Is America's Army a Recruiting Tool?

INTERVIEW Should the United States Army be in the business of developing combat video games that target youths? Should the Army even be developing video games with tax dollars? BetaNews sat down with representatives from the U.S. Army at E3 in Los Angeles to learn about the mission of America's Army.

BetaNews: What is the basic premise of the game itself?

Major Bret Wilson: The basic premise of the game is a strategic information tool to inform younger kids about what it's like to be a soldier, albeit in a virtual environment.

BN: That leads into the first concern that some of our readers had about the game itself - that it is a recruitment tool for the Army.

Maj. Wilson: Yes, that's something you hear in the media, but it's not meant as a recruitment tool at all. There's a couple suggestions when you call it a 'recruiting tool.' Basically, what you're saying is that it's whole purpose was to recruit, so the success of the game is contingent on how many people join the Army. But really, you can shorten the game down to a couple words - that being strategic communication. It's more about information and here's what I mean by that. Actually, do you mind if I go on a rant?

BN: No go ahead. That's the whole reason for this interview - for the Army to be given a chance to respond to some of the criticisms.

Maj. Wilson: Sure. Just to put it into perspective the times now versus the 1970s and before; Comparing those time periods, in the 1970s three out of 10 people had or knew someone who had experience in the Army, and could get information from them - your coach, you mother or father, your butcher. Then, when young men or women -- or at that time young men primarily -- made a career choice, the Army was one of those choices.

Let's transport that to today - now it's less than one out of 10. Even look where the army installations are located at nowadays - many of them aren't in major metropolitan areas. So what does that mean? Comparing those two different times, the opportunities for immediate contact are much fewer. So what are your sources of information? TV, radio, Rambo, etc.

Now let's put the game into that context, and the gaming industry in general. What's the market for those games? Generally, 13-18 year-olds, and that's where the Army wants to send it's message to. Because if you wait longer than that, chances are those people have already started to make choices about their preferences in life and their career choices. I guess my point is that's a target demographic.

So, put into that context you can understand the value of the message in the game. Look at how people get messages now through TV -- the networks NBC, ABC, and CBS -- in short 30-45 second spots on the Army. But as you and I know there's a much longer-lasting impression a gamer gets from a video game, and you can learn a lot from that virtual environment. So it just made perfect sense to take that vehicle and use it to its fullest potential.

BN: Instead of the more traditional channels of communication like phone calls, print and mailings, you are switching to gaming because you think it will be more effective?

Maj Wilson: No, I still think you are looking at it from a recruiting aspect and that's not the point.

BN: So it is more about what the Army does then.

Maj. Wilson: Right. And one of the keys to that message is that it's gotta be fun. It's got to be something that when kids play, they want to come back. And well, 5.3 million folks later, we feel we've accomplished that.

BN: To clarify your position, it is not sending a message of, "HEY! Join the Army," but rather, "Hey we're here, and here's an option."

Maj. Wilson: Exactly.

BN: Another issue that people had with America's Army is that it appears as if the game is based on current events -- that being Afghanistan and Iraq. Is the game actually based on these events, or a general battlefield?

Maj. Wilson: That's a good question, and we go to great lengths to ensure that we don't demonstrate real world scenarios or countries, or make suggestions of who our enemies are. That's why the enemy is fictitious, and the insurgent camp is just the insurgent camp, and the language they speak is gibberish and not a real language.

BN: The game is developed using taxpayer money. Why are gamers not paying for it so taxpayers get a return on investment? Many other games in the genre cost $30 to $40. Why is the U.S. Army giving it away for free?

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