Story by by Lauren Gonzalez
“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
— White House chief of staff Andrew Card, explaining why the Bush administration waited until September 2002 to make its case for war in Iraq.
War is a horror, and also a product, like Coca-Cola. It’s packaged, marketed and sold to anyone willing to pay the price, including John Q. Gamer. In recent years, the Pentagon has been working closely with the video gaming industry, in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the nation’s young people. And while we gamers might get a few good first-person shooters out of the deal, make no mistake: This Faustian bargain comes with some serious fine print.
In October 2002, the U.S. Army released America’s Army, a free, downloadable PC game it spent more than $7 million to develop. That may be on the high end for game companies, but it’s chump change compared to the defense budget. Flush with taxpayer money, the Army hired industry top guns to build America’s Army on Epic’s Unreal engine. To play, users must first register online at americasarmy.com, which has been enlisting an average of 175,000 new recruits per month since the game’s launch. It’s far from the first time the military has jumped in bed with the game industry, but it does represent an important escalation of engagement.
The Army and Navy have been adapting commercial games for their own education and training purposes since the early 80’s, when the Army reworked the Atari 2600 shooting game Battlezone to mock the controls of a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. In the 90’s, the Marine Corps turned the popular commercial shooter Doom into Marine Doom, for military use only. More recently, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, the Jane’s series and the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell games have all been co-opted for military purposes.
But while Military Doom is one thing—after all, it stands to reason that games designed for 13-year-olds must be altered to make them suitable for training soldiers—it is quite another thing to reverse the pattern, bringing games directly from the front lines to an entertainment-hungry, and impressionable, gaming public. In America’s Army, after completing four training missions, you’re thrown into the fray—part of a 1- to 16-player team pitted against a generic opponent (ski-masked to conceal ethnicity). The game involves little gore, earning itself a “Teen” rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
Author Nick Turse, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and a regular contributor to the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, has written extensively on what he calls the “military-industrial-entertainment complex,” an updating of President Eisenhower’s warning on the dangers of an entanglement of the government, the military and private corporations. Turse considers military-built commercial games like America’s Army a “new and powerful” form of propaganda, and says they “remove the complexities and moral ambiguities from news stories and strike from debate the most crucial decisions people can make in regard to the morality of a war—choosing whether or not to fight and for what cause.” Turse also charges that the games never prompt players to think about what they are doing or why, but rather to “just follow orders.”
Teens, traditionally, do not like to follow orders, so why are these games flourishing? In the case of America’s Army, it’s simple—gamers get a free product that rivals commercial titles that cost more than $40. But what does the Army get in return? With the war in Iraq plodding along with no end in sight, the need for greater military recruitment is obvious and immediate (they’re even discussing a return to the draft). Laudatory gameplay aside, there’s no denying that America’s Army is a recruiting tool targeted at the young, mostly male video-game demographic. The November 2002 issue of National Defense magazine identified the trend: “Computer games—which entertain millions of U.S. teenagers—are beginning to breathe fresh life into military recruiting and training.” The magazine also referred to America’s Army as being “aimed at encouraging teens to join up.”
To test the strength of that appeal, High Score drafted two recruitment-age college students, Tristan Kuizenga and Cory Keller, both 19, to visit the Woodland recruiting station in Northern California and pick up a copy of America’s Army.
COMPLETE STORY IN SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2004 HIGH TIMES