Video game offers young recruits a peek at military life

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Daniel Dodd is just what the US Army wants. He recently turned 18, and he's interested in serving his country. Most important, he's very good at working on a computer. And it is his near-obsession with computer games that recently brought the United States Army across the personal radar screen of Mr. Dodd, whose college major is computer programming.

This past week, he made the trip from his hometown of Paducah, Ky., to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the annual video-game trade show in Los Angeles. There he found the showcase for the Army's latest gambit: a video game that shows young men and women what Army life is really like.

"I would definitely consider giving my skills to the Army," says the short-haired blond as he plays through a simulated battle scene. "But if nothing else, when I get back, I'll go to the website and download the game and play it just for fun."

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This is music to the ears of Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski, who has brought "America's Army" to the Internet. "We look for ways to pay for our tanks," says the career officer, who teaches at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

In recent years, he says, Army recruiters have complained that with the passing of a generation of veterans who've seen active duty in wartime, recruiters have fewer resources with which to communicate about Army life with a younger generation.

Enter the hands-on experience of the college professor. "We noticed that the kids were going to the Internet for their information," Professor Wardynski says. "If we want to communicate with this generation, that's where we have to be."

Scheduled for summer release online, the game is the Army's shortcut to reaching the computer-literate recruits it needs to run its increasingly high-tech weaponry.

The PC software has two parts. "Operations" is a first-person shooting game that actually simulates battle and strategic-warfare situations. "Soldiers" simulates daily life in the military.

"From the barracks to the battlefield" is the way the game developers describe what they've created.

"This is the forward-thinking Army," says Brian Ball, lead designer for the software development team.

While Army spokespeople hope this software will attract recruits, they are quick to point out that this is entertainment-style information, not instruction.

"This isn't going to teach anyone to shoot," Mr. Ball says. "This is goodwill. If someone walked in, played this game, and said, 'I want to be in the Army,' that would be great. But that would just be the beginning" of the individual learning about the Army.

Sensitive to the notion that Army video games could trivialize warfare and destruction, Ball says the software is intended to be as realistic as possible. The Army aims to convey a realistic image of military life, as opposed to one in which violence is seen as entertainment.

"We don't downplay the fact that the Army manages violence," he says. "We hope that this will help people understand the role of the military in American life."

"We know the Army is not a game," Wardynski adds. The economics professor says the software represents an investment on the part of the Army, one that will pay off over time.

The cost of developing this game represents a tiny 2/10ths of 1 percent of the Army's recruitment budget, which means that if the game brings in just 300 to 400 recruits, it will be justified economically.

But that's just the beginning of the investment and the return for Army intelligence. "We can use the initial game the recruit played to track them through the Army," Wardynski says. "We want them to be successful." The simple act of playing a game will allow the Army to better place recruits, evaluate their progress, and ensure that their abilities are utilized well.

Meanwhile, Dodd doesn't know if the Army is for him or not. But after returning to the booth three days in a row to play the battle-situations game, he says the software is detailed enough to help him make a decision.

It "provides great information," the teenager says. "This would probably spark an interest. I don't know how I would have found out so much some other way."

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