Thursday, August 07, 2008

America's Army On the Radar

The US Army's online, first-person shooter game America's Army, has been getting a lot of heat these days, as international criticism grows around the game's function and targeting as an army recruitment device. Peace activism groups and civil rights groups are particularly concerned about the fact that the game is targeted to young boys, aged 13 to 16, and that the Army is using the game to specifically target boys from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. One of the major issues here involves international laws around child soldiers. As anti-war group Direct Action to Stop the War describes on its website:
The military recruitment of children under the age of 17, however, is a clear violation of international law (the U.N. Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict). No attempt to recruit children 13-16 is allowed in the United States, pursuant to treaty.

The group points to a recent report published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), entitled Soldiers of Misfortune, which describes various ways in which the US Military is using Pentagon-produced video games, military training corps, and databases of students' personal information to recruit youth under the age of 18...oftentimes during school class time, and disproportionately targeted at poor and minority students. The report itself is well worth a thorough read - the descriptions of the intimidation and coercion tactics used by the military recruiters sent to interact with American high-school students are positively chilling. In terms of the America's Army videogame, the report includes a fascinating analysis of the game's success and function within the army's larger recruitment strategies [Note: The report also makes some brief claims about media effects and videogame violence that I think are unsubstantiated, and anyway not within the focus of this post, and therefore not included in the following excerpt]. Here's an excerpt:
The Army uses an online video game, called "America's Army," to attract young potential recruits at least as young as 13...As of September 2006, 7.5 million users were registered on the game’s website. As of February 2005, the Pentagon was investing about $6 million each year in the video game.

Launched in July 2002, the video game is a recruitment tool that aims to generate recruits. According to Army personnel testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the goal of the then-new recruiting effort that included the "America's Army" video game was to penetrate youth culture and get the Army into a young person's "consideration set." The game's website features a link to the Army's main recruiting website. According to a survey of recruits at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army’s video-game development team found that about 60 percent of recruits had played "America's Army" more than five times a week, and four out of 100 said they had joined the Army specifically because of the game.

"America's Army" explicitly targets boys 13 and older. On the video game's official webpage, in response to the frequently asked question "Should Children 13+ Be Exposed to What the Army Does?," the game's Army developers argue it is suitable for children as young as 13, stating, "In elementary school kids learn about the actions of the Continental Army that won our freedoms under George Washington and the Army's role in ending Hitler's oppression. Today they need to know that the Army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms." As quoted by the New York Times, the video game project's deputy director stated, "We have a Teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards... We don't use blood and gore and violence to entertain. That's not the purpose of our game... We want to reach young people to show them what the Army does, and we're obviously proud of that. We can't reach them if we are over the top with violence and other aspects of war that might not be appropriate. It's a choice we made to be able to reach the audience we want."

Hmmmm...my keen sense of the obvious is picking up on a pretty deep contradiction here. However, I do agree with the deputy director's assessment that wars are filled with "aspects" that are not appropriate for children. *shudder*

Anyhow, the game and the ACLU report are both making headlines. For example, Michael B Reagan's article for Truthout, which is getting a lot of bloglove, traces the game's evolution from its release in 2002 at the E3 convention, to the huge problems with portraying war as blood-free. Other articles, such as Keith Stuart's contribution to The Guardian Game blog, point out that America's Army is hardly alone in promoting a "positive representation of the army experience". Meanwhile, Andy Chalk's recent post for The Escapist News discusses the Direct Action to Stop the War inclusion of Ubisoft in its public criticisms of America's Army, for the company's role in the development and distribution of console versions of the game.

I suspect that we'll be seeing a lot more controversy around this issue if/when the US Army opens its first "Army Experience Center, a combination recruiting center/video arcade/retail store to promote serving your country." According to an article by Holly Sanders that appeared in the June 15th edition of the New York Post:
Rumored to be coming to Times Square, it'll be like the Disney Store, except with guns and camouflage. The 14,500-square-foot center will be a multimedia extravaganza with high-tech gadgetry, including flight simulators and life-size soldier video games.

That person greeting you at the door? That's an actual Army officer.

While the Army will sell a small amount of merchandise at the venue, the focus is on building "brand experiences" that give potential recruits a taste of military service.

The reason I've added the "if" (above) is that the Post isn't exactly a reputable publication, and I haven't been able to find any coverage that doesn't trace back to it as the original source. On the other hand, there are currently a lot of job postings looking to staff something called "Army Experience Centres" (for example, this one), although the employer is listed as "confidential" and so these don't quite support Sander's story...yet. But this is definitely something to keep an eye on over the next several weeks. The convergence of marketing, gaming and military recruiting isn't something I've been following too closely, but now that studies are showing the extent to which this phenomenon involves kids and teens, it's not likely something I'll be able to ignore for much longer.

Update: Sept. 5, 2008: Confirmation! : According to the MediaPost the Army Experience Centre, a military-run arcade and recruitment centre, did indeed open this week in Philly. Check out the full story here.

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