Jack Thompson is at it again. His most recent hysterics revolve around the “unholy alliance” between the United States Department of Defense and the videogame industry, which he says is teaching kids “that war is glamorous, cool, desirable, and consequence-free.” But despite the glaring nonsense, it has focused attention on an issue that some people, particularly non-gamers, find controversial and in many ways disturbing: The use of videogames as a recruiting tool for the United States Army.
A brief recap: In 2002, the U.S. Army released the first version of America’s Army, an Unreal-powered first-person shooter that purported to offer a “realistic” look at the firearms and tactics currently in use by the military. The freely-available game was initially developed to bolster both public relations and the ranks, but proved immensely popular with gamers and quickly became one of the most popular online shooters available. Following that success, numerous updates and news versions have since been released, including ports to Linux, Mac OS X and the Xbox 360.
But the game’s propagandistic roots remained, and in light of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually grew in significance in the eyes of many. While most gamers saw it as nothing more than a cool (and free) shooter, questions about its efficacy in selling the army to the next generation continued to hang overhead. Thompson’s penchant for the spotlight notwithstanding, legitimate concerns were being felt.
It may not be surprising that a federally-funded videogame promoting the Army life is looked at somewhat askance, but the fact is that it’s a long way from a concerted effort to turn children into the dead-eyed, remorseless killing machines of the future. Aside from being impossibly paranoid, it also overlooks one simple fact: This is nothing new.
“Join the army” jingoism has been with us for over a century, and while formats have changed, the message, and the target audience, has not. Easily the most famous of these efforts is the stark “I Want You” series of posters featuring a scowling Uncle Sam jabbing his finger directly out at his audience. Originally based on a 1915 British poster, the iconic American image was created in 1917 to encourage enlistment for the country’s entry into the first World War, and then brought back to serve the same purpose for the second World War.
The advent of television led to changes in how the Army sought to fill its ranks, with televised ads urging viewers to “Aim high” and “Be all that you can be.” These were staples on the tube for years, and last I checked the Marines are still looking for a few good men. My own memories of such efforts from my days of youth include listening to a barrel-chested “Queen’s Own” chorus booming out “There’s no life like it!” in a sad attempt to convince people to sign up for what little remained of the Canadian Armed Forces. It didn’t do much for me; helicopters and machine guns are cool, but being alternately yelled at and shot at, in my estimation, is most definitely not.
Recruitment through the use of America’s Army (and, to a lesser extent, Full Spectrum Warrior) is simply the next step in the ongoing evolution of military advertising. Recruiters have to follow their audience; posters appealing to a sense of duty and sacrifice may have been adequate a half-century ago, but society and the nature of human interaction has changed. Just as “King and country” has been supplanted by dental benefits and a college degree, so to have the methods of getting and keeping the attention of potential enlistees shifted with the times.
Advertising has been refined and honed to a razor’s edge, swamping consumers with a sensory overload of stuff to buy and things to do. But along with this, news and information have also achieved an unprecedented level of ready availability. So while shooting up the bad guys in America’s Army is obviously a more visceral experience than walking past a tattered patriotic mural, gamers also have the ability in a matter of seconds to switch from their fun to a detailed and unsparing look at the reality of active duty military service. The increasingly incisive advertising we’re faced with is counterbalanced by the ease of access to information we enjoy as a society.
The idea that videogames as a recruitment tool is somehow more harmful or morally objectionable than the more time-honored methods of talking people into signing up fails to give adequate credit to gamers. There is a tremendous gulf between “Playing America’s Army is cool,” and, “Being in America’s Army is cool.” At most, the game may encourage players to further investigate the military life, presumably leading to the kind of real research (or at least a few minutes of soul-searching) that should take place before a decision of such magnitude is made. But unless you’re willing to buy into the idea that today’s youth are a whole lot stupider and more impressionable than those of generations past, the suggestion that playing a videogame in the comfort of your living room will somehow translate into vastly increased numbers of people willing to sign up for two years or more of the army life is absolutely ludicrous.
There have always been people who find the act of recruiting from the nation’s youth an odious policy in and of itself. From that perspective, “recruitment” is simply a more polite term for cynically preying on those too uneducated or naive to know when they’re being taken advantage of. And there are also significant numbers of people who think that the Army is an excellent choice for young adults, offering both an honorable career and a great step up on the rest of their lives. But regardless of the perspective, the morality of active recruitment is completely independent of how it’s undertaken. What makes exhorting teenagers to join up through a videogame a more dubious prospect than a poster, a television ad or even a movie?
Games take heat because of unresolved concerns over their effects on youth, fueled by unsubstantiated hype and outright lies. But in the end, advertising is advertising and, to borrow a phrase, sometimes a game is just a game. As videogaming became a dominant form of entertainment, elbowing aside traditional print and video media, it was inevitable that advertisers of all stripes would want a piece of the action. While the Army isn’t the first organization to turn the medium into the message (see the Ford Racing series for another example) it is the first one to meet with the massive levels of success achieved by the America’s Army franchise. For this, we can perhaps blame them for being innovative and forward thinking; but to suggest anything more sinister or harmful, especially in light of a century of precedent, is completely off-base.