The killing game

For young men, first-person shooters are the hottest computer games around. That’s why the Army’s spent $10 million making one of its own. But there’s a catch. Big Brother gets to watch you play.

Clan warfare: LANatomas guns down members of a Seattle clan during a round of league play. Carson Loane, foreground, patrols the left flank while clan leader Jeff Muramoto, center, calls out strategies to his squad.

Clan warfare: LANatomas guns down members of a Seattle clan during a round of league play. Carson Loane, foreground, patrols the left flank while clan leader Jeff Muramoto, center, calls out strategies to his squad.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s Tuesday, practice night for the LANatomas Counter-Strike clan. Five young men wearing headphones are sitting side by side before a bank of computer monitors, fingers flickering over keyboards, mouses clicking, yelling out warnings to each other. The room, a narrow computer-gaming center in a suburban strip mall, is pleasantly dim, lit with black light and neon. Blue Oyster Cult thrums through the sound system, but not loudly.

On-screen, the clan creeps quietly down a dark hallway of an oil pumping station in Russia, assault rifles and flash-bang grenades in hand, looking to kill five terrorists who are attempting to dynamite the complex. They think their enemies are hiding somewhere in ambush, hoping to draw LANatomas into a trap, and they’re right.

“They’re in CT spawn!” one of the clan shouts suddenly. “Left side!”

“I see them!” his neighbor yells back. “They’re stacked!”

“Don’t peek,” their clan leader warns. “I’ll get them.” Before he can move, he is riddled with terrorist bullets and slumps to the ground. The rest of the clan quickly meets the same bloody fate, and the message “terrorists win” flashes on the screen. The game resets, and they begin another round.

LANatomas is an hour into its twice-weekly practice, getting ready for its season opener Sunday night against res.ilience, a clan from the Seattle area. In preseason standings, LANatomas is the top-ranked team in the Pacific Conference of the Cyberathlete Amateur League’s Main Division, and the members hope to claw their way into the Premier Division this season, one step from the big time. But at the moment, the Premier Division clan they’re practicing against—Eminence, from Dallas—is mowing them down.

“Dude, we are getting raped,” clan leader Jeff Muramoto mutters.

Looking over their shoulders is Craig Wentworth, a slight, pale blond man wearing narrow glasses and a red T-shirt. Wentworth, 20, is the clan’s veteran and has been playing Counter-Strike fanatically for five years. A junior at California State University, Sacramento, he decided recently to step back, citing the time required to remain competitive in league play. Now he just drops by to watch and advise.

“We were playing seven days a week, hours and hours a day, and I just got burned out,” he says. Playing under the name Las1K, Wentworth says he won about $2,000 in cash and another $2,000 in computer parts in Counter-Strike tournaments. “Not bad for a hobby. I was one of the more famous players around here. A lot of people knew me.”

Muramoto, 21, looks up at Wentworth with a grin of affirmation. “Dude. You were own-ness.”

But Las1K hasn’t laid down his weapons for good and he knows it. “You always come back,” he says quietly, watching his friends blast their way through a phalanx of terrorists. “You get pissed, take off for a few months, but you always come back to it.”

who hasn’t seen one of these games—known as first-person shooters—here’s the gist of them. You’re placed in a combat zone, armed with a weapon of your choice, and sent out to find and kill other players. Knife them, club them, blow them apart with a shotgun, set them afire, vaporize them with a shoulder-launched missile, drill them through the head with a sniper rifle—the choice is yours. Depending on the game, blood will spray, mist or spout. Sometimes your kills collapse in crumpled heaps, clutching their throats and twitching convincingly. Sometimes they cry in pain with human voices. Their bodies lay there for a while so you can feed off them if necessary, restoring your own health. Then you can grab their weapons and set off to find another victim, assuming you don’t get killed first.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but among young males it’s far and away the most popular genre of computer game. Some psychologists and parents worry that such games are desensitizing a large, impressionable segment of the population to violence and teaching them the wrong things. But that depends on your point of view. If, like the U.S. Army, you need people who can become unflappable killers, there’s no better way of finding them. It’s why the Army has spent more than $10 million in taxpayer funds developing its very own first-person shooter, and why the Navy, the Air Force and the National Guard are following suit. For anyone who thinks kids aren’t learning playing shooter games, read on.

First-person shooters originally were designed as contests between man and machine, but, as with many things, the advent of high-speed Internet connections changed that. Now, from the privacy of your home, you can take on players the world over. Best of all, it costs nothing to play other than the initial price of the game. (Playing from an Internet café or gaming center, such as LANatomas, costs a few dollars an hour.) Bearing names like “JizMack’s California Slaughterhouse,” “Let the Corpses Fall” and “Newbie Cemetery,” free game servers abound. It is endless war, day or night. On a recent Wednesday morning, more than 29,500 servers were hosting games of Counter-Strike, and more than 66,000 people were playing.

For gamers, the attraction of online play is obvious. In the cyberworld, you’re not hunting down slow computer-generated Nazis. You’re matching wits with real humans (sometimes real Germans), which somehow makes a kill all the more satisfying. Moreover, computer graphics and sound have evolved to the point that it is quite easy to think you’re in a tangible world. Your immediate surroundings vanish. Crickets chirp, bushes rustle, bullets whiz by your head and shower you with chips of concrete. Shell casings clatter to the floor. Mortars crump in the distance, and grenades send up gouts of rock and dirt. It’s a loud, bloody, violent and altogether alarming world. Yet it is oddly exhilarating.

Budda-budda-zing. The Army’s combat game is so lifelike that the Defense Department is using it to test new weapons systems.

“I have to laugh when someone says, ‘Oh, the people playing these games know it’s not real,’” said Dr. Peter Vorberer, a clinical psychologist and head of the University of Southern California’s computer game research group. “Of course they think it’s real! That’s why people play them for hours and hours. They’re designed to make you believe it’s real. Games are probably the purest example yet of the Internet melding with reality.”

LANatomas clan member Rob McCarthy, 17, a senior at Sacramento High School, couldn’t agree more.

“What’s interesting to me is that you can become famous in the cyberworld, and that fame can carry over into the real world,” McCarthy said. “In the cyberworld, you can earn respect, just like in real life. Most parents can’t get their minds around that.”

It may sound fanciful, but he’s right. Top Counter-Strike teams and top players have developed cult followings, and with that has come fame and fortune. Management teams have sprung up to develop new talent, and cash tournaments are commonplace. Clans from 50 countries attended the World Cyber Games last weekend in San Francisco, competing for a $25,000 top prize and lucrative corporate sponsorships.

Team 3D, arguably the best clan in the United States, boasts sponsorships from Subway, Hewlett Packard, Nvidia (which makes graphics processors) and Sennheiser (which makes audio equipment). The world’s No. 1-ranked clan, Schroet Kommando of Sweden, is sponsored by Intel and has its own clothing line. Fatal1ty, a legendary Counter-Strike gamer, also has a clothing line and a Fatal1ty-brand computer motherboard coming out. In addition, top players make extra money by giving private lessons for anywhere from $50 to $120 an hour, schooling players on strategies, gunnery, weapons selection and squad tactics.

For thousands of Counter-Strike players, the game quite literally has become their life. “This is what I want to do,” said Carson Loane, 18, a LANatomas clan member who once played Counter-Strike for 20 consecutive hours. “But if I’m going to do it competitively, I have to practice at least 10 hours a day. And I’m prepared to do that. But the catch is you’ve got to find four other people to do it with you. The only way to win this game is as a team.”

Stanford University psychology professor B.J. Fogg isn’t surprised to see such dedication to a computer game.

“Video games, better than anything else in our culture, deliver rewards to people, especially teenage boys,” said Fogg, who studies the effects of computer games. “Teenage boys are wired to seek competency. To master our world and get better at stuff. Video games, in dishing out rewards, can convey to people that their competency is growing, you can get better at something second by second.”

But what is it kids are getting better at when they play first-person shooters, hour after hour? Many would assume it’s a complete waste of time. But the U.S. government would disagree.

As the number of people playing Counter-Strike soared into the millions, the U.S. Army could only watch wistfully. For years, Army recruiters had diligently pursued the very same demographic— middle-class teenage males—with dwindling success.

In late 1999, after missing their recruiting goals that year, Army officials got together with the civilian directors of a Navy think tank at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to discuss ways of luring computer gamers into the military.

Combat gamers not only happened to target the right age for the Army’s purposes but, more importantly, possessed exactly the kind of information-processing skills the Army needed: the ability to think quickly under fire.

“Our military information tends to arrive in a flood … and it’ll arrive in a flood under stressful conditions, and there’ll be a hell of a lot of noise,” said Col. Casey Wardynski, a military economist who came up with the idea for an official Army computer game. “How do you filter that? What are your tools? What is your facility in doing that? What is your level of comfort? How much load can you bear? Kids who are comfortable with that are going to be real comfortable … with the Army of the future.”

From an Army report: “Aptitudes related to information handling and information culture values are seen as vital to the effectiveness of the high-tech, network-centric Army of the future, and young American gamers are seen as especially proficient in these capabilities. More importantly, when young Americans enter the Army, they increasingly will find that key information will be conveyed via computer video displays akin to the graphical interfaces found in games.”

With the vast funding of the U.S. government behind them, the Army/Navy team began developing a game that hopefully would turn some of its players into real soldiers. “The overall mission statement … was to develop a game with appeal similar to the game Counter-Strike,” wrote Michael Zyda, the director of the Navy think tank. “We took Counter-Strike as our model, but with heavy emphasis on realism and Army values and training.”

An experimental psychologist from the Navy helped tweak the game’s sound effects to produce heightened blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate. It was released in digital double surround sound, which few games are. In terms of game play, it was designed as a “tactical” shooter, slower-paced, more deliberate, but with Counter-Strike’s demanding squad tactics and communications—a “serious” game for kids who took their war gaming seriously.

An America’s Army player gets the drop on an OPFOR armed with an AK-47.

After two years of development, America’s Army was released to the public on the first Fourth of July after 9/11. The gaming world gasped and then cheered. Contrary to expectations, the government-made shooter was every bit as good a $50 retail shooter and, in some ways, better. Plus, it was free—downloadable from the Internet at That, too, was a calculation—one the Army hoped would weed out people who didn’t know much about computers. The game and its distribution system were difficult by design, Zyda said.

“That was a very key thing. First, they would have to be smart enough to download the game off the Internet. Then, they would have to become good at [the game], which isn’t easy. To attract those kinds of people, that was the mission. That’s what we were looking for.”

The game does a good job separating the wheat from the chaff. Before you’re allowed to join an online game, you must undergo weapons training and send your firing range scores to the Army. If you’re a lousy shot, you can’t play. Once inside the game, it gets no easier. The virtual battlefield is enormous, and your enemy is often hidden under cover of darkness. “Newbies” are quickly cut to pieces. Unlike Counter-Strike, America’s Army players aren’t allowed to be on the terrorists’ side. Your team always looks like American soldiers, and the other team always looks like terrorists (or “OPFORs” in Army lingo, meaning “opposing forces.”)

In the wake of 9/11, the public and media reaction was, in the Army’s words, “overwhelmingly positive.” Salon’s Wagner James Au, for example, gushed that the game would help “create the wartime culture that is so desperately needed now” and excitedly anticipated the day when youngsters raised on America’s Army would pick up real weapons to cleanse the globe of real terrorists. Most media accounts focused on the novelty of using a video game to help find recruits and carried jocular headlines like “Uncle Sim Wants You.”

“We thought we’d have a lot more problems,” Zyda said. “But the country is in this mood where anything the military does is great. … 9/11 sort of assured the success of this game. I’m not sure what kind of reception it would have received otherwise.”

There are now more than 4 million registered users, more than half of whom have completed weapons training and gone online to play, making it the fourth most-played online shooter. The Army says there are 500 fan sites on the Web, and recruiters have been busy setting up local tournaments and cultivating an America’s Army “community” on the Internet, hoping to replicate the Counter-Strike phenomenon.

“With respect to recruitment, actual results won’t be known for four or five years, when the current raft of 13- and 14-year-olds will be old enough to join,” Zyda wrote.

But not everyone saw the game as a good thing. A Miami attorney named Jack Thompson went on ABC News and threatened to seek an injunction, saying it wasn’t the government’s job to provide kill ’em games to youngsters. He was deluged with angry e-mail and allegedly received death threats.

“The Army and the Defense Department have a very long history of conducting unethical, illegal experiments upon soldiers and civilians,” Thompson angrily reminded players in a posting to the official Army Web site. “This ‘game’ is yet another experiment upon the unsuspecting pawns who play it. You are the latest guinea pigs.”

Thompson was more right than he knew. Recruiting computer gamers was only one of the goals behind the creation of America’s Army. The other purpose, aptitude testing of potential recruits, has gotten virtually no publicity.

In Germany, a group of America’s Army fans created a sophisticated statistics-tracking system, AAO Tracker, which can tell how much time a player spends online (top players average four hours a day), how many kills he’s made, which battlefields he’s best at, how many kills he averages an hour, and similar minutiae.

But the creator of the popular AAO Tracker system, a 23-year-old German computer engineer, quit in disgust in August after learning that the Army was rolling out its own statistics tracker for the game.

“You can understand that I don’t want to spend (much) time on our stats-tracking system when I know that all my work is useless and for the trash when the official stats tracking system goes online,” the engineer complained on his Web site.

One of the Army’s game developers, in an interview with a fan site, confirmed that “we have started some development on an integrated stats tracker. As far as what we can track, that is really up to what we want to track, as every single event in the game can be recorded and logged. From every shot fired to every objective taken. It simply becomes a matter of which events we want to parse out.”

Why would the Army spend tax dollars tracking and collecting arcane statistics about the players of its game? Because the data can be used to scientifically predict what kind of soldier they’d be.

“Suppose you played extremely well, and you stayed in the game an extremely long time,” Wardynski explained in an interview last year. “You might just get an e-mail seeing if you’d like any additional information on the Army.”

Slaughterhouse Five: the LANatomas Counter-Strike clan between rounds. From left, Craig Wentworth, 20; Rob McCarthy, 17; Jeff Muramoto, 21; Carson Loane, 18; and Jon Loane, 16.

Photo by Larry Dalton

America’s Army isn’t merely a game, recruiting device or a public-relations tool, though it is certainly all of those things. It’s also a military aptitude tester. And it was designed that way from the start.

In a paper written while he was still developing the game, Navy computer expert Zyda said that “the research focus is to determine if games can be instrumented to be able to determine the aptitude, leadership abilities and psychological profile of the game player.”

That work was done by a senior psychologist for the Army Research Institute of Behavioral Science in Alexandria, Va. Zyda said the goal was to “instrument the game” so that it would perform the functions of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test new recruits take to help the Army figure out what kind of job to give them. Zyda was told that the research was a success, but couldn’t discover any details.

“It was odd. I had people tell me (the researcher) had done PowerPoint presentations and research papers on it, but I was never able to see any of that, and I asked to see it. I know at one point the Army’s lawyers had some problems with the whole idea of using that data, and we certainly did, too, from a personal privacy angle. We didn’t think it was a good idea. But I don’t know the status of it,” Zyda said.

Wardynski confirmed that the aptitude testing research had been successful. “That’s as far as we’ve taken it. It’s something we’ll be moving ahead with in the coming year.”

In a posting deep inside the official America’s Army Web site, the Army reveals that “players who request information (about the Army) … may have their gaming records matched to their real-world identities for the purpose of facilitating career placement within the Army. Data collected within the game, such as which roles and missions players spent the most time playing could be used to highlight Army career fields that map into these interest areas … ”

The Army has been collecting player information in a vast relational database system called “Andromeda,” Wardynski said, which recruiters will be able to use to look up a player’s statistics if one of them shows up in a recruiting office. A version of America’s Army now in development will take that a step further, allowing players to create a “persistent” online alter-ego, one that steadily progresses through the virtual ranks by taking additional training or specialized missions, generating valuable data along the way.

Recently, an updated version of the game called Special Forces was released, and there was a reason why that particular theme was chosen—one that had little to do with entertainment value. “Specifically, the Department of Defense wants to double the number of Special Forces soldiers, so essential did they prove in Afghanistan and northern Iraq; consequently, orders have trickled down the chain of command and found application in the current release of America’s Army, which features Special Forces roles, missions, and equipment,” a Navy-produced booklet states.

Paolo Banzon is a harried man. He looks around the Yobags Internet Cafe in Hayward, where he works as a technical engineer, taking in the sight of dozens of milling teenagers, most of them Asian, many of them wearing backpacks, shorts, chains and expensive tennis shoes. From all over Northern California, clans have flocked to this flat, sun-baked industrial park on a Saturday morning for a chance to win the $650 top prize in Yobags’ Counter-Strike tournament. They’re fussy customers. Banzon has been running from table to table, answering questions about unacceptable frame rates and lagging processor speeds, rebooting computers, loading and unloading drivers. It has been bedlam, but Banzon is excited. Yobags is the area’s first Internet gaming parlor owned and operated entirely by Filipinos, he says proudly, and “this tournament will put us on the map. It’s the first one we’ve held since we opened, and look at this place!”

The LANatomas clan quietly sets up its computers and checks out the competition. Jon Loane, 16, strolls over to watch a clan named Ninjas practice and comes back shaking his head. “That’s TAG,” he says. “They shouldn’t even be here.” TAG had been a Premier Division clan last season when, during the playoffs, it was caught using a “ringer,” an expert player not on its roster. As punishment, the Cyberathlete League banished it to the Intermediate division for a season. Ironically, the penalty made TAG technically eligible to play in the Yobags tournament, which is closed to Premier Division clans.

It was not good news. LANatomas members haven’t been playing well, and they know it. After handily winning their season opener, they were steamrolled by the Schooled in Killing clan, a team the online experts predicted would lose. Overconfident, LANatomas barely practiced. In addition, clan leader Muramoto skipped the game to attend a concert “with a girl,” which did not sit well.

Today, there was more than pride riding on their performance. There was also the matter of the $125 entry fee.

In competitive play, a game consists of 30 rounds, each clan playing 15 rounds as terrorists and 15 rounds as counter-terrorists. The first clan to win 16 rounds—either by killing its opponents or thwarting their mission—wins the game.

LANatomas’ first match, against the clan Effortless from San Jose, is close. After falling behind 2-0, Effortless—a young team thrown together just for the tournament—overcomes its nervousness, and, by the end of the first half, the San Jose kids have jumped out to a 10-5 lead. “Settle down, guys,” Muramoto messages his troops. “Take a deep breath and remember: It’s just a game.” The second half goes a little better. With their backs to the wall, LANatomas players dig in and start winning. But they stumble in the last round, and Effortless ekes out a 16-14 victory. “We’re OK,” McCarthy insists. “We were doing better at the end.” Besides, it’s double-elimination. As long as they don’t lose again, they’re in the hunt.

Two hours later, they’re out in the parking lot stowing their gear in their cars, having earned the unwelcome distinction of being the first clan ousted from the tournament. “This is what happens when we don’t practice,” Carson Loane says disgustedly. “If we’re not going to practice, these tournaments are a waste of money.” No one says anything. “So, we’re going to practice tonight, right? Anyone got a concert to go to?”

Muramoto looks unhappy. “This is feeling like a job, dude. It’s like a job.”

Loane is persistent. “We’re going to practice, right?”

Muramoto sighs. “OK. But just for a couple hours.”

That night, at practice, Loane quit. “He said some of us weren’t devoting enough time to practice,” Muramoto said. “I’m working two jobs, seven days a week, and I’m already spending three or four nights a week on this. I can’t do any more. I need a life outside this game.” But that idea may be put on hold for a while. The next day Muramoto received an offer from a Peruvian Counter-Strike clan. If all goes well, Muramoto said, LANatomas could be winging its way down to Peru to train with the South American clan, all expenses paid. Contracts were on the way. “This could be pretty good,” he said.

Last March,with the success of America’s Army assured, the Army cut the Navy out of the picture. Though it had been the Navy’s civilian team of programmers, psychologists and game designers who’d brought America’s Army to life, it was still the Army’s game, and the Army was taking it in-house. “Differences between [the Navy] and Army management saw the game’s production take a different turn,” Zyda wrote. “The Army chose to take control of development.”

According to the Army, it “expanded the America’s Army development team to two new locations.” One of them is the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), which bills itself as the Army’s “Center of Lethality.”

Located on 6,500 rolling acres in northern New Jersey, a safe distance from any town, ARDEC is the Army’s main weapons research plant. Its mission: to turn technology into weapons. Over the years, its labs have sprung such devices as laser-guided “smart” missiles, the “Bunker Buster” bomb and chemical weapons, as well as crowd-control devices like knockout gas, riot batons and—one of its current projects—incapacitating sound rays.

What could such a lethal outfit want with a kid’s computer game? Unbelievable as it sounds, they’re using it to test new weapons. Bill Davis, the head of the America’s Army weapons research group, said the game’s “graphics were well beyond what the military was able to match” and provided a virtual testing ground so lifelike “we can, in essence, try out a new weapons system before any metal is cut.” Currently being tested is a computer-controlled airburst grenade launcher, which Davis said will probably be featured in a future release of America’s Army, completing a circular journey from virtual reality, to reality, and back to virtual reality.

One month after the Army took over production of the game, it announced that it had signed an exclusive long-term contract with the French software company Ubisoft to bring America’s Army to a wider, younger audience. By next summer, it will be out in a “console” version, for use with Xbox and Sony game machines. Currently, it is playable only on a high-end PCs, “which reaches a certain demographic for household income,” Wardynski told an interviewer. “We’d like to reach a broader audience, and consoles get you there. For every PC gamer, there are four console gamers.”

Also in the works, he said, are an America’s Army clothing line, comic books and toy action figures.

In a neurological laboratory at the University of Tuebingen in Germany a few months ago, the first of a dozen young German men slid into the claustrophobic confines of an ultra-high-resolution MRI machine and prepared to play the computer game Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror.

A Counter-Strike clone, Tactical Ops is bloodier, more frenetic and less strategic. It’s known as a “twitch” shooter: Since the bullets fly so fast, instantaneous reaction time is needed to avoid death.

The experiment, funded by USC’s Annenberg School of Communications, was designed to discover whether playing violent computer games induced aggressive brain activity. In other words, does your brain react the same way as it would if you were killing someone in real life, or does it realize that it’s just a game?

Earlier studies, notably those done by Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson, have shown links between high video-game violence and heightened aggression, and not just casual links. Anderson says the connection is greater than the link between cancer and second-hand cigarette smoke. But, according to the Entertainment Software Association, “there is no compelling evidence that establishes a link between playing games and aggressive behavior.”

If there were, obviously, it could be bad for the $7-billion-a-year game business, since half of all Americans over 6 play computer and video games. Last year, 239 million games were bought, nearly two for every household in America.

The Iowa studies were based on word-association tests and psychological models. The USC experiment would be based on medical evidence. The scientists conducting it, USC media psychologist Rene Weber and German neurologist Klaus Mathiak, had spent a year designing their tests, and, as they turned on the giant magnetic imager, they were nervous. Foremost among their worries was whether their subjects could stand being trapped inside an MRI for an entire hour. Most patients, they knew, began demanding release within 20 minutes. But 20 minutes wasn’t enough. They needed an hour.

The MRI began its ungodly hammering, and the young man—who had a trackball mouse by one hand and a keypad by the other—started to play, watching an image beamed into his glasses. The minutes ticked by without complaint. He seemed, Weber recalled, oblivious to everything but the game.

As the man blasted his way through Tactical Ops, the MRI scanner mapped his brain activities with such precision that the researchers could determine what it was doing at any given point in the game, frame by frame. The scientists focused their attention on a sliver called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a beehive of emotional and problem-solving activity. Feelings such as fear, sadness and aggression originate here and send out marching orders to other parts of the brain. One study, for example, revealed that when Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress disorder are shown words like “bodybag” and “firefight,” their ACCs react far more aggressively than normal.

The results are still being analyzed, but Weber said it appears clear that the gamers’ brains had the same reaction to computerized violence as they would to real violence. Aggressive brain activity was “quite remarkable … the results were consistent in nine of the 12 subjects,” he said.

The scientists made another discovery as well. None of their subjects complained of being inside the MRI for an hour. In fact, Weber said, several asked if they could play longer.