I lay prone next to a wooden shed, my M16A2 up at the ready. In my sights was a lone enemy figure, some 50 yards away who had just entered my field of view. I bring up the rifle to quickly line up my rear sight with my front sight post. The sights bobbed just slightly to the rhythm of my breath, and as soon as I exhaled, I pulled the trigger. A sharp bang followed by a click.

‘What the hell!’ I thought. A malfunction, much to my dismay. I quickly performed SPORTS (Slap the magazine, Pull the charging handle, Observe the chamber, Release the charging handle, Tap the forward assist and Shoot), but I only got halfway through as the enemy combatant turned toward my direction and delivered a volley of return fire. I could hear wood splinters break off next to me as enemy rounds slammed into the shed and I crawled back for better cover. Sharp cracks from the enemy rounds punctuated my surrounding space and I quickly found myself staring at the dark sky, my vision fading from consciousness.

I was than treated to an aerial view of my teammates and reminder that the round still had a long way to go.”

Just another round in “America’s Army,” the official U.S. Army video game.

Genesis

The U.S. military always had a long-standing issue with recruitment, a problem that would ebb and flow during times of war and good civilian employment. As a result, each service would come up with unique ways to try to get young people interested in joining when Uncle Sam doesn’t have the legal authority to round them up. The Marines had their recruits slay a lava monster, the Air Force peddled their reputation for a high quality of life and abundance of opportunities, and the Navy had the village people. The U.S. Army had none of these, so they had to employ a wide variety of different marketing schemes to attract new recruits. Besides changing one of the best marketing campaigns of the 20th Century to one of the most ill-conceived marketing campaigns in the 21st century, or (maybe?) lowering standards, the Army looked around at what young people were doing and notice one thing in common: video games. Specifically, first-person shooter (FPS) video games.

Box Art (AA version 2) | Moby Games

The game was originally envisioned by Lt. Col Casey Wardynski in 1999, who at the time was the director of the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point. His idea was to reach out more effectively to young Americans, taking notice of the popularity of first-person shooters among his own young sons. This concept somehow survived the gauntlet of Army bureaucracy that befalls a litany of other “good-idea fairies.” and was given the go-ahead shortly after. The first official full release was in July 2002, dubbed “Recon,” which was a multiplayer component of the game. The game has gone through several different developers over the years, but the latest version is produced by the Army Game Studio, part of the AMRDEC Software Engineering Directorate at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville Alabama.

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This Isn’t Doom

The aptly named game, “America’s Army” (usually referred to as AA), was developed and released at a time when a litany of military-themed video games were becoming popular to the public. “Delta Force,” by Novia logic, a tactical first-person loosely based on actual Delta Force, was released in 1998, culminating in the very well received game and the better known “Delta Force: Black Hawk Down” in 2003. The first “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon,” another well-received tactical shooter, was released in 2001. “Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis” was also released in 2001 and featured both shooting and vehicle mechanics. For more arcade action, a popular modification to the base game “Half-Life” was released in 1999 called “Counter-Strike.” Widely popular due to the multiplayer mechanics, it became an instant hit with tournament play and would spawn countless sequels and versions.

It’s obvious there was already fierce competition in the video game market. “America’s Army,” faced with this type of competition and wanting to implement a vast option of gameplay mechanics, split the baby and took a variety of different elements from all of them.

Promotional Screenshot (AA version 1) | Nvidia

The base mode of the multi-player component of “America’s Army” consisted of a series of rounds where one team assaults an area with specific objectives (steal and transmit vital intelligence information, rescue hostages, eliminate the other team, etc) while a defending team tries to keep the other team from achieving those objectives. In almost every instance, each player has one life. If you get killed or otherwise become incapacitated before all the objectives are achieved, you will sit out in observation mode until the round is completed. Each team can also win the round by apprehending or killing the opposing team without even completing the objectives, which is how most of the games I played turned out. Later versions of the game introduced additional modes such as escort/ambush missions, co-op, and limited vehicle control.

Successful completion of various objectives and team commands enables the player to earn “honor” points, which are ripped straight from the Army Values. Advancing in honor levels allows the player to gain enlisted ranks all the way up to Sergeant Major (burnt out persona not included). AA placed a premium on team-based, coordinated gameplay, which has since become the norm with most current multiplayer FPS games.

Previous versions of “America’s Army” (AA & AA2) required players to undergo a virtual “boot camp” training, complete with an impassive Drill Sergeant, Basic Rifle Marksmanship Qualification, obstacle course and shoot house, to progress to the full online portion of the game.

AA2 added Special Forces to the mix, which required additional Airborne, explosives, advanced weapons, vehicle and medic training. Some of this required you to sit in a virtual classroom with other soldiers and learn from a side-show presentation, with a multiple-choice quiz requiring a passing grade. The final “FTX” consists of short training scenarios requiring you to use all those learned skills to complete the mission and thus earning your tabs. In between these classes, a user could always peruse the lobby and listen to actual stories from actual Soldiers that have earned various awards and accolades through combat operations (dubbed “Real Heroes”) and read their stories of bravery.

Further adding to the “realism,” if you fire your rifle on the Drill Instructor, or just decide to play green on green with fellow players online, the consequences will result in you sitting in a virtual brig for a certain amount of time. And no, you couldn’t just log off the game and escape your sentence. The game remembers and puts you right back in the brig when you log back on.

Screenshot of Gameplay (AA version 1) | Nvidia

Another interesting mechanic is that everyone plays as a U.S. Soldier in the game. You only appear as opposing forces (OPFOR) to the other team, and your objectives will change accordingly. So instead of retrieving classified documents, you are supposed to guard them against intruding enemy forces. Your weapons are also U.S. Army standard issued (M16a2, M4a1, M249, M9, etc) but if you come across an enemy’s weapon, it appears and functions as a Russian or OPFOR counterpart. It’s a pretty ingenious way of making everyone play as the “good guy” in every online match.

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FPS gaming mechanics that gamers see widespread use today, such as iron sights on weapons, using breathing techniques to steady shots, limited stamina, weapon malfunctions, locality-based damage on player’s models, realistic weapon loadouts, and the ability to go in a variety of different stances that determine accurate shooting, were all implemented first or expanded in “America’s Army.”

The Army also licensed the game out to be developed for consoles, specifically “America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier” for Xbox (a PlayStation 2 version was canceled during development) and “America’s Army: True Soldier” for Xbox 360. Both games were handled by the French video game publishing company Ubisoft, who also published the well-known Tom Clancy games.  Unlike the PC versions, the console had both single player and multiplayer gaming modes. In contrast to the free-to-download PC versions, these console versions were full priced products.  I have not played either one of them, but it appears that both games received rather average or poor reviews back in the day (if not outright protests from anti-war activists).  The latest version, “AA: Proving Grounds,” was released for both PC and later, PlayStation 4.

Beyond the Monitor

Keen to push “America’s Army” branding beyond the actual game, the U.S. Army released a set of figures bundled with a physical copy of the game. You can find official licensed U.S. Army figure playsets in toy stores today, but the “Real Heroes” action figures were specifically tied to the game. These versions were larger, more lifelike and sported more points of articulations than the ones geared toward younger children. More importantly, several of the figures were based on the actual “Real Heroes” highlighted in the game. Move over G.I. Joe, “Real Heroes” has come knocking on your door.

“Mom, it’s not a doll, it’s an action figure!” | Museum of Play

In addition to the video games and figures, a series of comic books was created to highlight the world-building aspect of the game. Most players could care less about the actual setting of the game or the pretend nation they are engaging in a virtual shootout with, but for those that do, they can refer to the series of comics. Like the game itself, it is competently drawn with professional artists. Some may find the story mediocre and the language a bit too “clean” compared to actual military experiences. Perhaps this was inevitable, being released as free to the public as a recruitment tool.

Sample from America’s Army comic | America’s Army

Criticisms

Obviously, a recruitment tool that is publicly funded by taxpayers that allow players to engage in virtual war with one another is going to draw criticism. The primary argument against this sort of project was cost. According to Wired, the game cost $32.8 million dollars over the course of eight years. The original scope of the project was actually $7 million dollars over five years, but mission creep grew the budget. All “America’s Army” games used variations of the Unreal Engine, a popular gaming engine used for many well-known titles released today. But this is a drop in the bucket to the overall Army marketing budget, which in 2016 was $686 million alone. The Army also claims it has used the software in various training products in-house, which can offset the initial development costs. Critics may correctly be worried about any perceived waste, fraud or abuse, but this is an actual product that came to fruition, within a reasonable amount of time and with few longstanding technical issues. If anything, the game is a testament to what the Army CAN do correctly.

Another criticism from activists is that the Army is directly funding a game that young people can download and engage in what is essentially a propaganda directed campaign to make “war” seemingly fun, all without showing the negative ramifications of experiencing death and casualties in real life. Which is true, but besides the technical limitations in reproducing those consequences, one can’t honestly expect the Army to include negative consequences in a product they themselves are funding. Plus, no other recruitment media is going to highlight the possibility of getting PTSD, or losing a chunk of yourself in a God-forsaken land due to an IED, or holding your battle buddy’s hand for the last time as the life drains out of his face. Nor can you expect a game to put you through an actual ten-week virtual boot camp only to lose your account every time you get killed in an online match. A person deluded enough to join the military based solely on the fun of an online game will quickly find the real military experience that much more disappointing, and if anything, fast track them into real life. For the record, I have never met any soldier that joined the U.S. Army based solely on their positive experiences playing the “America’s Army” game. The few that knew about the game that is.

You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out

“Don’t shoot me bro!” | America’s Army: Proving Grounds

So how is the gameplay? Fairly good, actually. Although personal preferences may vary, I believe AA2, which was released with the Special Forces component, was the best version of the game. The first release was competent but lacking in options and graphical fidelity. The foundation and gameplay, however, was excellent. AA3, which used the newer Unreal 3 Engine, looked better with higher resolution textures, better animation and more enhanced graphical effects. The rest, however, was a buggy, poorly optimized mess that was fixed far too late after the initial launch date. In a highly competitive environment of the FPS genre, where “Call of Duty,” “Battlefield,” and even “Counter-Strike” dominate the market, any mistakes during an initial launch will lose player interest fast. There is little incentive for players to come back with an initially buggy game, even if it is fully fixed.

The latest iteration, “AA: Proving Grounds,” learned much from the earlier mistakes of AA3 and even sought to attract players with the faster paced, more arcade style of gameplay. Unfortunately, this undermines the previous versions of realism and careful gameplay that many older players had grown fond of. The developers also did away with the required Basic Training stages (optional starting in AA3) and made it so anyone can jump into the multiplayer component instantly, although still retains the ranking and honor system.

Conclusion

Over a decade since the initial release, “America’s Army” has seen over 8 million accounts created (1.5 million for the latest version alone), as well as over 212 million hours representing some 3.6 billion rounds of online gameplay. How much of that has translated to actual people joining is impossible to say. However, “America’s Army” is such a success that it has garnished much praise and criticism among outlets that are rarely interested in neither. The Army has apparently found enough traction to continue support and release the game on additional platforms beyond the PC. The American public continues to change how it communicates and uses technology—it behooves the military to adapt accordingly. As I pointed out in my earlier articles referring to wartime U.S. propaganda efforts, there is no simple way to accurately gauge the success of a program through numbers alone—perhaps a comprehensive study of feedback from the public and individual soldiers that have actually invested time into the game. I’m sure the Pentagon has done that, but in every interview I’ve seen the spokesperson was particularly coy with that idea.

The gaming competition has only gotten that much better in recent years. Maybe it’s not fair to compare AA to the latest version of “Call of Duty,” “Battlefield,” Tom Clancy’s whatever, “ARMA” or even “Squad.” But all of those games cater to a specific audience that perhaps overlooks a key demographic that is more interested in a “realistic” Army sponsored FPS experience—a player demographic that may be more inclined to choose the military as an opportunity, unlike the other players. This remains a demographic that the U.S. Army continues to wager on with “America’s Army.”

Or at the very least, the game could save a few more lives.

 

Sources

*Featured image compiled by the author