A military convoy--two humvees, an ambulance and three five-ton trucks full of civilian evacuees--is bumping its way along a snow-swept high-plains dirt road. Suddenly a shout comes down the line: "Contact front!" It's an ambush, with gunmen on both sides of the road. Soldiers on top of the five-tons return fire with mounted machine guns. The clatter is deafening. The truck beds fill up with hot, bouncing, jingling brass shell casings.
A few of the civilians wave at the attackers, who continue to blast away. The convoy drives on, past the fray. The rear humvee, its driver obviously bored with the proceedings, wanders off the road to chase a cow.
This isn't a real ambush, and the convoy isn't in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's in Guernsey, Wyo., about 90 miles north of Cheyenne. The attack was staged by the U.S. Army for the benefit of about 35 computer programmers--the civilian evacuees--who work on a government-sponsored video game called America's Army. It'sa handy training tool for soldiers, but the game's primary mission is to recruit: to persuade the millions of young people who play it on their home computers to go from virtual soldiers to real ones. The programmers are in Guernsey to make sure that the game is as realistic as it can be. But is it real enough?
America's Army, in which the military has invested $16 million, is the brainchild of Colonel Casey Wardynski, director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. "In 1999 the Army had had two bad years of recruiting," Wardynski explains. The Army's square, earnest message of honor and patriotic duty wasn't connecting with the next generation of potential soldiers. "This was a solution to the problem." The military has a long history of playing around with war games for their educational benefits, but America's Army was a different animal altogether. The game is also a giant ad aimed at the public--at the 13-to-24-year-old demographic, to be specific, and it has hit its target squarely. Since it was released on July 4, 2002, America's Army has signed up 4.6 million registered players, and it adds 100,000 new ones every month. According to an Army study, 30% of Americans ages 16 to 24 say that some of what they know about the Army comes from the game.
Two things separate America's Army from most other video games. One, it's free: anybody who wants to can download it gratis at www.americasarmy.com or pick up a disc from an Army recruiter. The second is its extreme emphasis on authenticity. All weapons and vehicles in the game are meticulous virtual models of the real thing. "We don't want it to be like, 'He's not holding that right. That button isn't right,'" says Phillip Bossant, the game's art director. "We don't want the shell to eject from the wrong side." Players have to go through simulated Army training before they can enter combat, and the game emphasizes teamwork and the rules of engagement over freelance gunplay. If you shoot civilians or your fellow "soldiers," you'll be sent to a virtual Fort Leavenworth.