The Army's Killer Video Game: Recruiting in 2005

Reply Sun 27 Feb, 2005 12:54 pm

Monday, Feb. 21, 2005
The Army's Killer App
Game designers go to boot camp to perfect the video game the military uses to entice new recruits

A military convoy--two humvees, an ambulance and three five-ton trucks full of civilian evacuees--is bumping its way along a snow-swept high-plains dirt road. Suddenly a shout comes down the line: "Contact front!" It's an ambush, with gunmen on both sides of the road. Soldiers on top of the five-tons return fire with mounted machine guns. The clatter is deafening. The truck beds fill up with hot, bouncing, jingling brass shell casings.

A few of the civilians wave at the attackers, who continue to blast away. The convoy drives on, past the fray. The rear humvee, its driver obviously bored with the proceedings, wanders off the road to chase a cow.

This isn't a real ambush, and the convoy isn't in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's in Guernsey, Wyo., about 90 miles north of Cheyenne. The attack was staged by the U.S. Army for the benefit of about 35 computer programmers--the civilian evacuees--who work on a government-sponsored video game called America's Army. It'sa handy training tool for soldiers, but the game's primary mission is to recruit: to persuade the millions of young people who play it on their home computers to go from virtual soldiers to real ones. The programmers are in Guernsey to make sure that the game is as realistic as it can be. But is it real enough?

America's Army, in which the military has invested $16 million, is the brainchild of Colonel Casey Wardynski, director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. "In 1999 the Army had had two bad years of recruiting," Wardynski explains. The Army's square, earnest message of honor and patriotic duty wasn't connecting with the next generation of potential soldiers. "This was a solution to the problem." The military has a long history of playing around with war games for their educational benefits, but America's Army was a different animal altogether. The game is also a giant ad aimed at the public--at the 13-to-24-year-old demographic, to be specific, and it has hit its target squarely. Since it was released on July 4, 2002, America's Army has signed up 4.6 million registered players, and it adds 100,000 new ones every month. According to an Army study, 30% of Americans ages 16 to 24 say that some of what they know about the Army comes from the game.

Two things separate America's Army from most other video games. One, it's free: anybody who wants to can download it gratis at www.americasarmy.com or pick up a disc from an Army recruiter. The second is its extreme emphasis on authenticity. All weapons and vehicles in the game are meticulous virtual models of the real thing. "We don't want it to be like, 'He's not holding that right. That button isn't right,'" says Phillip Bossant, the game's art director. "We don't want the shell to eject from the wrong side." Players have to go through simulated Army training before they can enter combat, and the game emphasizes teamwork and the rules of engagement over freelance gunplay. If you shoot civilians or your fellow "soldiers," you'll be sent to a virtual Fort Leavenworth.

Realism is why the programmers, many notably plumper and longer-haired than regulation soldiers, have come to Guernsey. The Army releases updates and expansions for America's Army three or four times a year, and to keep the programmers on point it holds events like these--they're known internally as green-ups--every few months. Over the course of three days, they eat MREs (the consensus: chili macaroni good, black bean and rice burrito very very bad), ride in Black Hawks ("That feeling has to be there," Bossant says. "We need that zoom!") and wander around a frozen meadow in the dark wearing night-vision goggles. One of the game designers noticed that the goggles throw off less green light than he expected. That will be reflected in the next version of the game. They drink $1.75 Coors at the All-Ranks Club and climb in and out of the backs of trucks ("It took four people to hoist me in, and I still pulled a muscle," said one ruefully). Then there's that mock ambush. "I wanted them to be shocked," says Major Randy Zeegers, a tall, poster-perfect Green Beret who functions as a liaison between the Army and the designers. "They'll take that and put it in the game."

There's another key difference between America's Army and other games. Unlike with, say, Halo 2 or Doom 3, it's a relatively small step from virtual combat to the real thing. You can click a button in the game menu and go straight to an Army recruiting website. Theoretically, the Army can even track your performance in the game and use the information it harvests to evaluate your potential as a soldier. "That's part of the plan, but we haven't done it yet," says Wardynski. "Ultimately, if a kid comes to the Army and signs up, the recruiter could say, 'Have you ever played America's Army?'And with that you could see how they did in the game. Say they've done really well with the medical stuff--are you sure they don't want to be a medic? Of course, most of the kids want to be Green Berets."

Is it fair to let young people think they can learn about the realities of armed combat from a video game? Right now America's Army is available only on computers, but this summer it will be out for gaming consoles like Xbox and PlayStation 2, which reach a broader, more recreational audience. No question, the programmers are doing their best to make as accurate a representation as they can, within the limits of the medium. But in the fog of virtual war the lines between education, entertainment and propaganda can get pretty blurry. After I took part in a heated session on a combat simulator, dodging RPGs and blasting away at street fighters in a nameless desert city, Major Zeegers asked me, "So, is killing Afghans fun?" It was hard to tell whether he was joking.

Colonel Wardynski is quick to point out that in games generally, when you die, you magically come back to life right away. Not in America's Army, he says. "In our game, there are penalties. In our game, if you're wounded or killed, you're out till the game starts over. The level of casualties your team incurs or inflicts on noncombatants--all those things come home as bad things to do. We don't want them to think it's Rambo."

But video games can't--or can't yet--convey the human cost of combat. They pass along the adrenaline rush, the thrill of the fight, and leave out the rest. Games are supposed to be fun, but war isn't. "The violence, the combat--we recognize that's the part of the game people want to play," says Major Chris Chambers, deputy director of the America's Army development team. "We treat it openly and honestly. We have a death animation. We don't sugarcoat it. It's real--" He stops and corrects himself. "It's not real; it's simulated. But we're simulatingreality." But it has to be fun too, right? "Bottom line, it's gotta be fun," Chambers agrees. "If it's not fun, you don't have a game." •

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Reply Thu 3 Mar, 2005 02:40 pm
Thanks for posting this. It's still an interesting read although I've heard about it before.

Emphasis on realism eh?

So is there a mission where you spend months recovering from massive tissue damage and the loss of a limb thanks to a roadside bomb?

I assume if you pass that - presumably via pressing the space bar fast enough to evade falling into a sucidal depression - that you go onto the 'long recovery period' where you try to adjust to living a normal life again and fighting for veterens benefits.

Oh wait, I forgot the most important realism is the near pornographic technological emphasis - with the occasional humerous acknowledgement of some negatives (ex: LOL BURRITOS SUCK LOL!) - rather than the human cost of being in a combat situation.
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Reply Thu 3 Mar, 2005 03:39 pm
Ah, shucks, Smash. Ya' don't wanna confuse all those idealist young people with unpleasant reality.

This is high tech Smoke & Mirrors, but military recruiters have always been stronger on glory than guts.

Welcome to A2K.
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Reply Thu 3 Mar, 2005 06:34 pm
This is an interesting article on several levels.

One level is what they don't say:

My brother has been in the Army for nealry 30 years and has trained and trained others on similar simulators. He's talked about it for years and years.

If you don't feed your troops, if you don't fix your equipment, if you don't think stategy and tactics -- you are sunk. The "games" he has played aren't really shoot em ups at all.

And really, the Army probably spent 16 billion setting up THAT system, not this one. If the government can recoup some of their investment by selling off the lower technologies to video game systems we, as tax payers, should be a little thankful.

What is really strange is that, at least with the soldiers I know, they would never want someone with them who thought killing was a game, or fun, or an afternoon's diversion.

Be cynical is that serves you, but really, I do know that many soldiers are dedicated to the higher ideals of the military. Some of them are willing to die so that people can sit at home and take jabs at how they don't care.

So... anyway... off of my soapbox....

I love my brother and I love what he stands for and I am really unapologetic about that.

What I find really laughable is that they think a bunch of zonked out gamers are their target enlistees!

Say it ain't so!

With the decisions our government is making in regards to our soldiers it is no wonder that no one wants to be one.

That they resort to this kind of recruiting is just plain sad.
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Reply Thu 3 Mar, 2005 06:40 pm
I saw a piece on the National News on this it was pretty interesting.

For video games - I'd have to include my kid among the finest in "Counter Strike" - he plays with global company and I'm told by his peers he's one of the best. It's one of those military stategy and tactics, soldier on the ground games.
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Reply Sun 27 Mar, 2005 10:00 pm
the army is basically composed of people from the ghetto and rednecks, people who won't contribute to the society so they put them in a war, where they can risk there lives, and take some others with them. they are there for the politicians dirty work, and i dont know why we should be so proud of them, they arent doing anything in our benifit just causing more problems for the world. that why i would never join the military, its a lose lose situation no matter what.
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Reply Tue 29 Mar, 2005 08:34 am
y is it sooo long
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