Until recently, on any random evening you could watch members of the US Navy’s Goats & Glory esports team streaming on Twitch. The streaming sailors play Apex Legends, Spellbreak, Among Us, and—of course—Call of Duty: Warzone. They’re not alone. The National Guard, Army, and Air Force all have their own Twitch channels, where they stream video games and talk with the public. It hasn’t been going well.
After gamers first learned of the Pentagon’s push into the gaming space, they spammed chat rooms with messages about US military atrocities. When the Army and Navy banned gamer and progressive activist Jordan Uhl for asking about recruiting and war crimes on Twitch, he threatened a First Amendment lawsuit. Both branches then stopped banning people from their streams.
“For younger gamers, it speaks to how disillusioned they’ve become with the American experiment,” Uhl says. After the controversies, New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tried to pass a measure banning the Pentagon from recruiting on Twitch. It failed, but had the support of more than 100 other lawmakers.
The Navy has taken a step back from streaming on Twitch after a spate of recent controversies. On September 13, Personnel Specialist Brandon Chandler streamed on the U.S. Navy’s twitch channel and played with “personal friends” who used screen names that referenced the U.S. Bombing of Nagasaki and a racial slur. In a similar incident the same week, a member of the U.S. National Guard streaming team repeated a white nationalist meme on Twitch.
The Navy kicked Chandler off the Goats & Glory team and hasn’t returned to Twitch since. The National Guard also said it would take a break from streaming.
But they’ll be back. The US military needs recruits, and it has to meet people where they live. Increasingly, those potential recruits live online in places like Twitch.
The American military as a whole is facing a recruitment crisis. The US Army has struggled to meet its recruiting goals since 2018, and only met its 2019 goal after cutting expectations and assigning 700 more recruiters. In part, that’s because the Pentagon’s needs are changing. “The US military no longer primarily recruits individuals from the most disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds,” reads recent research in The Journal of Strategic Studies. “Technological, tactical, operational and doctrinal changes have led to a change in the demand for personnel.” More simply put: The military needs highly skilled and technically savvy youth, but it’s having trouble finding them.
To fill its recruitment gap, the Pentagon is looking to gamers. “Gamers utilize skills every day while they compete, sometimes without even realizing it,” reads a Navy recruiting “Guide for Streamers.” “Detail-oriented and working toward long-term goals, problem solvers under time pressures, perseverance in the face of frustration and roadblocks. These are the same skill sets used in the fields in nuclear engineering, aviation, special warfare, cryptology, and counter-intelligence.”
According to former recruiter and Army ranger Marty Skovlund Jr., the move to Twitch makes perfect sense. “Twitch is just the modern incarnation of the shopping mall, as far as what they mean to a recruiter,” Skovlund says. “These are shaping operations. It’s the same reason Coke places Coke bottles in movies. You aren’t literally going to buy a Coke because you just saw it in a movie, but it’s entering the consciousness. It’s a part of the recruiting process even if it’s not literally recruiting people.”
For Uhl and other critics of the military’s activities on Twitch, streaming represents a unique and consequential change from previous military recruitment efforts. “The conversation we should be having is that recruiters should not be able to hang out with kids. Period,” Uhl says. “It’s much different than having a recruiter in your school cafeteria. What people need to understand here is the parasocial relationship on Twitch is so unique. That can’t be replicated in a cafeteria or classroom.”
A parasocial relationship is at the heart of what makes Twitch unique. When someone likes a celebrity, influencer, or YouTuber, they develop a parasocial relationship with that person. Fans may support a creator on Patreon, but often the emotional work of that relationship is one way. It’s not that the creator or influencer doesn’t care, it’s that it’s impossible for them to attend to the emotional needs of thousands of friends and followers. On Twitch, fans can interact directly with followers. By being on Twitch, the US military is seeking to develop these kinds of relationships with followers.