Jul 31, 2008

World - Army trys virtual game to attract civilians

GURNEE, Ill. -- In the Tweety Bird section of the parking lot at an amusement park here, visitors are trying a new attraction. They jump into Humvees or Black Hawk helicopters and use fake firearms to hunt down "genocidal indigenous forces." They shoot at huge video screens.
"I like that I got to use a gun!" said 13-year-old Spencer Padgett, after trying the "Virtual Army Experience." His dad, Scott, from Laporte, Ind., said he wanted his son to gain an appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the Army.
The Virtual Army Experience -- a traveling exhibit of the U.S. Army -- has been touring the country for the past year and a half, stopping at amusement parks, air shows and county fairs. The Army, which collects information from the thousands of people who play the game, says it's an innovative way to reach a new audience. But critics don't like the idea of the military using giant videogames as a recruiting tool.
While the Army met its goal of adding 80,000 new soldiers last year, it faces a tough recruiting environment. These days, "parents are less likely to encourage their children to consider military service," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
The Virtual Army exhibit is based on a videogame the Army began developing in 1999, after missing recruiting goals. Not only do videogames give the Army a new way to relate to the public, they also present "an opportunity to shape their tastes," said Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point.
The Army spent about $9 million building four versions of the Virtual Army Experience, Col. Wardynski said. It cost $9.8 million last year to operate the exhibits. This year, the main exhibits will visit 40 events. The smaller "Delta" version will visit 31 separate events.

"It's catering to the interest of America's youth," said Nicholas Mantych, 21, from Genoa City, Wis., who recently tried the Virtual Army game. He suggested another idea the Army could offer players: "They should give them gear and paintball guns."
Recent player Miles Cahill, 23, who works at a videogame retailer, said the Army's game wasn't as good as other shooter games he's tried, but it was still fun. He didn't mind the marketing aspect.
"Beer companies have hot women. They have a videogame," he said.
The Virtual Army set up camp for nine days this month outside the Six Flags Great America amusement park here. Ads throughout the theme park touted the Army's attraction. One read: "Bumper cars or fully loaded Humvees?"

A chain-link fence cordoned off the Army's 19,500-square-foot exhibit. VAE adviser Lt. Col. Randall Zeegers, 6 feet 5 inches tall, saluted children as they passed and posed for pictures.
"There's no sales going on here," said Lt. Col. Zeegers, who added that the goal of the VAE is primarily to educate the public. "It's another way to tell our story ourselves."
Those who want to try the game are asked for their age, address, phone number and email, and the information is entered into a database. Players are also asked whether they want to join or learn more about the Army. Local recruiters can contact promising leads, if they are at least 17, within 24 hours.
Players file into an air-conditioned trailer, filled with computers and Xbox 360 consoles, where they wait to be briefed. Then Staff Sgt. John Harper explains the mission: Genocidal indigenous forces are attacking international aid workers. It's up to the players to protect them.
Participants enter a dark, inflatable dome. They climb into one of six modified Humvees or two Black Hawk helicopters. Each vehicle, mounted with fake M-249 Squad Automatic Weapons and M-4 rifles, faces three huge screens where the videogame is projected.
Players fire air-pressured guns, meant to mimic the recoil and kickback of real ones. The ethnicity of the bad guys they shoot at is ambiguous. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire blares from the game's speakers and the Humvees shake from the simulated blasts of roadside bombs. Some participants hoot and holler. Despite the nature of the game, there is no blood or guts on screen.
Scores are higher if players only shoot people in uniform; they lose points for firing indiscriminately or at noncombatants.
A Bit of Reality
At the end, there's a bit of reality: Silver Star recipient Sgt. Jason Mike, 25, is introduced and the crowd applauds. He talks about his experience in Iraq and encourages the players to visit the Army's videogame Web site.
Interacting with soldiers after playing the game is key, said Eric Johnson, president of Ignited, an El Segundo, Calif., marketing company, which helped design the Virtual Army Experience. "Even the most cynical come out with a better appreciation," he said. "They tend to be more receptive to the message that the Army is trying to send to them."
The majority of those who play the Virtual Army game aren't a good fit for the Army, Col. Wardynski said. Of the 55,200 people who tried it last year, about 2,200 met the Army's age qualifications and showed an interest in enlisting.
Most are like Megan Horton, 24, who enjoyed playing but isn't interested in enlisting. "I think I shot, like, 10 'friendlies' " -- the characters that players are supposed to be protecting -- she said.
Not everyone supports the Virtual Army. During Summerfest, a recent 11-day music festival in Milwaukee, organizers say hundreds of people called to complain about the presence of the Army's game there. In response, the Army modified the exhibit there so users played a target-practice game instead of battling indigenous forces.
Other critics say the Army's videogames don't give an accurate portrayal of war and Army life.
"War is not a game," said Sholom Keller, national membership coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War, who said he served in the Army from 2001 to 2005 and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There is only so much the Virtual Army Experience can do to depict Army life, and it does a better job than a 30-second commercial, Col. Wardynski said. "Because it's game technology, does that make it evil? I don't think so," he said.
Enlisting First
Michelle Naleck, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress from Wauconda, Ill., tried the Virtual Army Experience at Six Flags. "It's not real life, but it kind of gives you an idea of what to expect," she said. Ms. Naleck recently enlisted in the Army.
She's not a gamer and didn't fare well at the game, she said. But the exhibit wouldn't have had an impact on her decision to enlist, she added. "I wouldn't take such a big step in my life just because of a videogame."
Mr. Mantych, the 21-year-old from Wisconsin, had also already enlisted in the Army before he played the game. While he was trying the virtual experience, he was thinking about things other participants probably weren't, he said. "This is going to be me in two years, but in a real-life situation. And I'm going to have to kill people and use real bullets."
He was set to ship out to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri last week.

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