Is America’s Army a video game, a recruitment device, or a violence-training tool?

Entertainment War: Photo (left) by Jane Morba.

Blond and crewcut with a chestful of badges and medals, Stephen Henderson loves the Army. He’s been a paratrooper and a Ranger and he’s taught new soldiers how to rappel down a rope off hovering helicopters. As he puts it, he loves crawling around in the dirt. He’s been to the Middle East. And if there’s an adventure to be had in the Army, Staff Sergeant Henderson has found it and lived it.

But for now and for the next few years, he’s no longer airborne. He, like many of us, sits chairborne. Fresh into what will be a three-year assignment, Henderson recruits prospective soldiers out of local colleges and high schools from an office in a Seaside strip mall. Besides the Air Force, Navy and Marine outposts down the hall, his neighbors are a nail salon, a package shipping center, a hot sandwich shop and an electronics store. Cheap tobacco and cheap hamburgers can be had across the parking lot.

Late in the afternoon in the beginning of September, Henderson has a recruit parked in front of a corner computer taking one of several screening tests required to join the service. Cigarette smoke wafts in from the open back door.

The office features a corkboard of Polaroids showing recruits and telling when they joined and what they’ll be doing, from fixing helicopters to cooking lunch. A display rack is festooned with literature from the Army’s “Army of One” recruiting campaign, which emphasizes the power of the tech-savvy individual in an organization that lives and breathes teamwork.

An effort to capture the prospective soldier who spent his youth playing indoor video games instead of backyard football, the “Army of One” campaign comes with a revolutionary recruiting tool: a free, government-designed, Internet-accessible, interactive video game called America’s Army. Henderson’s relationship with the Army’s very own video game is intimate and uncanny.

“I’m in it,” he says from behind his desk.

America’s Army is a game that uses something gamers call “avatars”—electronic facsimiles of real people—and Henderson is one of them. In the part of the game where players go through training in a technique the Army calls “air assault”—that is, attacking via helicopter—a computerized version of Henderson appears as the instructor he recently was. When the game’s creators traveled from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to his base in Kentucky to take very detailed digital photos of the facility and its characters, they captured Henderson in electronic form.

“When you’re on the rappelling tower, there’s me and my voice,” he says. “The bench the instructors sit on when we’re taking a break, it’s there.”

In July 2002 when the game was launched to accompany the “Army of One” recruitment campaign, Henderson and his crew were in Los Angeles, rappelling off the side of the Staples Center to promote America’s Army at a national electronic entertainment exposition known as E3. When experienced players saw the game, they went gaga.

Now, when he sets up his table at a county fair or a jobs symposium, Henderson gives away free discs containing versions of the game, which is so advanced no one can believe there’s no charge. And when a recruit has signed the papers to join the Army, he or she will get a “care package.” One of the contents is a copy of America’s Army.

“I tell them it’s something to check out,” he says.

But now that he’s stuck in a chair in Seaside for a few years while his friends are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Henderson plays the game too.

America’s Army is designed to be a realistic imitation of life in the Army, where good deeds mean advancement to better assignments and rogue behavior means punishment. But Henderson says his Internet self will never measure up.

“I am so much better than my game,” he says. “I’m horrible with computers.”

Henderson plays America’s Army along with three million people around the world—three million people who have created a hundred different virtual communities orbiting around a war game. America’s Army is one of the most popular video games in history.

When Henderson was hanging off a rope on the side of an arena in Los Angeles, the official Web site was being launched, taking some hundreds of thousands of hits from the get-go. Apparently a vast number of people around the world want to pretend they’re in the Army on a computer.

But as a free, downloadable, virtual world of combat created by the government to be a “strategic communications tool,” the game America’s Army raises serious concern among some critics, who ask about the appropriateness of a government imitating an ongoing real war with a free public game war. By creating an engaging virtual world so close to the serious, real one, it’s as if a blurry, third interworld—where reality and fantasy cross over each other—has been created. At the same time, America’s Army leads the way in an evolution of the military-industrial complex into what’s dubbed by some the “military-entertainment complex.”

• • •

America’s Army is what’s called in the gaming world a “first person shooter” (FPS). A new player, inducted as a recruit, starts off shooting virtual bullets to advance from virtual training to virtual war.

Details of weapons and uniforms are faithful and accurate because they’ve been simulated from the real thing. The rifle used for marksmanship training looks the same as the M-16A2 rifle a real recruit would use.

From the beginning, the player is involved with the other simulated people. At the rifle range, the sergeant mocks a player for being slow. As the mouse is moved left and right, up and down, so too does the player’s perspective.

Birds chirp in the background, making it feel like morning. Motions like loading a rifle are accompanied by the correct metallic clinking and sliding.

To aim a gun, a player looks down a gun sight at a target. To shoot, you click your mouse.

PC Gamer magazine gave it an “excellent” review for being “immersive and realistic.” Playing the game, you get the sense that you are in that virtual world. Of course, getting shot in America’s Army is like getting shot in a backyard came of cops and robbers: you just have to sit it out until the end of the game.

If America’s Army looks like the real thing, it’s intentional. One of the common compliments—and it’s the goal of many video games—is the realism. What the game does is bring in a player as a recruit. Using the fundamentals of what the Army calls its “core values” of teamwork, leadership, honor and so on, players progress from a realistic-

looking rifle range to other training, like Staff Sgt. Henderson’s rappelling tower. If they’re successful and refrain from shooting the drill sergeant, they are deployed into virtual combat scenarios from shooing saboteurs away from a snow-covered oil pipeline to rescuing a helicopter crew crashed in a place that looks remarkably like Somalia (à la Blackhawk Down) to rescuing hostages from a hospital (Jessica Lynch?). Players play online against other players, often scheduling tournaments.

Like the old role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, a player styles himself with his own taste in weapons and gear. The creators are careful to point out that although virtual killing is involved, killing an allied player or a civilian means virtual detention in virtual military prison—again, enforcing the Army’s value system.

To make the game very realistic, “enormous amounts of digital imagery from Iraq and Afghanistan” has been fed into the program to set up virtual battlegrounds that look, in one example, eerily like the city of Baghdad. When the game was still being developed in Monterey, special operations troops returning from Afghanistan were brought into the lab to be digitally photographed for reproduction in the game.

For a guy like Henderson, who used to carry a gun for a living, the game is right on, in that you can’t just spray a target with bullets because the virtual carbine works like the real thing; when it jams there are several steps to get it working again.

Game designers operated under some serious political restraints. Even if the virtual battleground looked just like Baghdad, it’s not called Baghdad. The enemy are not exact copies of Fedayeen or guerilla Republican Guard or Taliban. But they’re close.

“The Army knows,” Henderson says. “In Afghanistan, who’s your enemy one day is your friend the next. The Army is not depicting any enemy.”

One evolution of the game has been the change in the style of combat. Although the recent showdown in Najaf was a startling example of the sort of urban combat that commanders dread, a lot of the enemy contact in Iraq has been guerilla-style ambushes and hit-and-run roadside bomb attacks. Like the war and the Army, the virtual war is adapting.

“The game was designed before the Iraq war started. With it has come some unconventional combat, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and individual insurgents, and not a platoon of the enemy,” Henderson says. “It has been reflected in the game, but they are trying to incorporate that into the broader scope.”

• • •

In his second-floor corner office at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Mike Zyda is not shy at all about his role in the military-entertainment complex. If some call him the father of this phenomenon, he’s happy to let others know it. Wired magazine mentions him in its September issue and The New York Times magazine gave him a nod in mid-August.

As director of the MOVES (Modeling, Virtual Reality and Simulation) Institute at NPS, Zyda could be any guy in America in perpetual dress-down Friday. A civilian through and through, he shows up for work in New Agey slipper-shoes and khakis while his military counterparts at the Navy school are spit-and-polish.

He grew up in the San Fernando Valley with Disney executives for neighbors. The closest he got to military service was at age 18, asking a co-worker what to expect in the draft. That was 1972, he had a high lottery number, and the draft was abandoned a year later.

Rather than get sucked into the dreadful tail end of the Vietnam-era military, Zyda went to UC San Diego, where he got a degree in bioengineering in 1976 and subsequent computer science degrees from the University of Massachusetts in 1978 and Washington University, St. Louis in 1984.

Working for the military is, to Zyda, who uses the appropriate mythical analogy, like being “on Mars.”

Rewind back to the mid-’90s, when Zyda was chairman of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, part of the National Research Council. He wrote a report called “Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment & Defense.”

The report points out that the relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon goes way back. It’s no secret that the Department of Defense (DOD) is willing to lend aircraft carriers, helicopters, weapons, soldiers and whatever, for a movie with an acceptable script. But in his report, Zyda points out that, while certain societal obstacles between the military and the Hollywood and Silicon Valley subcultures will need to be overcome, a relationship could be mutually beneficial.

“The entertainment industry was going in some very interesting directions, faster than DOD was investing in,” Zyda says.

In the study, he wrote:

Both the entertainment industry and DOD are interested in developing immersive systems that allow participants (whether game players or soldiers) to enter and navigate simulated environments. For DOD, such systems can be used to train groups of combatants or, increasingly, individual combatants for particular missions when access to the actual location is either hazardous or just not possible…For the entertainment industry, such systems are the basis for virtual reality (VR) experiences being incorporated into location-based entertainment, theme parks and video game centers.

The Army’s chief scientist noticed. “He called me on the phone and said, ‘I love this study you wrote,’” Zyda says.

With that, work on America’s Army began.

What Zyda and a crew of computer programmers and artists created is one of the most popular video games ever.

One purpose of the game is to solve a major problem for the military: post-Vietnam, post-draft estrangement from the American public. Where military service was expected of previous generations, it’s been a career option—and not necessarily the most appealing option—since the draft ended in 1973.

Even a post-Cold War shrinking military needs volunteers, and although the video game generation might have become familiar with virtual combat, they had little conception of what life in the Army might really be like. Zyda’s new project set out to change that, hence the emphasis on realistic training and ethics.

It’s a money-saver for recruiting too. Compared to the Army’s $1.2 billion annual recruiting and marketing budget—which includes the Army’s NASCAR racing team—America’s Army costs $4.4 million a year, he says.

Although no studies have been done to survey incoming soldiers about the effectiveness of the game, Zyda and others believe the game has been effective.  

“The goal is to communicate a message about the Army to the general public,” he says. “And I think it’s been very successful.”

The game has brought government game programming up to speed with the multi-billion dollar electronic entertainment industry. At one point in the mid and late-’90s, the kind of graphics available to consumers was better than what trainees or war-gamers were getting.

“By the fall of 1999, there were a lot of people who recognized that the entertainment industry was moving much faster than the defense laboratories,” Zyda says. “The cutting edge in computing is driven by games and entertainment. We have to be there. For national security that means we either have to keep up or do the research and development on our own.”

Now, with America’s Army and its offshoots, the Pentagon is back in the game.

In May, the whole operation was shifted away from Zyda and MOVES solely into the Army, which wants to grow it into a game with many more options. Zyda is diplomatically optimistic.

“The Army is going their own way and we’ll see where they get,” he says. “We wish them the best of luck.”

Asked about the appropriateness of using government resources to spread a game that involves combat into the public sphere, Zyda gets philosophical. He mentions the notorious game Grand Theft Auto, in which players are rewarded for committing virtual murder. At what point does media shift from portraying violence to offering a how-to seminar on killing without consequence?

“There’s a fine line there,” Zyda says.

• • •

For Jack Thompson, who calls himself “Public Enemy No.1 for the video game industry,” it’s a clear line.

A Miami lawyer specializing in medical malpractice defense, Thompson also serves as an ever-present talk show critic of violent video games. In 1988, he ran unsuccessfully for Florida attorney general against future US Attorney General Janet Reno.

He spoke by telephone from Florida while awaiting the onslaught of Hurricane Frances. A self-described conservative, pro-military Republican, Thompson nevertheless aligns himself with the warnings from President Dwight Eisenhower, who cautioned against the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” that profits by the spread of war.

Whether it’s America’s Army or the new Army-developed game Full Spectrum Warrior, Thompson has deep concerns about the blending of military-funded games with public entertainment.

“The Defense Department’s placement of what I call ‘killing simulators’ into the civilian population is questionable,” he says. “I think there’s a problem with the Army in two respects. They are subsidizing with our tax dollars the creation of games which start out as simulators. And second, if these games teach people to kill, why would they facilitate the dumping of this technology into the public setting?”

Thompson is often called to speak about video game technology as a kind of violence training. He predicted that the Beltway sniper, Lee Malvo, as well as the alleged Ohio highway sniper Charles McCoy, had been using video games to practice. He was right. He’s just been called on by the Alameda County prosecutor for a case involving a criminal gang that claims to have played a video game with carjacking scenarios by day and then jacked cars at night.

When it comes to America’s Army, Thompson fears that there could be unintended consequences to what’s now a very popular government-financed game.

“War is hell and I think there’s something profane about portraying war as something entertaining, glamorous and cool,” he says.

Sharing some of Thompson’s concern is James Der Derian, professor of international relations at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The author of Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network, as well as several publications on national security and politics, Der Derian has questions about programs like America’s Army.

“I see the need for simulation for training purposes,” he says in a telephone interview. “The risk, and this one that the military has not investigated  sufficiently, is that as they increase the “reality” of video games, there comes to be a blurring of the reality principle. That is, confusing the games for the real thing.”

One danger he notes is the substitution of real instincts and impulses with less-than-natural behavior learned through games. He points to testimony from veterans of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, who had a hard time comparing the chaotic reality of urban combat in the Third World with the sterility of the video war games they’d grown up with. And beyond that, he asks about the appropriateness of the entertainment industry working so closely with national defense organizations.

“When you bring together all these forces in these new alliances,” he asks, “you get a blurring of what’s our overall goal. Is it to entertain? Is it to triumph? Is it to protect?”

Der Derian showed up in a 2003 masters thesis by Zhan Li, then a student of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of a 112-page treatise on “The Potential of America’s Army the Video Game as Civilian-Military Public Sphere.”

“I came to America’s Army as the first major state-produced game sphere, and one that’s explicitly political,” Li says in a telephone interview.   

What interested Li was the cross-over between the game and reality, considering for one, that active duty soldiers like Henderson play the game even from places like Iraq. He has gotten connected with several online player groups—which are known as “clans” and take on handles like “Drunks with Guns” and “Men of God.”

“This isn’t just the government producing a game,” he says. “It’s also the first time the Army has produced a product for public consumption.”

If that’s true—and besides commercialized military products like Hummers and certain camping gear, it’s hard to think of any Army-birthed consumer products—we have already entered a new realm. It’s this realm of the military-entertainment complex, where three million people, some of them soldiers and some civilian, hop back and forth between two worlds (one of them made and monitored by the military, the other one less so), dodging and shooting virtual bullets in one and real bullets in the other.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The video game feel of the news bomb run footage from the first Persian Gulf War, stood in stark contrast to the  bloody television coverage from Vietnam. A public once horrified by war became numb to it and were even entertained by the gee-whiz image of a bomb whistling down a chimney.

Military-funded video games packaged as strategic communications tools are an evolution of the same government trying to present itself in the best light possible by creating a fantasy world, despite the ugly truths in the real world.

As Mike Zyda at the MOVES Institute moves on to other projects and the Army takes full control of its game, the plan now is to turn the entire Army experience into a video game, and create a complete, virtual replication of the institution. But when his ideas were first presented, he says, the gray-haired generation of officers scoffed at such games being trivial kid-stuff. Now it’s dead serious.

“They want to build the whole Army in game form,” he says. “It’s a grand plan, which is, America’s Army will not die.”

One must ask, of course, when will the game be over?

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