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Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Army to potential recruits: Wanna play?
By Jim Downing
He hoisted his M-16 and stepped into the clear.
A rifle report split the air. He fell back behind the pillar.
"We didn't have good cover," Henry later recounted. "I kept getting shot in the foot."
Back in the real world, a drizzly recent Saturday in Woodinville, Henry's toes were intact. He was in the final round of a video-game tournament sponsored by the U.S. Army.
In 10 minutes, Henry, 18, was "dead," his position overrun by five "soldiers" from Bellevue.
It's been such a hit that the Army has recently gone one step further with the game, organizing video-game parties around the country like this one in Woodinville, offering free game play, free "chow" and plenty of exposure to the Army's recruitment tactics. Woodinville and Bellevue recruiters plan to repeat the events every three months.
The Army makes no bones about the fact that it designed the game to attract a new generation of potential soldiers reared on ever-more-realistic video games. Information on joining the Army is a mouse-click away through an Internet link.
Since the Army released the game in July 2002, it has proved to be a low-cost advertising jackpot. The game has been downloaded more than 16 million times, and the Army estimates that nearly a third of all young people of prime recruitment age have been exposed to it.
The critics say the new round of America's Army tournaments is just one more way for recruiters to get into the heads of impressionable high schoolers, a notion the Army rejects.
"I think [the game is] particularly questionable and exploitative of young people because it develops attitudes and propensities among younger children [more] than most of the other recruiting tools do, and at a more subliminal level," said Todd Boyle, of Kirkland, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran and founder of Washington Truth in Recruiting, a group that provides parents with information about the military that counters recruiters' messages.
"The Army games are particularly objectionable because they also include an indoctrination component, deepening the ideology of war," Boyle said. The games are "preying on [teenagers'] natural interest in affiliation all Madison Avenue stuff."
Last month, Sgt. 1st Class Alvin Martin, one of two recruiters at the Army's Woodinville office, rented a computer-gaming business called LanWerX for the tournament. The same day, recruiters hosted a parallel event at another LanWerX branch 12 miles away in Bellevue.
Martin put up fliers and made phone calls to offer free food and a day of free America's Army gaming to any interested boy, girl, man or woman over age 13 no commitments required. A khaki Humvee was parked outside.
Thirty-five players showed up in Woodinville to compete. The six winners then took on the winning team from the Bellevue tournament, via a high-speed Internet connection.
"It's like they were all Special Forces," Henry said.
Martin, a 17-year Army career man, wore his camouflage field uniform and combat boots for the event. The Army looks for "that outgoing personality" in its recruiters, he said.
Martin disagrees with critics who see the game as a sinister way for the Army to get into the heads of ever-younger children.
"This isn't some kind of psychological thing to brainwash anybody," he said. "It's getting the U.S. Army name out there in a positive light.
"It's like Coca-Cola. You see the shape of the bottle and you know what it is. It's branding."
Martin signed up one new recruit from the Woodinville tournament. From the Bellevue event, recruiters said last week they have signed up one new soldier and are finishing testing and background checks to sign up two others.
In the recruiting game, that's a pretty good rate of return. At a recent series of three tournaments in New York City, recruiters generated 320 new leads but only two enlistments. Each new soldier counts. Together, Martin and his recruiting partner in Woodinville, Sgt. 1st Class Harold Hunt, have a 46-enlistee annual quota.
Across all the armed services, recruiting costs about $4 billion annually, according to a 2003 government study. Between 1998 and 2002, the military's annual advertising expenditures alone more than doubled, from $299 million to $607 million.
That's why the America's Army video game has proved such a bargain. The first version cost $7 million; costs of updating the game and operating the America's Army Web site are about $5 million per year.
A survey by the Army this year showed that 29 percent of all young American adults ages 16 to 24 had had some contact with the game in the previous six months.
As part of the recruitment effort, Martin brought in active-duty soldiers with battle experience to join in the tournament.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Selves, an infantryman in Haiti in 1993, said the video game portrayed the Army's weapons, equipment and approach to small-squad warfare quite well.
"You learn a lot of the tactics that we use on the battlefield," he said. "The whole purpose is to minimize casualties."
What the game lacks, of course, are real bullets.
"It's a game," Selves said. "It's not your life."
At the Woodinville tournament, Henry was joined by several young men who had already enlisted; they declined to be interviewed. Others said they were there only for the game, which drew mixed reviews.
"This game actually kinda sucks," said 19-year-old Matt Rayfield, of Monroe. He said he prefers a game called Counter-Strike. And he said he doesn't plan to enlist.
"Getting shot isn't as much fun as it looks," he said.
Henry said he likes the action in the America's Army game. But what he is really excited about are the job opportunities in the Army. And recruiters, he said, have been offering to bring order to his life.
Henry has attention-deficit disorder and struggled to graduate from Bothell High School last spring. He said he had been spending most of his time since then "lounging at home."
Henry was interested in the Army before he played the game, but the tournament, he said, is one of the things making him feel better about signing up. The Army says he has to lose 30 pounds first, though.
"The Army is talking to me about how quick I'd rise in the ranks, how they'd pamper me if I did a good job in basic [training]," he said. "They'll have me take a survey, and they'll put it in a computer and it'll spit out what I'm good at."
Jim Downing: 206-515-5627 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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