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Should the Army use games to recruit?

British former Major argues the toss.

Former Major Neil Powell has said that in terms of age, gender and background, gamers are "precisely the target audience the British Army wants". However, the establishment is so timid and out-of-touch that it "would never dream" of emulating the US Army, which funds its own interest-boosting game, America's Army.

"Our army is run by people that are still far too distant from the young soldiers that they lead," said Powell, speaking candidly to Eurogamer after retiring from the army.

"I have no idea about the background behind using an Xbox [360] controller to fly the pilot-less drones, but that must have been the most incredible trauma to get through the planning stage, just because that's not the way we think."

"The US Army is miles ahead of us on that; they understand completely their target audience," he added. "It isn't difficult to see why we have recruitment and retention problems."

An older, policy-making generation that does not understand videogames is a product of our society - the same society, Powell argues, that would be morally up in arms should this new medium of entertainment be used to recruit for war.

"Of course there's a moral debate: anything that looks at the way in which we try to recruit young men to essentially go to war is bound to be a moral debate," he said.

"Nevertheless, if we are going to accept that we need an army as a society, then we have to make sure we have sufficient numbers of staff in that army. And if people aren't going to join as a first job of choice because of things like piss-poor wages, because of things like abominable living conditions, and whether or not we choose to fund it in order to get jobs done, then we've got to recruit somehow.

"I do have a problem with this pious, self-righteous attitude of some who want an armed force, want to have the safety that an armed force provides in terms of defence, but they drop their guns and say it's morally wrong when we use videogames to recruit into the armed force," Powell stated.

"Most people like the security that an armed force brings them - they like the pomp and circumstance - but they don't want to send their own sons to join it."

Neil Powell spent 25 years in the army and is a veteran of the Balkan wars. He knows that games are no accurate recreation of life on a battlefield: "I can't think of medium that's going to be able to demonstrate what war is like other than war itself, therefore it's always going to be a depiction."

He said that we have to accept that army games "are being used over and over again anyway" whether we like it or not. "I don't think anyone believes that they are real," he added.

But isn't there something fundamentally wrong about misleading young men into thinking war is attractive? "I don't have that big a moral issue about the whole thing," said Powell. "We used to do the whole 'join the army, see the world, play lots of sport' and there were loads of [television] adverts about people climbing and all that sort of stuff. Those have slightly changed now but we're still advertising on TV, we still make the army look sexy.

"Let me use a bit of an analogy," he said. "When you see adverts for Lloyds TSB Bank you don't see them advertising repossessions, you don't see them advertising the huge bonus crisis and how much is being paid to certain key members of staff. You just don't see the negative side to it.

"And in much the same way you could argue whether it's moral for the army or any of the armed forces not to show, for instance, the repatriation at Brize Norton [the main logistics base where dead soldiers are brought home] or to show you soldiers at Headley Court, limbless. We don't do that - is that morally right?" he asked.

"We know the army's not like that: there are huge amounts of time that you're bored and in crap accommodation; they don't show you the crap kit; they don't show you the absolute hardship that soldiers put up with. It just looks great fun."

Neil Powell's comments arrive as Britain's Royal Navy begins issuing sailors with PSPs so that they can study in the tight confines of boat bunks and while on rough waters.

Videogames were also recently at the forefront of British politics and media when Modern Warfare 2 and its controversial airport scene was welcomed by record-breaking audiences around the world. Does the passage, in which the player is asked to gun down unarmed civilians, bother a hardened soldier?

"No, not really. Does that make me a bad person? Probably in the eyes of most," said Powell. "I don't know what the answer is. I don't know why I don't think it's a big deal... If you're playing a game in which the object is to kill other people I'm not quite so sure it matters who those other people are. There is an interesting debate here, and that is that if you are a terrorist, you are only de-legitimised, in terms of your method of choosing to fight, by your enemy.

"If their chosen target happens to be one that we find unpalatable, does that make it less of a legitimate target than perhaps Operation: Rolling Thunder in Vietnam? It might be 'precision bombing' in Iraq and Afghanistan, [but] you can never ever rule out collateral damage.

"How far removed are we?" Powell asked. " Currently the Chilcot report committee is looking at the legality of the war in Iraq. Let's just say that they conclude that probably there was an element of illegality: if we consider that Iraq was illegal then actually, any collateral damage that was caused during that conflict, I don't see that there's a huge side-step between a terrorist choosing to kill civilians and the collateral damage that caused by any form of cruise missile that misses its target in what might be an illegal war."

Powell, a keen gamer, believes that videogames are "more pervasive" than films in the same way films are more pervasive than books: "there's a hierarchy of impact," he said.

"There's a key distinction about videogames; I do not believe that people who play Modern Warfare 2 are more likely to commit violence: the people who would commit violence would have committed it anyway," he explained.

Furthermore, Powell suggested that videogames - particularly at their most frustrating - can even help people with perseverance, "help people develop problem skills".

"There is a positive to this stuff," he said. "We might not like the medium through which it's done sometimes, but actually it's developing some positive skills."

"We've got to be really careful with our young people. It's a bit like alcohol, really: it's quite right and proper that children don't drink and they don't abuse alcohol at a young age and we should do everything we can to stop that. But knowing full-well that when they're out of our control they're going to do it, the easiest way is to accept that they're going to do it and try and find ways of being able to manage that.

"People do get frustrated, but generally the people who get really frustrated and might turn to do things they shouldn't do - if they didn't find this as a trigger they would find something else as a trigger," he added. "I'm a great believer in people: people inherently know what's right and what's wrong."

And, for what it's worth, Powell thinks Modern Warfare 2 is "outstandingly good". "I loved the first one and I think this one's improved. It's just genius," he said.

Head over to our Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising interview to hear more from former Major Neil Powell on just how realistic the game actually was.