By Bill Shein
February 19, 2010
War is many things, but it's certainly not a game. That's why we
can't allow a violent video game – designed by the Pentagon
specifically for children as young as 13 years old – to be used as a
military recruitment tool.
Over the last decade, the U.S. Army has spent more than $33 million
to develop, launch, and market an online, multiplayer, "first-person
shooter" game called "America's Army." It can be downloaded for free
by anyone 13 or older. It's also available for Xbox and PlayStation.
Launched in 2002, it's now in its third major release.
Like other violent video games, America's Army boasts an "immersive"
experience, featuring highly "realistic" imagery of military
operations, "realistic" sounds of weapons, and "realistic" missions
against a digital enemy known as "OpFor," or "opposition force."
A Gamespot.com review praises audio that "helps you feel like you're
really in the middle of brutal firefights." Which, of course, you're
not. Another review gushed over the way players are wounded and
killed: "It's pretty realistic – you take one or two shots and you go
limp, you take one more and you're done."
How do we know what was spent to create America's Army? It took a
Freedom of Information Act request by Gamespot.com to unearth the
budget. But the Army claims that releasing full details would be
"damaging to the U.S. Army's position in the video-game industry."
The Army has a "position" in the video-game industry?
The Pentagon points out that the game includes "training" exercises
that must be completed before entering "combat operations." The
training highlights teamwork, leadership, and following rules of
engagement – components, it says, of real-life military training.
To its credit, the Army is open about the game's recruitment goals.
The game's Web site features many links to goarmy.com. It also
includes sections about army careers and profiles of soldiers under
the heading "Real Heroes" – seamlessly merging "fun," video-game
fiction with real-life soldiering.
In testimony before Congress, the Army has boasted that America's
Army is its most effective recruitment tool. A survey at Fort Benning
conducted by the game's developers found that fully 60 percent of new
recruits played the game at least five times a week. Four percent
said they enlisted specifically because of the game.
And a 2008 MIT study found that "30 percent of all Americans age 16
to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game
and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than
all other forms of Army advertising combined."
At present, the game has nearly 10 million registered users.
America's Army tournaments are held regularly online and around the
country. To participate, sometimes you have to contact your local
recruiting office, as was the case with a contest in Odessa, Texas,
earlier this month.
America's Army is rated "Teen" for "blood and violence." Yet there's
no mention of real war or violence on americasarmy.com. The puffs of
"blood" in the game aren't real. Instead, gamers are told that in the
military, "You will discover a life filled with adventure and meet
other smart, motivated people like you."
The bottom line? To penetrate youth culture and boost enlistment, the
Pentagon has merged entertainment with war in a highly sophisticated
way. But as noted in a devastating ACLU report in 2008, America's
Army violates the U.N. Optional Protocol to the Convention on the
Rights of the Child – which the U.S. Senate ratified in 2002.
Among other responsibilities, the Optional Protocol requires that any
recruitment of a child under 17 take place only with the approval of
a parent or guardian. Yet parental consent in not required to play
America's Army. This is one of many reasons that citizens and parents
must demand that Congress close down this project.
Of course, that's unlikely. Why? Because it was Congress, in 1999,
that called on the military to find "aggressive, innovative
experiments" to increase enlistments.
Mission accomplished. But at what cost?