The U.S. Army needs to recruit tens of thousands of young men and women - some 80,000 this year alone. The challenge has long been how to get them interested in volunteering for military service. Recognizing that most young men in particular love to play computer games, the Army has come up with one of its own, and it appears to be a huge success, though it has not been without some controversy.
This isn't the first time one of the U.S. armed forces has used a computer game as a recruiting tool. But "America's Army," as the new game is called, is the most ambitious and most realistic yet, giving players a virtual first-hand look at Army values, teamwork, technology and opportunities.
The game, crafted by military computer experts and offered free of charge on the Internet, is in two parts, says Army spokesman Paul Boyce: "One is a very much values based part called Soldiers, where you literally enlist in the Army, go through basic training, go through advanced individual training and go out to a tactical unit. The other part of it, Operations, is where you get to be involved in tactical operations with the Army, where you apply the training that we have given you ... and also learn about the consequences of real life actions."
What that means is that in this game, unlike many others, players cannot do the physically impossible, like carry 200-kilogram backpacks or dodge bullets or leap over tall buildings. There are also real-life rules of engagement, and players are monitored in computer network play to ensure there is no misbehavior.
"If you do decide to violate the training you've been taught, and the real-life consequences we've tried to impart, and you do something untoward like try to shoot your drill sergeant or a fellow teammate," explains Mr. Boyce, "you will be immediately transported to a three-dimensional representation of a jail cell at Fort Leavenworth, U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks, Kansas."
It is also not one of those blood and gore computer games that appear to glorify violence while encouraging things like killing civilians or running over policemen. That, plus the integrated discipline factor left the Army somewhat stunned when one Miami lawyer and father of a 10-year-old recently threatened a lawsuit to get the Army to withdraw the game. Jack Thompson charged it was another shooter game that encouraged violence and put youngsters like his son at risk. The attorney, recalling the recent sniper murders in the Washington, D.C., area, was especially angered that the Army game offers among its training programs a marksmanship segment.
Spokesman Boyce rejects the criticism. He says the Army has no intention of pulling the game off the Internet, where it has been already been played nearly 25 million times since its introduction last July 4.
"We want to show weapons are used by the military, and it's part of our atmosphere, but it's part of making sure our country is safe and it's part of national defense, not part of some untoward behavior to terrorize our citizens," said Mr. Boyce.
Most game players appear to agree. On an Internet chatroom, one man suggests sarcastically that because the real military offers real firearms training, perhaps the Army itself should be banned. Another asks rhetorically if the old computer game Pac Man should not be banned because its use of figures gobbling one another up could be construed as encouraging cannibalism.
Controversial or not, the bottom line for the Army remains whether the game will help boost enlistments. There is no clear evidence yet. But the Army says its enlistment intake this year is running ahead of schedule. It also says Internet contacts are resulting in more enlistments than any of the Army's other advertising programs.