Update: It's New Year's Day and Ars staffers are enjoying a winter break (inevitably filled with some wishful vacation research and cooking). As such, we're resurfacing a few favorites from the site archives—like this look at how the military has used video games (and vice versa). This story originally ran on December 7, 2008, and it appears unchanged below.
The branches of the United States military have had a strong presence in video games since the dawn of the medium, with appearances in genres from primitive arcade shooters to real-time strategy, first-person shooters, scrolling shooters, to the occasional beat-'em-ups. Few of these titles have actually had official military involvement or input, but recently that has begun to change. Not only have the different branches sponsored "official" games, but they have also used serious games to provide training for their soldiers. So the recent news that the US Army has decided to invest $50 million into video game development was not much of a surprise to the industry. After all, the Army has realized that video games are immensely useful tools, both for capturing the public's interest, as well as training soldiers in the art of war.
America's Army, the free-to-play first-person shooter that aims to give players a taste of what it's like to be a member of the Armed Forces, has been around since 2002. The shooter has garnered a number of awards over the years, and has managed to attract several million players on both PCs and consoles. While it has certainly proved popular with gamers, it isn't an outright recruitment tool in its own right. A more accurate description of the game would be that it's an aid in the recruitment process.
I have several friends from college who have downloaded the free shooter for their computers and have enjoyed it immensely. It's clear that the game paints an adventurous pictures of the armed services; the recent decision of at least one Wisconsin youth to enlist after the game increased his interest shows it can effectively captivate young minds.
Recruitment, not training
Is America's Army a kind of Last Starfighter, with recruiters actively seeking out those who are top players? Hardly, but the military has found it to be useful as a way of engaging and communicating with today's youth. Public Affairs Officer Richard Beckett revealed that, these days, America's Army is used for social events like LAN parties. Such game-centric gatherings are part of the Army's "Future Soldier Sustainment" program.
"Events like LAN parties are useful because we want [the recruits] to see the recruiters as regular folks, like themselves… and to help future soldiers to stay the course," he told Ars. Enlistees don't leave for Boot Camp immediately, since the delay between signing up and shipping out can sometimes be upwards of six months. Army recruiters try to keep these future soldiers involved with military community so they don't drift away while waiting to ship out. A sense of inclusion and a certain comfort level does wonders for cold feet.
Captain Brian Stanley, the Fresno Company Commander, agreed that America's Army is an important outreach tool. "[These events] are a way to get kids involved in the concept of teamwork. They can mingle with Army guys, and we look for the team leader in the squad. If they're interested, they come talk to us anyway."