Sun, Dec 11, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The art of war in digital gaming is worrisome


As the situation in Iraq gets bloodier and more uncontrollable, who would take on the task of promoting the idea of enlistment to America's youth? Step forward Colonel Casey Wardynski, who is deploying perhaps the most cost-effective recruitment method presently available to the US Army -- a war game.

Whereas television advertising costs between US$5 and US$10 per hour to get the US Army brand in front of each viewer, the program Wardnyski is supporting costs an average of US$0.10 per hour, based on the US$2.5 million annual running costs for the Web site where the game America's Army is available for free download.

And people are playing: 29 million have grabbed a copy, and there are 6.1 million active users.

But that's only the start. The whole purpose of America's Army, a first-person-shooter simulation of army training and combat whose development began in 1999 and which was launched in 2002 (on July 4, Independence Day, of course), is to recruit more soldiers.

"Players can download it free from the Internet, and use it to try the role of [a] soldier, virtually, and see if it's something they want to do in real life," said Wardynski, who has a doctorate from Rand and is a professor at West Point Academy, the US's pre-eminent military tuition college, at the first Serious Games Summit in October last year.

In fact, between 20 percent and 40 percent of new US Army recruits have already played the game. The strapline on the console version, just launched in the US and due to be in the UK by Christmas, gets to the point: "Our game developers don't rely on imagination," it says.

So is the marriage of war and games inevitable? After all, humans play games for wonderful, enriching reasons -- and sometimes for no reason at all. But they have always played games to prepare for war.

Some of our earliest and most enduring board games, such as chess and Go, began as teaching tools for the children of kings and emperors.

Through such games they understood strategy, imagined the battlefield and saw the consequences of attack and defense.

It should be no surprise that a walk down the aisles of any computer games retailer can seem like a visit to your local military academy. From Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion to Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, whether the scenarios are fantastic or grittily realistic, the arts of war are represented and celebrated.

But we should be aware that this link between digital gaming and the military is more than just the latest expression of an enduring human tradition, or the populist instinct of a highly commercial sector. These links are explicit, current and increasingly overt.

As Heather Chaplin, co-author of Smart Bomb, a new book on the games industry, says: "I spent four years walking into the offices of upper-echelon games developers, and can't think of one who hadn't accepted an invitation to work for the CIA, the FBI or the Department of Defense. It is amazing how willing the people in the industry are to give their talents and time to military purposes."

Figures detailing the success of America's Army were presented at the summit -- sponsored by the US Army -- in Washington last month, and as one journalist put it, "the army's experiment in serious gaming is starting to look like a franchise."

As industry veterans will readily tell you, games don't get to be a franchise if the gameplay isn't very good. America's Army is the result of an intense embrace between the best talents of the game business and the recruitment and training imperatives of a military superpower.

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