BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So now we bring you a case where leaked classified material was so insignificant that even when posted online, the authorities barely blinked. But we also see it as yet another case where a forum of vast importance to the post-Boomer generations is being ignored by their elders at their peril. The lead from the Washington Post piece last August read “Video games have long led to fights, controllers thrown, unsubstantiated accusations of cheating, insults hurled at mothers and even dogs. But no one has ever leaked classified documents related to national security in a public forum to win an argument until twice in 2021, and then again last summer” and – I'm updating now – several times since. Noah Smith wrote that piece. He writes on the business and politics and cultural implications of video games for The Washington Post. He says that these were penny ante leaks, just ammunition really in a dust up between the designers of the game, War Thunder, specifically the Tank War edition of the game, and the ordinance nerds among its users who wanted the game to feel even more real.
NOAH SMITH It's funny, they wanted it to be realistic, not so realistic that like the tank breaks down on the way to the battlefield, which is something a source told me, you know, and then they have to sit there while everybody else plays. Not so realistic that they're in 120 degree heat and can't go to the bathroom and getting shot at. Not that realistic, but realistic so you have a British Challenger 2 tank, which is their main battle tank facing off against, say this Chinese ZTZ 99 which is their main battle tank. And then the Chinese tank shoots the shell and it hits the tank at a – I'm making this up – but say a 45 degree angle in the turret and there's no damage done. The argument was something like, oh, that should have blown up the tank and it didn't blow up the tank. This is then where the argument could ensue.
GAMER CLIP What? Oh, he hit me with a missile, bro. From how far? Dude, he was, like, almost three kilometers behind me. With an R60. Like, how does it even catch me?
BROOKE GLADSTONE And to force their opinion on what would make it more real. They posted some manuals related to those tanks — a British one, French one and a Chinese one that were at least technically classified.
NOAH SMITH Yeah, exactly. The Chinese example, it was a tank shell, something that goes in the tank that they shoot, and they post that next to what they posted from the manual to sort of prove its legitimacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do we know about how this classified information, these manuals, were obtained to begin with?
NOAH SMITH We don't know much. It could be manufacturers. It could be people in the military. It could be people in foreign militaries. It could be salespeople, people who are trying to sell this at different trade shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right.
NOAH SMITH Safe to say it is not life and death. You know, I spoke to several sources and military experts, folks who are in the military, folks who operated tanks. All of them came back and said, look, the information that was posted online was basically not a big deal. On the other hand, there's a deeper issue at play here, which is, you know, folks thinking that it is okay or acceptable to post classified information online. And that's why the game publisher acted so quickly to take it down. You know, I spoke with a spokesperson for the British Ministry of Defense. He was very clear about the fact that they were serious about making sure that classified documents, as defined, were not just posted willy-nilly online just because whatever gamer thinks, oh, you know what? It's not a big deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So given that the stakes are so low, what struck you about this story?
NOAH SMITH First of all, I thought it was hilarious. I thought this story was really funny. But number two, also looking at the increased relevance of video games, that it is a mainstream and in fact, most lucrative form of entertainment in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, the military has used games to inspire recruitment and to train for some time.
NOAH SMITH They sure have. And yeah, I think the military certainly understands that if you want to reach younger people, it's videogames. In fact, I did a story about a weapons system in Israel that was going to be developed where they actually used, instead of a joystick, an actual Xbox controller that they got on Amazon.com. And they said, because kids today, this is what they're comfortable with and we don't want to waste time teaching them a new interface. Here's the Xbox controller. And now you can control this weapons system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, this week, The Washington Post announced that they were shutting down their gaming vertical called Launcher. What do you think we as readers will lose? Is the Post missing an opportunity here?
NOAH SMITH I would say that the numbers speak for themselves. The video game industry, depending on which estimates you want to look at, was worth over $100 billion last year. Some estimates put it at $200 billion. For comparison, global box office for film was $26 billion last year. On Twitch, which is the main venue for people watching other people play video games, there was 1.3 trillion minutes watched. 70% of the viewers were between 18 and 34. Not only that, but people also assume that the gamer is some young man in their parents basement. The reality when you look at the whole gaming industry, which includes mobile games, which are games that you play on your phone, and that's half or in some estimates, more of all the games that are purchased than played. Those mobile games are being played mostly by women. Most of the profit in the gaming industry is from mobile games being driven by women. And so there's all of these stories, for instance, that are not going to be told. In this moment right now, there is nothing like a monoculture as happened in years past, because there was network news that everybody watched and there was newspapers that many people read, and we don't have that anymore. And so as a result, people who are older don't understand the significance that gaming has in the culture right now. For instance, people I'll say names like Ninja, I'll say names like TIFF, see, names like XQC. These are the younger generation’s movie stars.
The biggest shame of this decision by The Washington Post is that they would really not know if there was a new Elvis coming up. And it's fascinating to think about if there was an Elvis now, which, by the way, there are. And they're making mid-8 figures for playing video games. These are the new movie stars. And so the fact that one of the leading national outlets that had focused on this and was lauded in the industry for the kinds of reporting that it was doing is no longer having that focus. And if you even if you want to move away from the cultural implications of this decision, right, in the fact that readers won't know about the latest developments that are taking place in, again, the biggest form of entertainment in the world. We can talk about it from a financial standpoint. We can talk about it from a cultural standpoint. We can talk about it from an attention standpoint. This is where the culture is right now for younger generations, and it's where it's going to go. It's not just that, oh, people are going to turn 23 and 25 and 30, stop doing the things that they love. Now it'll shift.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And is there a way to tie this, you know, silly little story into that larger picture?
NOAH SMITH This will not be the last time that somebody posts a classified document in a game. It's much harder to break through on these kinds of stories when it's coming from an online outlet as opposed to a mainstream legacy outlet. I don't necessarily agree or think it's right, but it's the fact. And so while this one, you know, the implications were a little bit less, I wonder about what happens when there's an indication of something happening in the gaming world that will have outsized implications for mainstream society or for older generations. And someone's going to try to be the canary in the coal mine and it's not going to be taken seriously. And Kennedy was the first president to understand television. It might not happen in the next cycle. It might not happen in the cycle after that. But there will come a time and I'm saying this now again on the record on this program, where candidates will need to understand Twitch. They will need to understand streaming. And – dare I say – they will need to understand video game culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Noah.
NOAH SMITH Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Noah Smith is a reporter for The Washington Post.
Coming up, not generational warfare exactly, but you might say tensions are rising. This is On the Media.
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