Be (Online) All That You Can Be
Like many innovations, America's Army and the broader rise of militainment didn't grow out of a grand strategic plan. Almost a decade ago, a group of U.S. Marines hacked the commercial video game Doom II to create "Marine Doom," a software program that helped them teach urban warfare (instead of fighting the demons of hell, the Marine version has players team up to take out an enemy bunker). Col. Casey Wardynski, then a professor at West Point, was impressed by the program, as well as by the fact that his two teenage sons were fans of action video games. While researching how to build an increasingly high-tech U.S. military, he approached the Pentagon about making an online game as a recruiting tool. The idea stuck, and in 2000 the Army contracted the Naval Postgraduate School to create it.
After two years of development, the game, called America's Army, was released at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a sort of annual pilgrimage for video-gamers that draws some 60,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center. What happened next surprised all: The Army didn't just have a new recruiting tool, but an actual market hit. It quickly became one of the top 10 most popular games on the Internet, and within its first five years, some 9 million individuals had signed up to join America's video-game army, spending some 160 million hours on the site and making it one of the top 10 of all video games, online or otherwise.
From the Army's perspective, commercial triumph was secondary. Its goal was to recruit. And at this, too, the game proved to be a wild success. To log on to the game, you have to connect via the Army's recruitment website and fork over your information. Gamers can also check out profiles of current Army soldiers and video testimonials of why they joined. Just one year after America's Army was released, one-fifth of West Point's freshman class said they had played the game. By 2008, a study by two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that "30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined." Notably, this is from a game that the Pentagon has spent an average of $3.28 million a year developing and promoting over the last 10 years -- compared with the military's roughly $8 billion annual recruiting budget.
Behind the success of America's Army lies a story of entrepreneurship and good old-fashioned interservice rivalry. As one of the developers explained in an online forum, "The Navy started to get pissed at the Army because there was never any mention that the game was actually built within a Naval think tank." So, with the Navy angry, the Army did the only logical thing: It brought in the French. Future versions of America's Army were licensed to French game company Ubisoft, which also allowed the game to be used on Microsoft Xboxes -- a breakthrough because it meant the game could penetrate a much wider marketplace. Ubisoft paid the Army $2 million upfront, plus 5 percent in royalties per game sold. The Army also kept its right to edit content; video games were becoming too violent even for the U.S. military. As Wardynski, the program's originator who now directs the Army Game Project that administers it, told National Defense, the military wanted to ensure that it wouldn't be "the sort of game where you tear off someone's arm and beat them to death with it."
Instead, America's Army is meant to imbue potential recruits with traditional military values. To join, would-be video soldiers have to pass training sessions not only for the game but also for U.S. military systems, lingo, and values. Over time, they can go through added training to specialize in becoming anything from a Javelin missile operator to a Humvee driver.
Once in, players enter a virtual battle built around a scenario from recent real-world U.S. Army experience -- in a squad with other online soldiers anywhere in the world. America's Army has proven so popular globally that, with so many users signing on from Internet cafes in China, the Chinese government tried to ban it. Real soldiers play too, usually identifiable by the unit insignias listed in their gamer names.
The game itself isn't just a regular shoot 'em up, but features an "honor system." Those who cooperate the best tend to win the most, while the go-it-alone Rambo types tend not to last too long. Following the rules of engagement wins extra points, as does stopping to give medical care to your buddies. Commit a "friendly fire" incident, and you get banned from the server. If you log back on under that same account, your point of view is from behind jail bars in a virtual Fort Leavenworth military prison.
The game is not without its shortcomings, suggesting a far more antiseptic version of war than the real thing. Get hit by a bullet and there is only a tiny puff of pink smoke that quickly disappears. And the real world's "fog of war" -- the chaos, confusion, and mistakes in battle that Prussian überstrategist Carl von Clausewitz defined as an enduring feature of warfare -- doesn't cloud the game.
One scenario, for example, is built around a real battle during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A team of Green Berets was attacked by an Iraqi motorized infantry company backed by artillery, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. As the real-life Green Berets did, you can beat back the virtual Iraqis by deftly firing Javelin anti-tank missiles. However, the game leaves out the part when the Green Berets called in an airstrike. Instead of hitting the Iraqis, the plane mistakenly dropped a bomb on friendly forces, killing 17 U.S. troops and their Kurdish allies.