It is an online, multiplayer video game that they believe will lure teenagers into Army culture, hoping both to educate them about the military and to spark interest in volunteering to serve.
The game, dubbed America's Army, employs a realistic and team-oriented approach to give players a sense of what it is like to join the Army, to train how to use weapons and then how to work together on missions. Players progress through the game and its many updates in a variety of ways, learning how to jointly accomplish military tasks while using different skills, such as fighting as an infantryman or saving lives as a medic.
First-time visitors go through weapons training on the game Web site and learn how to jump from airplanes. They are punished for their "criminal" mistakes -- such as shooting the drill instructor -- by doing time at Fort Leavenworth's prison. Then players join others from around the country on virtual missions, helping one another move through lifelike scenarios.
"We want kids to come into the Army and feel like they've already been there," said Col. Casey Wardynski, who as director of the Army's office of economic and manpower analysis came up with the idea. "A game is like a team effort, and the Army is very much a team effort. By playing an online, multiplayer game, you can get the feel of being in the Army."
Wardynski began developing the game after a similar recruiting crisis in 1999, when top Army officials were looking for a way to reach out to potential recruits with minimal cost. Wardynski wanted an economical way to counter pop-culture images of the military with a no-nonsense approach to being a soldier. The game, he decided, would provide a gateway to information and entertainment, targeting boys 14 and older.
With many potential recruits put off by images of basic training and drill sergeants, Wardynski said, the game tries to break down those barriers.
"It's designed to give them an inside view on the very fundamentals of being a soldier, and it's also designed to give them a sense of self-efficacy, that they can do it," Wardynski said. Players start out completing obstacle courses and learning how to fire realistic Army weapons, such as automatic rifles and grenade launchers. "We want them to see that they can succeed in doing this. You don't have to think what it would look like -- you can see what it looks like."
Since the game's launch in 2002, nearly 5.4 million users have registered on the game's Web site, and more than 2 million users have passed through basic training in the latest version of the game, which focuses on the Special Forces. Wardynski said the game and its nearly 20 updates have been downloaded 20 million times, and recruiters have issued almost 2 million copies of the game on CD-ROM. The Army also has licensed the game for release on Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation platforms later this year.
Although the game runs through its own Web site ( http://www.americasarmy.com/ ), its developers purposefully built privacy into the game -- no personal information is gathered from players. Army officials know how many people have registered and how they are doing within the game, but have no way to contact the players individually. There are links within the game for those who want to contact a recruiter or to learn more about the Army.
Recruiters have used the game, however, to get people to come to them. America's Army is the subject of gaming tournaments around the country, giving recruiters an opportunity to interact with people already familiar with Army basics and might be more apt to join.
Sgt. 1st Class Bo Scott, recruiting station commander in Newport News, said he was able to meet 70 people at a recent tournament he sponsored with a local college. Out of the group, one video gamer has already enlisted through his office, and another has contacted him about signing up.
There are no statistics about how many people have joined the Army because of the game, or after playing the game, but Army officials have plenty of positive anecdotes and say it can only help in a very difficult recruiting environment.
"The game is never going to overcome someone's trepidation and fears regarding the ongoing war on terror," Scott said. "But it does get some people talking to recruiters who might not have otherwise. It opens a window, and if they look in and they decide to join, great."