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.
Players learn, in this army, that war is fun.
There are four combat missions included in the “Recon” version of “Operations”: defend the Alaskan oil pipeline against terrorist saboteurs, safeguard an enemy prisoner of war, raid a terrorist training camp and cross a bridge held by enemy forces. All follow the same script: The Army good guys are on one side, and the “sinister bad guys,” as Boyce describes them, are on the other. Half the combat missions included in “Recon” explicitly feature terrorists as the villians. The other missions are less specific, referring only to “insurgent forces” or plain old “enemies.”
The first level we played, “Insurgent Camp,” is modeled after an early campaign of the war in Afghanistan. The setting is described as “high desert with rolling sand dunes and wadis” (Arabic for valley), and the mission is to make a pre-emptive raid on a terrorist training camp. We failed miserably at our objective (those like us who have no video-game experience tend to be gunned down in short order). Luckily, the game provides a corpse view, and from there we watched the action. As quiet stretches were punctuated by bursts of gunfire, conversation went back and forth between our teammates, all participating in the same virtual battle from their homes, offices or dorm rooms. “Take that, you dirty Arabs,” one player radioed after a successful strike. This sparked a debate among fellow players regarding whether Afghans are actually Arab. The squadron eventually concluded that it doesn’t really matter, since “ragheads are ragheads. ”
Only by watching scenes like this play out do the political implications of “Operations” become clear: nonstop Army cheerleading, with frequent terrorist and Arab bashing thrown in. The game has brought the war on terrorism home to computer screens, where thousands of gamers can now fight and refight the US war in Afghanistan at any time of the day or night. What better way to reinforce its legitimacy?
When “Operations” launches, there is a button to click in the top-left corner of the main menu. It’s a link to goarmy.com, a website that has become a key Army recruiting tool. On this flashy site, potential recruits find information about enlistment bonuses, video clips dramatizing the challenging-yet-rewarding adventure of basic training and dozens of diverse soldier profiles. A major purpose of America’s Army is to drive players to this multimedia recruitment center. It is especially important for the Army because leads produced through website visits yield a higher percentage of recruits than any other method of contact, according to Army Subcommittee Testimony from February 2000. The “Go Army” button in “Operations” will generate thousands of clicks this year. The game is a good investment. Recruiting each individual soldier typically costs the army $15,000. If 400 new soldiers sign up via this web link, then America’s Army will have paid for itself.
America’s Army and the new recruiting website are not isolated efforts, but part of a much larger overhaul of recruiting strategy. After the Army missed its quotas by over 6,000 enlistees in 1999, private-sector specialists were brought in to form the Army Marketing Brand Group. Leo Burnett, a top advertising agency that has also worked with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, developed a new Army advertising campaign that debuted in January 2001. The two-decades-old “Be All You Can Be” slogan was dropped in favor of “An Army of One,” which aims to promote the dubious notion that the Army is a place where individualism can flourish.
The new slogan and a new logo have now been integrated into dozens of marketing initiatives: Electronic kiosks have sprung up in shopping malls, advertisements now air in prime-time television slots and movie theaters, and billboards are displayed prominently in major cities. A fleet of Army marketing vehicles is bringing the message to schools and communities across the country. The Cinema Van, a touring multimedia theater that seats up to forty, shows films ranging from Combat Arms: Are you Tough Enough? to Service to Country, a patriotic number on military history. The Adventure Van, meanwhile, offers the chance to sit in a real Cobra helicopter cockpit and fire a state-of-the-art M16 weapons simulator.
The “aggressive, innovative experiments” called for by Congress seem to be doing their job; enlistment quotas have now been met for two years straight and are on track for 2002. But the goal of the revamped recruiting campaign is not just to raise short-term recruiting numbers, it also aims to ensure a steady stream of recruits in the long term. The goal, as spelled out in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, is to penetrate youth culture and get the Army into a young person’s “consideration set,” as Timothy Maude, the Army’s deputy chief of personnel, put it. By reaching kids when they’re young, the Pentagon hopes they will develop a level of comfort with the military that will increase their propensity to enlist later.
The initial success of America’s Army has exceeded the Army’s expectations, and Colonel Wardynski and his design team are excited about the possibilities. “We’re going to be pushing out new versions of the game as fast as we can build them,” he says. “This same team will be building missions, weapons, and new features for years to come.” The nation’s youth can expect a lot more from their friendly army of one.