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Uncle Sam wants you (to play)

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[U.S. Army]
After going through basic training in America’s Army, players head out on missions, such as this night assignment.

By CHIP CARTER, Times Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 19, 2002


America's Army is a free game packed with eye-popping, first-person combat simulation that's a hit with online gamers. But it also packs a strong recruiting message for the military.

An American soldier is in trouble.

He's cut off from the rest of his squad and looking for a way across an exposed rooftop. Terrorists in the desert below are launching grenades at him and his comrades. The soldier takes a deep breath, rolls to his left, springs to his feet and begins to sprint. He's greeted with a blinding flash and a deafening roar as a grenade lands at his feet.

Joe Iovino is dead.

No worries, though. Iovino, who's actually a senior at Wharton High School in Tampa, will be good to go again in a couple of minutes, as soon as the rest of his squad completes the mission. Iovino's playing the summer's hottest online game, America's Army, brought to you gratis by, well, America's Army.

The game is an eye-popping, first-person combat simulation two years in the making and takes players from basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., to action in hot spots around the world. Gamers can tackle missions alone on their home PC or join other combatants online.

The Army spent two years and more than $7-million to develop and implement the Windows game as a recruiting tool (a two-disk free home version will be available this month. You can register for a copy or download the online game at www.goarmy.com).
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[U.S. Army]

Iovino, an avid gamer, has been playing America's Army since "the day it came out -- I mean like the very minute," along with about 200,000 other gamers who have registered at the Web site since July 4. He guesses he plays up to four hours a day, then admits with a grin, "I'm running on, like, two hours of sleep."

As he hunts terrorists and handles weapons including M-16s and grenades, he's also getting a not-so-subtle sales pitch from the Army.

Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski, originator and director of the project, says America's Army is a "way to communicate the Army's values and opportunities to today's young Americans. Given the popularity of military games and the ability of a game to be a great medium for both entertainment and education, we believe that the America's Army game will be a very effective and cost-effective communications tool."
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[U.S. Army]
It’s not all of the fun and war games: America’s Army characters must attend basic training before competing online.

No question. Kids love games, and the $7.3-million price tag represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the Army's annual recruiting budget. But is there something kind of creepy about the Army plying recruitment-age teens with a free video game filled with virtual thrills and kills.

There are a dozen missions (more scenarios are planned at regular intervals over the next five years) that portray running and gunning action, but not one that has gamers peeling potatoes in a hot kitchen for 18 hours at a stretch.

"Or scrubbing the bathroom floor with a toothbrush," Iovino said. "That doesn't bother me. I know (if) I go there that's (part of) what I'll be experiencing."

But Dr. Sidney Merin, a Tampa forensic psychologist, says America's Army, which is rated T for Teen, raises some ethical questions. He isn't concerned about the older teens who get the recruiting pitch but about their younger siblings and peers who will likely be exposed to it as well.

"It's nice to think that only this 18-year-old will look at this or play it at home. It doesn't happen that way," Merin said. "You're going to have brothers and sisters and cousins and other kids 11 and 12 and 13 years of age who can't process or truly understand the reasons for this, and do not truly appreciate the difference between reality and this type of fantasy. They know it's fantasy, but they're very, very impressionable."

He also worries that "an arm of the government" has put its stamp of approval on a game that so eloquently depicts "maiming and killing" in a realistic setting.

Merin also says the Army may get more than it bargained for in terms of who responds to the pitch. "They're using very strong advertising to recruit certain types of personalities, a sort that has an interest in the military, which is perfectly acceptable. But you're also recruiting certain types of individuals who may be less emotionally stable than the military would like to have," Merin said.

The game was developed by the Army and the MOVES Institute at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif. Army experts put the developers through weapons and situational training intensive enough "to keep all our scenarios and missions true to life," Lt. Col. Wardynski said.

The result is an unqualified success from an entertainment standpoint. It's also breathtakingly realistic. Weapons are less accurate on the run than at a standstill, reloading occurs in real time and even breathing affects aim.

And America's Army is a graphic masterpiece, right down to the grimy hands that stretch out in front of you to do your dirty work.

Iovino says the game ranks in his all-time Top 10. "I fell in love with the way it looked the second I saw it," he said. "Everything was real. The guns, the grenades -- it was all there."

Iovino says military service "was a tiny thought in my head at the beginning of this year, but this game was the cherry on top. It has influenced me. I won't lie," and now he's thinking about a hitch in the Army.

Iovino goes back to his game, rejoining his online comrades for another mission. Cornered in a building, he takes several rounds from a terrorist's AK-47 and groans as his character drops to the ground.

"They don't really show you the gruesome part," he said, laughing. "They can't simulate the pain."

- Chip Carter is a syndicated video game columnist who lives in Tampa.

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