February 25, 2005 The statistics for the "America's Army: Operations" computer game are surreal. Launched on July 4, 2002, the game was downloaded by more than a million people in the first fortnight and the total number of registered on-line players is now approaching five million, making it one of the five most popular on-line PC action games because of its absolute authenticity. It aught to be authentic - it was developed by the US Army and at a development cost of just US$7.5 million, it might just be the most effective on-line advertising spend in history to this point in time ... and now there's a sequel.
"America's Army: Operations" was an unqualified success in many ways. It certainly enrolled America's youth through providing the most authentic military experience available, from exploring the development of soldiers in individual and collective training to their deployment in simulated missions.
The game gives youngsters the opportunity to step into a Soldier's boots and explore, through virtual scenarios, Army life from basic training to combat deployments.
Conceived and managed by the Office of Economic Manpower and Analysis at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., "America's Army: Operations" is distributed free by the Army to give players the chance to explore training and education as integral elements of a Soldier's development.
In the game, players explore individual and collective training events from Initial Entry Training to the Special Forces Qualification Course. As players successfully "complete" each course, they gain new capabilities and can embark on adventures ranging from assignments with the 82nd Airborne Division to direct-action special-forces missions.
"The game is largely an educational tool, that is packaged in a fun and engaging way," said COL Casey Wardynski, the Army Game Project originator and director, and OEMA director. "Our overall goal for the game is to open a new channel for communicating with Americans about soldiering. In the game, young adults can explore our training, our units and our operations, as though they were in the Army."
By engaging players' imaginations and immersing them in a virtual Army experience, the game has placed soldiering front and center within popular culture, Wardynski said.
Gamers have completed more than 16 million Internet downloads of the game and its upgrades. They've spent some 60 million hours "completing" more than 600 million virtual "missions" ranging from airborne training at the Joint Readiness Training Center to the rescue of humanitarian-aid workers threatened by terrorists.
Soldiers are also drawn to the game because of its realism and fun factor. Since Soldiers are the Army's ambassadors, when they register to play "America's Army" they can also register to carry the Army Star in the game by providing their AKO or other military e-mail address.
To date, about 6,000 Soldiers have registered to carry the star and have achieved a sufficient level of standing in the game to have the star associated with their game personas. When these Soldiers play ""America's Army: Operations," the star identifies them to other gamers as Soldiers who can provide actual Soldier stories to other gamers through an integrated player-chat tool.
Players now host Internet game fan sites around the world. They provide more than 1,500 community game servers to host online play. Given this level of activity, it is not surprising that 29 percent of young Americans ages 16 to 24 report that "America's Army" is one of their leading sources of positive awareness about the Army.
"'America's Army' has exceeded our expectations and proven the value of games as a medium for communicating Army messages," said Bob Strahler of the U.S. Army's Brand Group at the Pentagon.
Recruiters are now using the game in local tournaments to spark the interest of potential recruits. They also incorporate the game in their delayed-entry program to sustain enthusiasm of new recruits through organized tournaments and competitions. In this way recruiters can use the game to emphasize the importance of teamwork, leadership and communication in the Army.
"The game works so well because it brings out the kind of young men and women we're looking for, (being) competitive, motivated, people who want challenges," said Dale Terry of the Pittsburgh Recruiting Battalion.
The America's Army Web site also provides a ready resource for those interested in hosting or creating game events. At this site recruiters, Soldiers and anyone else interested in hosting a game can obtain the necessary information and resources. Those resources include banners, game disks and tournament prizes, as well as access to support staff to assist in creating, managing and publicizing events.
"One of our key goals is to ensure that the game represents a current view of the Army and its operations," said Christopher Chambers, deputy director of the project. "There is a great deal of interest in special forces, and we built the SF version to bring more attention to units that are in high demand in the war on terrorism."
The recently released "America's Army: Special Forces" is the follow-up to "America's Army: Operations", which was released on July 4, 2002. In "America's Army: Special Forces", players attempt to earn Green Beret status by completing individual and collective training missions drawn from the Special Forces Assignment and Selection (SFAS) process
Players who complete the SFAS process have the opportunity to take on elite Special Forces roles and are qualified to play in multiplayer missions with units ranging from the elite 82d Airborne Division to the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Agencies ranging from the U.S. Navy to national laboratories now apply the "America's Army" platform for such things as mission rehearsal and training, and the development of new combat systems.
For example, developers at the U.S. Army Armament Research Development and Engineering Center use "America's Army" to model future weapons and fire-control systems.
The Talon explosive ordnance disposal robot training device is the first major system to emerge from this work. Using "America's Army" development tools, ARDEC has developed Talon models to train EOD teams in the use of this new system.
"America's Army" is an ongoing effort that will continue to expand in the breadth of occupations incorporated into the game and the depth of experiences Soldiers confront and dominate, Wardynski said. "Just as the Army is a dynamic organization, the game will remain a dynamic platform through which young Americans will be able to learn about the Army."