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Blurring the Lines

Tuesday, June 25, 2002 by TheDoc

Written by: Bob Mandel

In the quest to satisfy popular cravings for utter authenticity in replicating warfare on the virtual screen, computer game producers have tried every gimmick in the book to get casual customers the highest level of realism. But one option has not occurred up to this point: having the professional military - those most expert in the conduct of violent conflict - design and execute the offering. Soon all this is going to change, thanks to a bold initiative by the United States Army, which is preparing its new free game entitled America's Army. This title promises to provide civilians with a unique inside look at the U.S. Armed Forces. With over 1.2 million soldiers in the active Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve, and more than 210,000 soldiers defending freedom in over 120 foreign countries, there is little doubt that the U.S. Army is the premier land force in the world. The budget for America's Army is similarly large, reportedly between six and seven million dollars. This column intends to explore the fascinating, yet in some ways paradoxical, gaming implications deriving from this new groundbreaking effort.

The basic concept has fascinating origins. Lieutenant Colonel Casey Wardynski, the originator and Army project manager for America's Army, was well aware, thanks to his two boys, of the popularity of Army-oriented computer games such as Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor. At the same time, in his role as the Director of the U.S. Army's Office of Economic & Manpower Analysis (OEMA), Wardynski was well versed in the roadblocks to communicating with young Americans about Army career opportunities. Being in a position where senior Army officials look to him for advice on such issues, Wardynski developed a study proposing the use of computer game technology to provide the public a virtual soldier experience, and in August 1999 he presented his idea to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Military Manpower. In January 2000 the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs selected the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California to develop the game, and work began in earnest in June 2000.

America's Army blends two separate play experiences: Soldiers, a role-playing exercise in which you develop a virtual military career, and Operations, a first-person action shooter. In Soldiers, you encounter technical and physical challenges similar to issues soldiers might face in their first tour of duty: You build your career from a variety of occupational specialties, including air defense artillery, combat engineering, defense intelligence, electronic systems maintenance, infantry, medical services, military police, public affairs, Special Forces and transportation. How well you manage six resources (health, strength, knowledge, skills, finances and popularity) determines how fast you achieve your goals. In Operations, up to 32 players may participate with the U.S. Army on team missions that are five to 15 minutes long. The gameplay, which is similar to the Half-Life MOD Counter-Strike, features 20 single and multiplayer missions in a team-based, objective-oriented format. The two experiences are interconnected, with attributes accumulated in one context shaping opportunities in the other.

The online multiplayer missions will be played on servers run by HomeLAN. As in any team effort, communication is central, so you will be able to utilize different radio messages, shouts, whispers and even genuine Army hand and arm signals. There will be about 20 missions: One includes hooking up with the 172nd Brigade to thwart terrorists planning an ecological disaster along the Alaskan pipeline; another has the 82nd Airborne seizing an airfield in the swamps near the Joint Readiness Training Center. A third challenges the 75th Ranger Regiment to disrupt illegal arms transfers. As is readily evident, America's Army will not be a run-and-gun kind of offering.

The U.S. Army has decided to use blue chip components to develop America's Army. Despite having its own expertise in gaming combat (the Army war gaming center at Army War College in Carlyle, Penn., along with the Navy war gaming center at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., are well known for their efforts), the Army chose to license Epic Games' Unreal Engine to power the title. The award-winning Unreal Engine has already been licensed by many of the recognized leaders in PC gaming such as Electronic Arts (Clive Barker's Undying and Adventure Pinball), Infogrames (X-COM Enforcer and Epic's own Unreal Tournament) and Eidos (Deus Ex). The development team also has worked with leading firms such as Dolby Laboratories, Epic Games, GameSpy, HomeLAN, nVidia and Lucasfilm.

America's Army will contain unparalleled military realism. The authenticity promises to be uncanny, far beyond what has ever been achieved in a commercial computer game. From the way soldiers carry guns to the way infantry units move around (motion capture animation of real soldiers in action is being used), nothing will be artificial. Realistic infantry roles such as fire team leader, grenadier, rifleman and sniper operate exactly according to Army doctrine. The military hardware replicates actual weapons models, even accounting for reload rates and the impact of temperature, humidity and wind: these include assault rifles, assault rifles with grenade launchers, compact rifles, sniper rifles and grenades. In your tactics, the laws of land warfare and realistic rules of engagement bind you. There are real questions, however, about whether gamers genuinely want or would honestly appreciate this level of ultra-realism. Sometimes real world constrains can make their recreational pastime less entertaining.

Perhaps most surprising about the Army game is that it attempts to teach players the Army's seven values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. These values are critical in Soldiers to how you coordinate resources, react to challenges and pursue your careers. A personnel folder contains a summary of how you are doing; Operations players can view your folder and use that information to determine if you are a desirable candidate for a specific team. To ensure you are constantly promoting the values of the American military, you never take on the role of the enemy in Operations. Whenever you play, you see yourself as an American soldier and your opponents as terrorists (who are specifically not profiled or stereotyped as being members of any particular religious or ethnic group), while at the same time opponents will see themselves as American soldiers and you as the terrorist. There also is a blanket prohibition against shooting other American soldiers; even the slightest friendly fire incident automatically ejects you from your current session.

From a propaganda perspective, the Army appears to have released this product at an ideal time. The tragic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 no doubt has added to the receptivity of a game of this sort. With a wave of patriotism sweeping through the United States, the Army believes this new computer game can serve as a novel recruitment tool to encourage young people, particularly teenagers who are addicted to computer games, to consider pursuing a military career. Combining education with positive publicity, America's Army seems, at least on the surface, to be a way to eliminate ignorance, apathy and antagonism concerning the armed forces all in one fell swoop. The Army would try to use this offering to open up its ability to engage in strategic communication with Internet-savvy young Americans.

From a national security standpoint, however, there are a couple of worries surrounding issues of dissemination. The problem with government-created missions is that they could signal to terrorists valuable clues about exactly the kinds of coercive threats the United States military thinks it is likely to face in the future. Terrorists could then respond by developing attack plans quite different from the anticipated scenarios. Furthermore, if plans exist to distribute this game in other countries hostile to the United States, there might be dangers that we would be giving away to potential adversaries our training, command-and-control or standard field operating procedures. While these apprehensions may seem initially farfetched, there are real questions about how those unfriendly to the United States or unsupportive of American objectives might use the lessons taught in America's Army.

Regarding social impact, other complexities emerge. What with continued concern about violence in computer games, a government-created shooter could stimulate a new wave of objections from politicians who believe this trend threatens to destroy the very fabric of civilized society. Groups that hate violent games might be worried this kind of enterprise would, in some ways, serve to legitimize it. To reach the broadest audience, America's Army is rated "T" for Teens by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, with the depiction of blood limited to small red blotches. There will not be any gore or dismemberment when you hit an opponent. Unfortunately, the result of this decision is the public has little chance of learning through the game about the truly intense pain and suffering experienced in actual battlefield combat.

From our perspective as gamers, with particular regard to the maintenance of a coherent computer gaming community, still other reservations surface. Diehard gamers may feel the counterculture, anti-establishment nature of their virtual escape from reality is being co-opted through America's Army by the existing power structure. Some have expressed downright queasiness at the thought of playing a game designed by the American government military, even if the action is wonderful. Other players, particularly those who thrive on devious underhanded tactics to succeed in virtual competition, may be upset about having to stick to a straightjacketed code of chivalrous conduct.

Non-American gamers living in countries where the government military is not widely respected may resent having to take on the perspective of an official state army. While many of us are used to computer games incorporating advertisements, using a government-created offering to stimulate an already violence-prone generation of young people to get excited about preparing for real-life coercive action is something that may please neither onlookers nor aficionados. Thus, it is not clear that this development is an unambiguous boon for gamers.

To sabotage this noble attempt by the United States Army to spread its values, I can easily see rebellious, unauthorized hacks quickly emerging that let you play terrorists, kill American soldiers or violate the stated principles of integrity within the America's Army game. There could be the same fiendish sense of glee by those who undertake these disruptive acts as evidenced when hackers have broken through the safeguards of American national security and intelligence websites. While it could be argued that these acts of virtual vandalism are ultimately not all that dangerous or damaging, these unruly steps could set in motion a cycle of boorish and costly behavior that would serve nobody's interests.

For those who nastily responded to my earlier column that nobody would extrapolate success in a computer game to success on a real-world battlefield, they need to think again. America's Army will be made available to the public in July for free. The Army plans to first distribute the game via Internet download and afterwards make CD-ROMs available through the web. After that, distributable CDs will begin to appear in late July and in August. In addition, you may obtain the game by purchasing selected major computer game magazines that will carry it or even by grabbing one at Army recruiting stations. The title will soon be available everywhere, forever blurring the distinction between simulation and reality.

If one wanted to look at this development optimistically, there is the possibility that future international conflict could become virtual: The United States Army would develops its own games, interoperable with war games developed by rogue states, and then we could wait and see who wins in virtual combat without shedding a drop of real blood in the process. Even if this rosy outcome never occurs, this release could trigger increased competition among the military services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard) in the future to see whose offering is most effective or who gets highest magazine review rating. If the armed services are successful in developing a game for the masses, maybe other branches of government, such as the Commerce, Treasury or State Departments, will try to create their own offerings to increase public understanding of their goals and to enhance recruitment. Regardless, all of us will soon have the opportunity to be all the gamer we can be by joining the virtual army and valiantly defending the American way of life.

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