“Hey! Do you like fake violence? Do you think you might like real violence even more? Good! Here’s a .50-caliber machine gun and some money for college.” That’s essentially the message behind a new recruiting strategy launched last month by the US Army.
Since 2002, the Army has issued several versions of America’s Army, a military-warfare video game and recruiting tool (also available on cell phones!) that already has one of online gaming’s biggest fan bases. That, apparently, was not enticement enough. Three weeks ago, the Army upped the game’s recruitment value by sponsoring a channel on one of the world’s biggest multiplayer gaming Web sites, GlobalGamingLeague.com, to the tune of $2 million. That bought the army the rights to its own channel on the site, which offers players the opportunity to test their virtual mettle in everything from the martial CounterStrike to the marsupial absurdity of Wombat Combat.
The Army’s channel will be open for business in June. Registration will be free, as is the norm, but with a hitch: you have to agree to “additional contact from the Army.” Once signed up, gamers can compete in an array of “militainment” shooter games. Each month, the channel will hold a tournament, “Elite Forces,” allowing its most fleet-fingered fraggers to compete against one another in America’s Army. Tournament winners are promised lucrative prizes; the most-skilled players win the privilege of trying one of their cutting-edge combat simulators, which realistically mimic real-life combat situations.
The military gets a prize too, of course: unfettered marketing access to a vast legion of trigger-happy 17-to-24-year-olds.
To those who might look askance at such recruitment tactics, Army marketing director Gary Bishop insists that the new partnership is a harmless attempt “to tell the Army story.” “It’s not all about combat,” he says. “Being in the Army is about driving trucks, welding, nurses, and computers.”
Well, yes, it’s true that America’s Army features some Humvee driving, but absolutely no welding or nursing; it isn’t even possible to play as a “medic,” a staple of the warfare-gaming genre. What you do get is relentless, reflex-twitch slaughter, with the added bonus that multiplayer teams take turns as the mustachioed “Indigenous Forces,” each avatar lovingly skinned by a Naval Postgraduate School programmer in a crisp shade of “terrorist brown.”
The game, not surprisingly, has been attacked by a number of pacifist groups for sugarcoating the realities of combat. And in fact, the sugar is even thicker than usual, since the game’s producers drastically scaled down the gore effects of the Unreal graphics engine, the licensed software that America’s Army is built around. Why? To garner the “Teen” rating to draw the just-barely-pre-enlistment audience the military so desperately wants to reach. It’s the military’s hope that it won’t be long before the people eager to participate in this war-porn peep show will be unable to contain their desire to spray real bullets in the name of Uncle Sam.
Gamers have tried for years to deflect the notion that fake violence on screen does not lead to real violence, and have argued that such a cognitive disconnect afflicts only a tiny percentage of gamers. Now the Army is betting $2 million in taxpayers’ money that they’re wrong.