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.
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.
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 www.americasarmy.com. 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
I always felt that war games were used to psychologically manipulate the public and for recruitment. This journalist dives deep into these topics.