By Joseph Andrew Lee

Virtually every new military recruit today grew up playing video games. You can look inside any USO center or barracks room to see how popular gaming is among younger service members. But in the military, not all games are created equal. Troops definitely have their favorites.

“Either a guy plays “Call of Duty” or he hates “Call of Duty” and he plays “Battlefield,” or he’s a sports geek and he’s on “FIFA” or ‘Madden” … all year long,” said Army Specialist Stevenson Davis, 26, who serves as the secretary of the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) program at Fort Hood, Texas.

Service members can find video games in many USO locations around the world. If there isn’t a USO center nearby, the organization deploys its Mobile Entertainment Gaming Systems to military members serving in austere locations. | Photo credit USO photo

Anyone working with a program for single service members will tell you console gaming is as popular as it’s ever been. Still, video games are often dismissed as a mind-numbing waste of time by some who don’t understand the psychological benefits of today’s games. While first-person shooter games like “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” have been called “dangerous” by some researchers, the debate over whether military-themed video games cause real-world violence is largely unsettled.

“Contrary to a lot of things we see and hear in the media about gamers being loners and living solitary lifestyles or the [shooter] games causing violence or whatever, most of that is simply not supported by data,” said Elisabeth Gee, the director of the Center for Games and Impact at Arizona State University. “In fact,” she added, “the data shows that gaming consoles do more to bring families and friends together than most people would believe.”

U.S. service members deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 kick back in some USO beanbag chairs and play video games. | Photo credit USO photo

The Pew Research Center for Internet, Science and Technology, which has studied gaming trends for more than a decade, discovered 83 percent of male teens and 59 percent of female teens use video games as a way to socialize with their friends in person. That statistic may not be surprising, but the study also found that 75 percent of males also use gaming to socialize with friends on the Internet. More than half play games online with people they don’t even know.

“Video gameplay, particularly over online networks, is an important activity through which boys seem to form and maintain friendships with others,” Gee said.

Dr. Bernard S. Arons, director of the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHSA), believes friendships increase enjoyment of life and relieve feelings of loneliness. They can also help reduce stress and improve overall health. CMHSA is under the auspice of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Maryland.

“Having good friends is especially helpful when you are going through any kind of hard time, experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, depression, phobias or delusional thinking, living with a serious illness or disability, having major surgery, having a loss in your life or just being under a lot of stress,” Arons wrote in “Making and Keeping Friends—A Self-Help Guide” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “At times like these, good friends and supporters can make all the difference.”

U.S. service members and military families enjoy the newly renovated USO center in the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in West Columbia, South Carolina, in 2013. | Photo credit USO photo by Michael Clifton

At the USO, which acts as a home-away-from-home for many service members, video game consoles are a staple in virtually every center and are part of nearly every Mobile USO canteen. The relationship between troops’ morale and their video games has been clear for decades. In an effort to keep morale and spirits high, the USO created new ways to connect troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to their communities back home through video games. The organization even packs mobile gaming systems inside rugged Pelican cases so troops deployed to austere locations can play without worrying about damaging the consoles.

Additionally, the online gaming community has also become one of the most common places young males make and keep their friends. According to the Pew study, 38 percent of teenage boys said their gaming screen names are one of first three things they share when developing friendships. This exchange is less important to females in the same age group.

Online players are connected with their competitors and teammates via voice connections in order to engage in collaboration, conversation and good-natured trash talking. Gee said there’s a good reason males prefer this form of communication to talking on the telephone. This type of interaction has much more in common with in-person male interactions than with telephone interactions, where two men who run out of things to talk about usually feel obliged to hang up.

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The online video game extends the social interaction beyond the simple verbal communication aspect, Gee said. That means the channel for communication is kept open while online participants—be it friends from home, brothers or maybe even a father and son—work together to solve real-time problems in the context of the gaming environment, only speaking when it’s convenient or necessary.

Collaboration toward the completion of a single goal—whether it’s defeating the computer, a certain level or each other—builds trust and strengthens bonds among men, she said.

“There’s still much disagreement as to the cause and root of certain male behaviors,” she said. “But there’s no question the socializations surrounding things like sports, competition and even combat are common among men in many human cultures. What’s interesting is how these socializations are happening today in our culture. These very healthy socializations seem to be happening in very complex ways with the help of video game consoles.”

“We don’t like to write letters or talk for hours on the phone,” Davis said. “Instead, we send a text and challenge our friends back home to a game of “Madden”—that’s just how it’s done today.”

—Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO multimedia journalist. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

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