After a month-long break, the U.S. Army esports team returned to Twitch on Friday, August 14. Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Jones streamed from the Army esports team’s base in Fort Knox Kentucky for more than three hours. He spent about one hour of that time playing World of Warcraft. But before he gamed, Jones twisted in his chair and fielded questions from an increasingly aggressive Twitch chat.
“War crimes are a heinous crime,” Jones said early in the chat, responding to Twitch viewers questions. “Those are not conducive to the United States Army.”
As is tradition with the U.S. Army esports team, the internet first learned of its return to Twitch streaming in a Tweet. “Someone found all 7 Dragon Balls. 👀 USAE IS BACK,” the U.S. Army esports team tweeted above an animated GIF of the wish granting eternal dragon from Dragon Ball. The third of the 1.7K replies is a collection of photos from Abu Ghraib prison.
In July, both the Army and Navy esports teams got into trouble when they started banning users who asked about war crimes on their Twitch chat. According to civil rights lawyers, tossing people out of government run spaces for differing views is a violation of the first amendment.
The stream began a few hours after the U.S. Army tweeted about its return to Twitch.. “Welcome to the U.S. Army esports stream,” Jones, the general manager of the U.S. Army esports program, said on Twitch. “I’ll take this little bit of time just to let everyone come in and have a little chat.”
Jones promised he would play World of Warcraft, but first he fielded questions from the Twitch chat. For almost two hours, Jones took questions from the audience. He talked about his past as a Military Police officer, discussed Apex Legends and World of Warcraft, and tackled the esports controversies.
“The United States Army esports program is designed to connect America to its Army through the passion of gaming,” he said when asked about the purpose of the channel.
“In order to enlist in the United States Army, you must be 17 to 34 years of age,” he said when asked the age of the Twitch channels viewer.
“I’ll end up playing World of Warcraft. Just being nice and chilling out,” when asked about what he planned to play.
Jones did play World of Warcraft, but it was preceded by almost two hours of awkward conversation. Jones sat in his chair, a Snorlax leering over his shoulder in the background, while the Twitch chat filled up with strange questions, memes, and repeated references to ongoing Army scandals.
“Yo when the army gonna investigate the serial murder of 8 different [people of color] at Fort Hood?? Seems like no one at the top brass really cares,” one viewer asked. Nine soldiers have died at Fort Hood, a U.S. Army post in Texas, this year.
Jones answered some questions and ignored others. It was surreal to watch the officer field navigate the wall of shitposts, genuine questions, and obvious trolls. Long pauses between his answers, the dark lighting in Fort Knox, and the constant thrum of epic fantasy music in the background contributed to the bizarre mood.
While the Army took time away from Twitch to retool its policies, the Navy has continued to stream. But both have changed the way they handle Twitch chat. First, both teams unbanned previously banned users. Jordan Uhl, a progressive activist and gamer who instigated legal action against both teams, told Motherboard he’s been unbanned by both the Army and Navy.
Now both teams have released updated chat policies which they claim will allow a divergence of viewpoints while maintaining a healthy chat room. Ahead of its return to Twitch, the Army released a detailed list of rules for its chat. The Army is also running a spam filter on its channel that forces users to write unique messages, meaning users can’t just span “WAR CRIMES?” over and over again.
If a user violates these rules, they could be placed in a time out. “Time outs can range from 1 to 96 hours. Depending on the nature, frequency, and severity of the violation, a user may be permanently banned from the channel,” the Army’s chat guidelines said. A banned user can appeal their ban through the brigade commander.
The Navy has also released an updated list of rules governing what can and can’t be said on its channel. Like the Army, it’s using timeouts to punish offenders and says it’s issuing bans as a last resort. “To be clear, @AmericasNavy Twitch channel only bans users for violating the viewpoint-neutral channel rules,” a representative of the U.S. Navy told Motherboard in an email. “Per our channel rules, participants are welcome to respectfully and civilly express their views, and participants will not be sanctioned for expressing a viewpoint critical of the government, military, Navy, or Navy esports in general, nor for expressing respectful disagreement with or criticism of the streamers, moderators, or other users.”
The Knight First Amendment Institute, a group that works to defend free speech, said it’s happy with the Army and Navy’s new chat policies, but it’s watching to see how they’re implemented. “We’re pleased that both the Army and Navy have agreed to unban users who were banned for engaging in core political speech. It’s also good to see that the Navy is committing not to ban users on the basis of viewpoint,” Meenakshi Krishnan, Legal Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute said in a statement. “Of course, it matters how these new policies are applied. We will monitor the Navy’s practices closely to ensure that the new policies are enforced consistently and in a viewpoint-neutral manner.”
Gamers continued to fill the Army’s chat with references to the deaths at Fort Hood, recruitment scandals, and war crimes on Friday. But the Pentagon needs gamers and both the Army and Navy have spent money to exist in this space. They dance around these being recruitment efforts, but they absolutely are. Jones was a recruiter before signing on to manage the esports team and has given interviews talking about using esports for recruitment.
For now, the Pentagon’s strategy seems to be the same as it has been in its recent foreign wars. Press onward, make small changes, and hope the public forgets about it and goes back to either ignoring it or paying it deference.