Army of fun

The Army says its popular online game is about values, not recruitment

Virtual violence: Army recruiters play video games with potential recruits in Rancho Cordova.

Virtual violence: Army recruiters play video games with potential recruits in Rancho Cordova.

Courtesy Of u.s. army

A couple hundred young adults gathered recently at a Rancho Cordova office park, the unfortunately named Roger Butcher Training Center, and killed each other.

The blood bath—well, virtual blood bath—was part of a three-day gaming tournament held at the real-estate training center and sponsored by the U.S. Army. The main draw was the latest version of the wildly popular America’s Army, a first-person online video game developed by the military.

But the event also drew several anti-war protesters, who blasted the gaming tournament and called it a deceptive recruiting ploy.

The event was held through the weekend of December 5 and was open to anyone 16 or older; younger gamers were allowed to play with permission from their parents.

The event’s main attraction was a network of 15 computers set in a dark room, with camouflage netting covering the ceilings. The computer terminals were hooked up to a network where players could compete against each other as virtual Army soldiers.

Those who registered high scores in the game, achieved through efficient killing and teamwork, received various prizes handed out by Army personnel, including iPods and computer hardware, and even a snowboard.

According to officials, the event was a success, drawing more than 200 people. According to protesters who picketed outside the center, the event was deplorable, designed to lure unsuspecting teens into service.

Army spokesman Sgt. Victor Farrier sharply denied the allegation that the game is a recruiting tool. “I really think that is far-fetched,” Farrier told SN&R. “The game doesn’t compel anyone to serve.”

Farrier said the game is simply meant to promote Army “values” and raise public awareness about the organization. For example, Farrier explained that unlike other video games, America’s Army punishes players with point deductions when they shoot other team members. Kill your teammate, Farrier said, and your character will be sent to a virtual Leavenworth prison for the remainder of the combat round.

Farrier added that in addition to gameplay, players are given virtual tutorials about the Army’s history and modern-day operations.

The game, which can be downloaded for free, is played entirely online and accessible to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

Players who visit the site can participate in a number of scenarios as “Army” soldiers, including “death matches” and team-oriented missions.

Users have access to Army recruiting links within the site, but only if they choose to explore such options, Farrier said.

Sacramento Veterans for Peace president John Reiger—who was holding a picket sign outside the center that read, “Enjoy but don’t enlist”—said the Army’s video game was nothing more than a dishonest recruiting tool he described as pedophilic in nature.

“It’s a predatory practice they got going on here,” Reiger said. “In the game, you can die six, seven, eight times. In life, you don’t get a reset.”

Other protesters said the game, which publicly boasts unprecedented realism and authentic combat physics, conspicuously omits other wartime realities, like gore, civilian causalities and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few.

But perhaps what draws the most intense frustration from the game’s opponents is its success.

First released in 2002, America’s Army has grown to be one of the most popular online first-person shooter simulations in the PC gaming world today, generating more than 20 new versions since its introduction and boasting more than 9.4 million users worldwide, according to the game’s public relations director Lori Mezoff.

“I know when we launched this product, the servers were immediately slammed,” Mezoff said. “The program has grown so much beyond a computer game.”

And although the game costs the Army around $5.7 million a year to operate, Mezoff said it’s worth double that in advertising value.

The game is one of a myriad of strategies recently developed by Army recruiters, who have struggled lately to meet the Defense Department’s mandated goal of 80,000 new recruits a year.

“One of the major challenges is that we are recruiting in a wartime environment,” said Douglas Smith, a civilian spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Recruiting Command headquartered in Fort Knox, Ky. “And so we’ve had to deal with the obvious concerns.”

While Army officials would not say whether the video game has boosted recruiting numbers, the Defense Department obviously sees it as a worthwhile endeavor.

“Not only have we exceeded expectations as far as users, we’ve managed to expand the brand far beyond America’s Army the game,” Mezoff said. “The kids are very active on our forums, and they’re telling us that through our game they are learning about the Army.”