September 20, 2006
U.S. Army's New Game Emphasizes "Real Heroes"

While The Marines may be aggressively exploring MySpace as a recruitment tool, the U.S. Army plans to build on its hugely successful new media tool to get the attention of young people: the video game America's Army.

The newest campaign is a new game based on the lives of eight actual soldiers who have fought in either Iraq or Afghanistan, to show the true "heroes" of the Army--and, to increase recruitment numbers, to encourage players that they could be one of these heroes outside of a gaming space. The new program is called America's Army: Real Heroes, using these characters for its Special Forces game.

According to a colonel who was quoted in the AP story, the initiative hopes to "put a face on soldiers so that kids can relate to them," with a product specifically aimed at attracting teenagers.

But, rather than simply acting as as free online tool to attract the interests of potential recruits, the Army is also using this as a fundraising technique, since the military organization is also launching a line of action figures to be in stores during Christmastime, thus taking a page out of the savvy business marketing of cartoons and films. The action figures (or dolls, if you want to make the Army folks uncomfortable) will cost about ten bucks.

The AP story emphasizes that the game costs about $2.5 million annually for distribution, calling it "a first-person shooter in which players go through a simulated boot camp or team up with other real players online in three-dimensional battles," and might even let his/her bias show a bit with the reminder that this is "a taxpayer-funded game."

Since recruitment numbers were down last year, there is some thought that the revamped version may be aimed at getting numbers back up, perhaps hoping that an even greater emphasis on "realism" will make the game more relevant to players.

While some real people appeared in the latest game, America's Army: Special Forces, the story emphasizes that they are not paid for their likenesses in the game, since it is distributed for free. And I saw an abnormal number of Kentuckians among the few soldiers depicted, so I guess I could really imagine myself as one of these real heroes.

I was initially somewhat concerned at the idea of players using these real players as avatars and then vicariously dying through them on the battlefield but was at least releived to find that "the idea is to provide an education experience in which gamers can meet the soldiers in a virtual recruiting office, ask questions about their various experiences and awards and get a better sense of Army life."

The game is certain to cause some critical attention. Those opposed to the recruitment tool are surely going to have a problem with further glorification of war, especially with the idea that teens should take on these soldiers as "role models," as one soldier suggests in the AP story, considering that this notion of heroism is tied up with the Iraq war that is part of an American public opinion divide. But, the Army and the game's many supporters make claims to creating a greater sense of what the Army is really like and a chance to communicate over these issues.

This is not a new debate; it's one that's been raging by academics, critics, and fans of the game since 2002. However, with the new insertion of "real heroes," I'm sure the debates over the importance of these games and their impact on recruitment and public perception of the Army will continue to be a source of controversy.

Thanks to Margaret Weigel for pointing me to this article.