Jun 12, 2009
Alex Rogan: That was just a game, Centauri!
Centauri: Well, you may have thought it was a game, but it was also a
test. Aha, a test! Sent out across the galaxy to find those with the
potential to be Starfighters. And here you are, my boy! Here you
are! -The Last Starfighter (1984)
So, how good are you at Halo? How about World of Warcraft, or any of
the other games where the strategic elimination of your enemy is a
key requisite in winning? Well, if you're really good at it, why not
do it full-time? Why not for the Army? Think I'm joking? The Army doesn't.
Set up in an impressive and unambiguous fashion, "America's Army" is
an online game developed in 2002 in partnership with the Department
of Defense (DoD) for the purpose of penetrating, "the youth culture
and get the Army in a young person's 'consideration set'", quoting
from an ACLU report citing testimony from a U.S. Senate Armed
Services Committee meeting.
Organized in an attractive and user-friendly interface for PC, Mac
and Linux platforms, the site offers all kinds of tidbits for
exploration including a section for news, soldier profiles, community
boards and even a Facebook group promoting the upcoming June 17
release of the version 3.0 software. Most importantly, though, are
the direct links to the Army's recruiting site. However, the game was
only the beginning.
Last year the DoD launched a new endeavor based on 10 years of work
and research that culminated in a pilot project called the Army
Experience Center (AEC), a 14,500 square foot, $12 million facility
in a Philadelphia mall that houses 20 permanent staff members and
resembles a gamers paradise of highly interactive gameplay in a war setting.
Opening in August 2008, the center had one purpose in mind; get kids
as young as 13 to play the games with an eye on measuring their
ability and strategic thinking and then encouraging them to enter
military service as soldiers. The staff, all recruiters, can offer
the recruit any number of services that ordinary offices cannot like
full mentoring and full GRE and ASVAP test preparation. According to
the website AfterDowningStreet (ADS), one AEC can do the work and
produce the results of 5 regular recruiting stations (although these
are early numbers). If deemed successful, ADS speculates that the
Army will begin building more throughout the U.S. "like Wal-Marts".
In testimony before the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee,
representatives of the program claim statistics that show 60% of
those who came to the AEC on a regular basis played the game five
times a week and from those, four out of 100 will sign up for service.
The program is becoming so popular that it's been noticed and
emulated by our allies overseas. Currently, the British Army is in
the process of creating their own version of the program. The British
program consists of promoting an online game called "Start Thinking
Soldier". The game, according to GamePolitics (one of the best sites
I've seen in quite some time) is aimed at the 68% of the 17-21 years
olds who have yet to make a career determination and are open to suggestions.
This may all sound fine to many people. Military service is an
honorable profession that thousands of people sign up for each year
for a multitude of reasons. However, there are a growing number of
civil liberty groups and activists on both sides of the ocean who are
beginning to push back at targeting kids as young as 13 for recruitment.
The ACLU has recently lodged a protest with the United Nations
(specifically the committee on the Rights of the Child) concerning
recruitment of children under the age of 18 by agents acting on
behalf of the military, claiming that such actions violate the
obligation the U.S. agreed to under the Optional Protocol on the
Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. In their report they claim:
The Army uses an online video game, called "America's Army," to
attract young potential recruits at least as young as 13, train them
to use weapons, and engage in virtual combat and other military
missions. Video game-players complete obstacle courses, learn how to
fire realistic Army weapons such as automatic rifles and grenade
launchers, and learn how to jump from airplanes. As of September
2006, 7.5 million users were registered on the game's website. As of
February 2005, the Pentagon was investing about $6 million each year
in the video game.
In its defense, the Army's representative was asked (in an interview
with The New York Times) about the restrictions on younger kids to
which they responded:
"We have a Teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order
to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards.We
don't use blood and gore and violence to entertain. That's not the
purpose of our game.We want to reach young people to show them what
the Army does, and we're obviously proud of that. We can't reach them
if we are over the top with violence and other aspects of war that
might not be appropriate. It's a choice we made to be able to reach
the audience we want."
The answer, however, glosses over larger questions. Recently, the
U.S. Congress has been threatening to hold hearings on the use of
violence in video games, believing it to be excessive and harmful to
younger audiences who could become desensitized to violent
situations. Will they then call the makers of "America's Army" to
testify? Secondly, what are the ethical guidelines when recruiting
those under the age of 17? Is someone younger than 17 really able to
make an informed decision about their future? It appears that in an
race to keep recruitment numbers on pace, proponents have been
playing fast and loose with the country's international obligations
rather than heeding them.