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Playing Army 

Priming future recruits with simulated combat

Published October 12, 2005 at 2:08 p.m.

Full Spectrum Warrior was the U.S. Army's strategy to get the biggest bang for its training simulator buck. Unfortunately, it was the video-gaming industry that scored the win and the American taxpayers who took the hit.

In the multibillion-dollar world of video games, simulated gunplay is about as old as it gets, and the "first-person shooter" is the virtual blueprint for any number of video games. Likewise, in the drill-intensive world of the U.S. military, daily life is a constant dress rehearsal for actual warfare -- at least, when it's not involved in the real thing -- and simulators have long been an essential tool in that training.

So it was inevitable that war games and video games would eventually find one another, especially since they target the same demographics. On July 4, 2002, the Pentagon unveiled the video game America's Army: The Official U.S. Army Game, online and in CD-ROM format.

America's Army was designed as a realistic simulation of what it's like to enlist and train in the military. Players progress through a series of individual and team-building training scenarios that include the use of "real" military weapons and tactics, advancing through cooperative games-playing until they reach the level of Green Beret.

America's Army is free to anyone who is 13 or older. According to the official website, recruiters don't have access to information about its users -- unless they volunteer it. Needless to say, the game offers plenty of opportunities for players to learn more about the Army, including the location of the nearest enlistment office.

The Defense Department hasn't published any data on the effectiveness of America's Army as a recruitment tool. But since the game's release, nearly 6 million users have registered on its official website. America's Army has since been updated at least 20 times and is ranked among the top five online computer games of all time. "Gaming is culture!" shouts a posting in the tournament section of the America's Army website. "To all you newcomers to AA, this is the place to be!"

Capitalizing on the game's success, and recognizing that many recruits would rather play a video game than read an Army manual, the Pentagon set its sights on commissioning an even more effective and realistic video game/training tool for its troops. Full Spectrum Warrior --in which the Pentagon invested $4.4 million to help develop -- was billed as "the most realistic portrayal of infantry-level urban warfare, with unique tactical-action gameplay." The product hit the streets in June 2004, but unlike America's Army, it came with a price tag for civilians: $49.99.

At first glance, FSW seemed to live up to the buzz that surrounded its predecessor. Experienced players say that, unlike a standard arcade game, FSW offers a more realistic version of combat's violence -- for example, it takes fewer bullets or hits of shrapnel to get killed, weapons run out of ammunition more quickly, and random acts of violence are punished. However, regular users also complain that it doesn't allow player-to-player competition. And, after the game has been played through once, the computer's tactic never changes, which lessens its replay value.

Nevertheless, Full Spectrum Warrior has won more than two dozen awards from computer-gaming magazines, as well as a "four out of four" rating from Playboy magazine and "five out of five" from Maxxim. PC Gamer called it "an intense and demanding simulation of modern urban combat." Globe Technology praised it as "a game without precursor and brimming with innovative game play." And Gamers Mark described it as "intense, authentic, immersive, sometimes comical and most importantly, just a fun game."

"Comical?" "Just a fun game?" The U.S military isn't supposed to be in the fun-and-games business -- and not everyone is laughing. "The result," according to the nonpartisan budget-watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, "was a best-selling video game that has become a cash cow for the game's developers but left the Army with a sub-par training tool."

Earlier this year, Taxpayers released a report revealing how FSW failed to live up to its intended purpose as a realistic simulator of real-world urban-combat warfare. In 1999, the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), which is based at the University of Southern California, was created with the explicit purpose of building computer simulations of 21st-century warfare scenarios. According to the report, the Army awarded ICT a $45 million grant to develop various military projects, including FSW.

The final product was released in 2004. Though visually spectacular with excellent commercial viability, it proved to be a less-than-stellar training tool from a military standpoint. Fred Lewis, a retired rear admiral in the U.S Navy and president of the National Training System Association, told Taxpayers that the game "represents a training tool of limited value." Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel James Riley, chief of tactics at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and one of the primary overseers of the development of FSW, said the game was "incredibly shallow" with a "very limited set of situational challenges to put the guys through."

That's not all. Taxpayers also discovered that not only did the FSW project lack sufficient military oversight to make it a meaningful and useful training tool, but the contract with its private developers did little to ensure that taxpayers got the best possible return on their investment. Although the U.S. Army put up $4.4 million for the game's development, the U.S. government has yet to receive reimbursement or royalties on that investment. The U.S. government even has to pay Microsoft an Xbox licensing fee for every copy of the game delivered.

Despite such shortcomings, in November 2004 the Army awarded ICT another five-year, $100 million contract to come up with new virtual simulators. Among the ideas that were floated was an initiative to build a real-life "holodeck," the ultra-realistic fantasy simulator that was regularly featured on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Dr. Harry Kloor, a NASA consultant and writer for "Star Trek," told Taxpayers for Common Sense that the holodeck idea was a "fraud" that could never be built.

Apart from the unrealistic expectations of computer games as realistic simulacrums of war, there is another unanswered question: What's the value of training U.S. military personnel with tools that anyone in the world, including America's enemies, can easily download with nothing more than a laptop computer?

"They're really just teamwork-building things," explains Steve Bauman, editor-in-chief of Computer Games magazine of Richmond. (See related article, p.36A.) "They're certainly not teaching you how to use weapons. They'll be of no benefit to you in a real-world situation."

The real point of games like America's Army and Full Spectrum Warrior, says Bauman, is their ability to "brand" young people on the idea of the U.S. Army, making it a regular part of their daily lives. That said, Bauman is also skeptical of video-games critics such as Colonel David Grossman, a psychologist and former Marine Corps "killologist," who suggests that first-person shooter games desensitize kids to violence and teach them to accept killing as normal.

"I think there's a disconnect there," says Bauman. "Using his logic, playing NBA Live is training me to be an NBA player. And I'm thinking that's not gonna happen."

Or, as Ben Hatfield, a digital media critic and computer artist in Missoula, Montana, puts it, "If the armed forces were advertising the life of a soldier being akin to video- game experiences, I would call that false advertising . . . The emotions in warfare situations cannot be simulated in a game with no real-life consequences."

Until, that is, the Army releases Full Spectrum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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