The universe of online computer games is home to 200,000 players at any time. It’s also where you can find the newest innovation in military recruiting. Check out America’s Army, a state-of-the art computer game featuring 3-D graphics, surround sound and the most advanced gaming technology available. It’s as entertaining as current favorites Counterstrike or Doom, but there’s a different agenda at work. Unlike commercial games designed to make big money, the aim of this taxpayer-funded project is to generate Army recruits.
In 1999, recruitment numbers hit their lowest point in thirty years. In response, Congress called for “aggressive, innovative experiments” to find new soldiers, and the Defense Department jacked up recruitment budgets to $2.2 billion a year. Hence we have America’s Army, one of a number of new initiatives designed to help the military reach America’s youth. The game consists of two parts: “Soldiers: Empower Yourself,” a role-playing segment that instills Army “values,” and the more violent (read: entertaining) “Operations: Defend Freedom,” a first-person combat simulator where players engage in virtual warfare over the Internet.
On July 4, the Army put a preview version of “Operations” called “Recon” on its website; within a week over half a million people had downloaded the game. When America’s Army is distributed later this month at recruiting stations and as an insert in gaming magazines, millions of players will be able to go online to “defend freedom.”
War games are nothing new, of course, but the realistic detail of America’s Army–which was produced completely within Army ranks–sets it apart from its competitors. A team at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Modeling, Virtual Environment and Simulation Institute spent three years and over $5 million to get every detail right. They visited nineteen Army installations, digitally filming soldiers and landscapes. Weapons are modeled directly from the Army’s arsenal. They feature real-time reloading, clips that fall the right way at the right speed. Guns even malfunction from time to time. Everything, from the explosion of different types of grenades to the way soldiers run, walk, and crawl, is accurate. In the final product, Army spokesman Paul Boyce explains, “even the night-vision goggles make the exact click and whir that the real, $3,000 goggles do.”
These authentic details are meant to educate young Americans, presenting them with a realistic, engaging view of today’s modern Army, according to Colonel Casey Wardynski, who supervised the game’s production. During basic training at a virtual Fort Benning, Georgia, we worked our way through obstacle courses and familiarized ourselves with Army-issue weapons and standard military briefing reports. On the rifle range, we discovered that shots should be fired between breaths and that crouching low to the ground improves accuracy. And when silent communication was required, we used our newly learned Army hand signals.
But there is a difference between realistic detail and actual reality, and as a depiction of Army life America’s Army is, to say the least, misleading. Despite the game’s neurotic commitment to accuracy elsewhere, the small detail about killing people is brushed over gingerly. “We were very careful on the blood thing,” says Boyce. There are no sound effects when players are shot; only a small red blotch appears, similar to a paintball hit. The sanitizing of violence also aids marketing efforts by earning the game a teen rating.