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Video Game Used To Lure New Recruits
Charlotte Observer
March 4, 2005

This is scary and maddening. Unable to get the necessary recruits for the military the old-fashioned way, the U.S. Army has sunk $16 million into a government-sponsored video game that blurs the line between fantasy and the reality of war.

The taxpayer-financed "America's Army" is so clever a mind game that even the military folks behind it get a little confused when talking it up. Time magazine said Major Chris Chambers, deputy director of the video's development team, had to stop and correct himself when he called the violence, combat and "death animation" in the game "real." "It's not real; it's simulated. But we're simulating reality," he said.

Got that?

The computer-based video game was rolled out as a recruitment and training tool -- primarily recruitment -- on July 4, 2002. And players can click a button in the game menu and go directly to an Army recruiting Web site, Time reports.

The military thinks there's nothing wrong with this. After all, Chambers says, "We treat it openly and honestly ... we don't sugarcoat it." But is it really "honest" when the game focuses on the adrenaline rush of the fight, and doesn't or can't convey the true human costs of war?

Sure, the game shows soldiers die in war -- thus the "death animation." But it doesn't show the thousands more who live forever maimed, with one arm, one leg or no limbs. It doesn't show the agonizing rehabilitation that often follows. It doesn't show the mental anguish of seeing a buddy killed in front of you, or having to shoot the enemy when you can look into his eyes. It doesn't show the hundreds of soldiers who battle post traumatic stress, or as a recent PBS documentary showed, the pressure to hide such injuries from the military superiors and comrades who call you a wimp for asking for help. "Suck it up," one soldier said he was told.

Military officials say the game is designed so these possible recruits understand the Army doesn't want them to be Rambos. There are game penalties for players who hurt noncombatants. And if you're wounded or killed, the game's over for you. But it sounded real Rambo-like when one military official said -- perhaps jokingly -- to a Time reporter playing the game, "isn't killing Afghans fun?"

Video games are supposed to be fun. There's no denying that. But war is not. "America's Army" is only helping confuse the issue for the young men and women who must fight these wars.

It doesn't take much to confuse some in the 13-to-24-year-old demographic that's the prime audience for the video. Many are consumed with playing video games -- the more violent, the better. They equate the virtual thrill they get from the video game to real-life situations. Some tragically play them out in real life. For too many, the game gives an illusion of competence and control over their circumstances that kids who lack self-esteem or live in challenging situations badly need.

"America's Army" preys on such vulnerabilities. The game is a hit on the Army's Web site, with up to 4.6 million registered players and 100,000 new ones signing up each month. According to Time, this summer the Army will roll out the game to gaming consoles such as Xbox or PlayStation 2 to reach a broader audience.

All's fair in love and war, right? Military recruiters are having problems. Most have failed to meet their monthly recruiting quotas. Even the Marines, accustomed to rejecting prospects because they got so many, recently missed their monthly goals. So it comes as no surprise recruiters are looking for innovative ways to catch recruits' eyes.

But this kind of "innovation" is troubling and borders on trickery. Critics already call the military deceptive in some recruiting practices. Posters and recruiters play up the positives and over-promise benefits, including the amount of money available for college tuition. They egg on recruits to sign up with provocative claims like this: "Where else can you get paid to jump out of airplanes, shoot cool guns, blow stuff up and travel, seeing all kinds of different countries?"

I'm not anti-military. The military is an admirable endeavor and joining has many legitimate benefits. Army officials are right to promote it as such.

But they are wrong to use video games to hoodwink naive youngsters into thinking of soldiering as a game. When the adrenaline rush is over from the video battles, you can put the game aside. In real life, the scars of war stay with soldiers forever.

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Copyright 2005 Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Sound Off...What do you think? Join the discussion.

Copyright 2015 . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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