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Opinion

US military is meeting recruitment goals with video games – but at what cost?

Amid a soaring suicide rate among soldiers, it’s worth looking at how the Army’s aggressive video games distort our impressions of war.

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Part of the new campaign, helping the post-9/11 recruiting bump, was the free video game America’s Army. Since its release, different versions of the war game have been downloaded more than 40 million times, enough to put it in the Guinness book of world records. According to a 2008 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”

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America’s Army targets 13-to-21-year-olds. The T for Teen rating was attained because designers were, as one Army spokesman said in 2002, “very careful on the blood thing.” Designers emphasize the game’s realism, but the game is only realistic on a superficial level. Their conception of authenticity consists of realistic movement, gun clips that fall away at the right speed, and night vision goggles that make the same exact whir as the actual goggles do.

The Navy’s 10-page graphic novel, “Bravo Zulu,” aimed at minority high school students, was released in May. Its plot is as cartoonish as its sound effects: “KLANK,” “FZZZZZZZ,” “KA-KREEK,” “FZAAAAAAT.” The Army’s graphic novel, “Knowledge is Power,” was released in tandem with “America’s Army 3.” The graphic novel portrays a staff sergeant surviving an explosion unharmed. His exclamation to the rookie soldier who saved him implies that this shows it was wrong to be “worried about bein’ here!”

That these efforts are unfaithful to war’s reality has not gone unnoticed. Protesting the Army Experience Center in Philadelphia, Sgt. Jesse Hamilton, who served two tours in Iraq and nine total in the military, expressed disgust that the Army has “resorted to such a deceiving recruitment strategy.”

It’s an approach that could have detrimental long-term effects. “The video game generation is worse at distorting the reality” of war, according to one Air Force colonel. Although they may be more talented at operating predator drones, the colonel told the Brookings Institution, “They don’t have that sense of what [is] really going on.”

With the war in Iraq and America’s surge in Afghanistan, heavy deployment cycles will undoubtedly extend the military’s current “stress window.”

“This is not business as usual,” said Mr. Chiarelli of the “devastating” suicide rate.

To be sure, Vets from World War II and Vietnam had shell shock and PTSD without video game recruitment, but targeting teens with video games and graphic novels that ignore the psychological realities of war is not the way to solve the recruitment problem at a time when the psychological health of those who are sent to Afghanistan and Iraq should be a top priority. If recruiting goals can’t be met without employing these deceptive tactics, the military must do better at explaining just how current engagements protect American interests.

Jamie Holmes is a research associate at New America Foundation.

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