July 12 2002

Army Video Game – Shrewd Recruitment Tool, But Where’s the Gore?

By Pedro Paulo Viegas De Sa

The U.S. Army has finally figured out how to communicate with today’s young people — through computer screens.

On July 4, the Army released the video game “America’s Army: the Official U.S. Army Game” as a free CD-ROM attached to popular video game magazines. The Army will spend about 7 million dollars for the creation and distribution of 1.2 million CDs. “America’s Army” will also be free to use on many gaming Web sites.

The idea of using a video game to bring the next generation into the military might be as desperate as it is creative. But it could work. From what I’ve seen, guys in my generation — in their late teens and early 20s — have grown up on video games. And the older we get, the more we play.

The Army’s PC software game is made up of two parts. One is a “character building” game similar to “The Sims,” where you create and develop the actions and attributes of your game character. The other is a first-person shooter, modeled after widely popular games like “Doom.” Here you can move up the ranks of the Army if you score high in the simulated training drills and follow orders.

Video games may be one of the only ways to reach such a diverse generation of American men. The stereotype that only nerds play video games because they can’t get dates doesn’t apply anymore, if it ever did. These days, most young folks plays video games — suburbanites, inner-city kids, jocks, college students, and of course the loners.

The Army could not have picked a better time to release the game - and not because of Sept. 11 or the sense of patriotism around July 4th. We youth are bored. Many guys my age, including myself, are unemployed and without many good prospects. The game shows you an easy way to have a career, even if it’s a virtual for now.

I told my brother about “America’s Army” and he beamed. He is a 16-year-old high school wrestling champ who’s never been interested in the military, even after movies like “Behind Enemy Lines” and “Black Hawk Down” turned on many of his peers. However, the idea of playing the Army game appeals to him. He keeps asking me how to get the game, and expects it to be “real cool.”

The recruiting plan is working in his case — he hasn’t even seen “America’s Army” and already he wants it. Now I wonder if he’ll consider joining the armed forces when he turns 18.

These first-person shooter games are more than a way to pass the time. They are ways to live a different, fantastical life. In my experience as a player, video games — especially character building ones like the Army CD — are perceived as reality. Even though the character is completely fictitious, it always retains some of the qualities of the player. That’s why young people like them so much. The actions, fate and personality of the character reflect those of its creator, because he or she can control most of the character’s actions and, in some games, physical attributes.

And in turn, the virtual character and the game environment rub off on its creator.

Michael Capps, one of the game’s designers, says that violence is minimal in the Army CD and that the main purpose of the game is to show that military life is about values. The player does not hunt down terrorists or diffuse a nuclear bomb.

They might have to change this if they want to appeal to gamers. I always liked the idea of the “growing” character, one that gets stronger and better each level. But I like creating a little havoc, too. Trying to kill the innocent cows in “Diablo,” or just creating fights with random people in “The Sims” is what makes these games fun. But in “America’s Army,” pull such moves and you’re busted. A renegade action like shooting a guy in your troop ends the game.

I guess it makes sense — the last people the Army wants to attract are havoc-wreakers without values. But who wants to play too realistic a game?

Also, if the whole idea is to attract soldiers, why not show the whole life of a soldier, in all its aspects? How about a raid into a recently bombed area of Afghanistan, to separate the bodies of the children from the terrorists?

If the Army really wants to attract young recruits through this video game, they should show what has always appealed to young American men: death and destruction. They should say, “In the Army, there are no continues. You only die once.”

Veigas De Sa is a writer and artist for Silicon Valley DeBug (www.siliconvalleydebug.com), the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.

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