Like Video Games? Uncle Sam Wants You

By Heather Newman Knight Ridder Newspapers
The game is war.
Whether that war is played out on the streets of Baghdad or on the screen of a video game is a line that is blurring more and more as popular video games are made from military training simulations.
In fact, the military is using video games to reach new recruits for real-life service, and soldiers are playing their favorite battle games in even the most remote outposts.
Take "America's Army," a hugely successful video game developed by the U.S. Army that has new console versions coming out this fall and a new PC version due in the winter. A cell phone version is expected next spring.
"It started as a means of communicating with the youth of America about the Army," says retired Maj. Chris Chambers, deputy director of the project. The Army knew it wanted to reach potential soldiers in as many ways as possible, he says.
So while the Army was developing "An Army of One" television ads, reaching out to surfers on the Internet and advertising with NASCAR, it also started putting together a video game with civilian developers hired in-house. It was a reaction to the explosive growth in both the Internet and gaming, he says - an online video game that pits player against player in a conflict that adheres to Army values.
"It made sense, more and more, to embed Army messages in those venues," Chambers says. "It became an overnight success."
The first version of the game was released July 4, 2002. There are more than 5.5 million registered users now, and about 100,000 more join every month.
But "America's Army" has proved just how powerful a team video games and the military can make. The Navy is releasing its own game later this summer, and others are expected to follow suit.
Although the Army doesn't track how many of its recruits are "America's Army" players, it does have a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest the game has been successful, Chambers says.
"We do know that our game is being consumed in huge numbers, and that means our message is getting out there."
Although the game is realistic in terms of the Army's "ethos - what makes us tick and why we do things," he says - it's far from a perfect replica of what being a soldier is like.
"We didn't want to educate youngsters or our foreign audience in something that could be used outside the game," he says.
The developers of "Full Spectrum Warrior" faced the opposite challenge: taking a video game that had been made as a brutally accurate military training exercise and turning it into a commercial success. It takes the player and puts him or her in the role of an Army squad leader tackling military missions.
The game began as a research project between the Army and the University of Southern California to create a virtual training program.
"The rationale was that video-game developers were much better suited to create the immersive virtual training simulations required in the 21st-century Army," says William Henry Stahl, project director for the game at Pandemic Studios. "The Army would control the content, while actual production would be handled by the developer."
Pandemic, which owned the technology used in the game, shopped it around to commercial publishers after it started attracting a lot of attention. Eventually, THQ picked it up, the developers retooled it for a commercial audience, and it became a strong seller. A sequel, "Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers," is in the works.
The Army had much less creative control over the retail version, but Pandemic still frequently asked for advice on the details, Stahl says.
"I do foresee more collaboration between the military and the private sector with regards to training simulations like 'FSW,' " he says. "The fact is that video game developers are much better suited to create the content - they have the infrastructure and the talent. For the military enthusiast, it gives them a much more accurate representation of what it is like to be in modern combat. For other gamers, it's an opportunity to experience a fresh take on an old video-game genre."

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