Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gen M: The Militarization of American Youth

This month's essay came into focus one recent day when I brought my older son to an airsoft  game.  For those unfamiliar with airsoft games, they are arena style combat matches between teams armed with air powered rifles that fire small plastic beads.  It's a step up - a big step up - from the paint ball guns which gained popularity during the late 1980's.

I had the chance to run around in the woods and play in some paint ball games while in college, and I have to admit it was loads of fun.  There were, of course, the hardcore players who seemed to take it a little too seriously.  The thing was, at least from what I saw at the time, the players were people similar to me: late teen or early twenties guys looking to run around in the woods and have some fun on a Saturday.  Now, I have to admit that my experience with paint ball was somewhat limited, and I knew at the time there was a bigger world of paint ball tournaments out there, but it seemed a rather tiny subculture.

Fast forward to today.  Times have changed, to say the least.  What was once a fringe entertainment of paint ball has been replaced by something very different: a more widespread, invasive, militarized form of entertainment for our upcoming generation, a group I've come to think of as 'Gen M'.  The way I see things, there are three avenues leading to this development.

First to consider is the widespread popularity of modern video games.  What I would like to point out is rather obvious, and that is the rabid popularity of combat games fostered by online multiplayer sessions.  These games (of which there are several titles across the current game platforms) are major financial undertakings, with production budgets often matching or exceeding the budgets of Hollywood films and a corresponding rivalry in sales receipts.  Impressive, considering that the mass film audience is adult and the mass video game audience is teen to young adult, with the corresponding disparity in disposable income weighted to the film audience.  What the games have that Hollywood does not is an ongoing profit stream through various updates - mostly in the form of 'map packs' to provide new combat terrain - allowing for the game experience to remain fresh.  The impact of interactivity on our entertainment consumption is well documented: give people something new, and they'll come back for more.  Distribution is key, as these games have a pervasive presence.  In addition - without delving too deeply into game psychology (this is meant as an essay, not a book) - there has always been the vicarious thrill throughout history of games providing players the opportunity to destroy an opponent without causing actual physical harm.  The abstract, or even peaceful, victory embodied by classics such as chess or popular board games of old pales beside the immediate satisfaction of snaring a rival player in one's gun sight.  Like it or not, we are a society of instant gratification, and instant gratification appeals to the minds of the young more than any other sector of the population, as study after study have shown.

The second consideration is the simple reality that we are a society which has been involved in foreign warfare for years.  Our current generation of elder teens have had their earliest impressionable memories fashioned around the attacks of 9/11 and grew up watching shock & awe and the incessant, decentralized skirmishes of asymmetric, partisan warfare.  Mass battles in the style of World War II are out, replaced by engagement of small detachments.  Perhaps this contributes, along with the much popularized elimination of several high profile targets such as Osama bin Laden, to the glorification of lone elite units embodied in several branches of the US military - the very units personified in the most popular multiplayer console games.  This 'lone wolf' situation not only holds appeal to the innate American ideal of the rugged individualist but perhaps as well to the natural trend of the young to buck their elders and pave their own course.  As such I don't think it's a stretch in this instance to make a case for confluence between military and civilian life.  History teaches us that during times of war it's a common and natural side effect that civilian society begins to assimilate certain aspects of military society.  As an example, consider the evolution of cuff links.  Napoleon was disgusted by the fact that many of his troops in the field, sick with various respiratory ailments, wiped their runny noses on the sleeves of their uniforms.  To stop this practice large buttons were attached toward the ends of their sleeves, and from there, the fashion lingers to this day.  For a more current example, consider the evolving design aesthetic of our auto industry.  Vehicles are designed to look more rugged - perhaps even more 'aggressive' - with lower roof lines and a corresponding narrowing of window space, all of which are reminiscent of the image of the most commonly seen US military vehicle, the Humvee.

Last but not least in the fostering of Gen M is the opportunity afforded by the 'comfort' of having our teenagers enjoy their recreation in a fixed setting.  Rather than having teens wandering the streets, many adults sooth their concerns by knowing where their child is.  The fixed location, whether it be an ice rink, gym, or an airsoft competition, provides the basic security of knowing where we have left our teens and what they will be doing to occupy themselves.

And so there is the culmination of these circumstances: a location to bring our teens, an activity brought to reality to heighten the already embedded virtual thrill of combat video games, and the not so subliminal effect of long term warfare on societal impressions and our youth.  The question, then, is to ponder the impact of this reality.

I've always entertained the notion that I would pity anyone foolish enough to attempt an invasion of the United States, a nation in which there are more firearms than people.  There is no debate that we are a gun culture, no matter how one feels about the NRA or gun control.  Weaponry is ever present, and the arguments to possess arms have proven themselves entrenched and resilient - whether for home defense against crime, economic collapse, civil war, alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or any other doomsday scenario.  The combination of combat video games and the real world extension of airsoft games provide an informal but arguably effective training school in tactics, particularly urban combat doctrine.  And while I am very wary of the shaky leaps between chicken-and-egg causality debates about virtual violence in entertainment and real violence in society, I think some of the points I've discussed here illustrate a certain escalating momentum.  I would be curious to see poll results among airsoft participants concerning a simple question: how many of them are interested in pursuing a career in the military and, perhaps more telling, were they interested in such pursuit before or after their introduction to recreational combat?

I don't propose that we are creating a generation of warmongers.  I do, however, wonder  where all this militarized 'entertainment' will lead us.  At some point, as with all generations, today's teens will become the future business and political leaders shaping our society.  It's a standard of human psychology that individuals, and to an extent society as well, responds in one of two ways to a shaping experience.  Either it is rejected, and an opposite path chosen, or it is accepted, and emulated.  Our youth may look upon the militarization of their leisure activity as nothing more than fun and games, a lesson that it's better to act out in the virtual world rather than manifest those acts in the real world of human mortality.  On the other hand, they may decide that the immediate gratification at the proverbial pull of the trigger, amplified by the desensitization fostered by endless acts of virtual violence, is more satisfying than the tedious process of discussion and the inevitable concessions of compromise.

Time will tell, as it always does.  In the meantime, we'll be left to ponder what benefit or relevance is held in an ever growing number of our teens and pre-teens building an extensive knowledge base of countless firearms, urban tactics, and virtual trash talk.  In the best of outcomes, society will look back and laugh at these concerns.

In the future, all this might be considered nothing more than the natural technological evolution of human competition.  A hallmark of civilization has been the refinement of physical, mortal competition between bands of humans to conceptualized competitive encounters embodied by sports and game play.  There is still a winner and a loser, and we often associate military terminology to the degree of victory: not just a win, but 'conquered', 'destroyed', 'wiped them out', 'took no prisoners', and so forth.  This aspect of our innate psychology begins with our earliest youth - we're all familiar with cowboys and Indians.  As I watch such young faces at an airsoft tournament go through weapon prep dressed like they just walked in the door from Kabul, I wonder where things will have to go to take the experience to a new level.  Gen M will have to answer for its experience in one way no one can project, and that's the type of entertainment in which their youth might indulge.

And, like us today, Gen M may very well have some concerns of their own.

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