pilot episode that aired six months before the attack, where government conspirators posing as terrorists try to seize control of a commercial plane by flying into World Trade Center “.
He showed how to use this model to benefit America with his first Atlantic Council initiative: institute plainclothes school marshals to keep children safe from terrorists. Many will not like this, so the authorities are better off applying his experience from the game industry: “When we launch a new product, the audience’s reaction to which is not sure, we sell it … We sell as much as we can. Whether people like it or not, we basically brainwash them before they form their own opinion, so that in the end they will like it. “