After two years of development, the game, called America's Army, was released at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a sort of annual pilgrimage for video-gamers that draws some 60,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center. What happened next surprised all: The Army didn't just have a new recruiting tool, but an actual market hit. It quickly became one of the top 10 most popular games on the Internet, and within its first five years, some 9 million individuals had signed up to join America's video-game army, spending some 160 million hours on the site and making it one of the top 10 of all video games, online or otherwise.
From the Army's perspective, commercial triumph was secondary. Its goal was to recruit. And at this, too, the game proved to be a wild success. To log on to the game, you have to connect via the Army's recruitment website and fork over your information. Gamers can also check out profiles of current Army soldiers and video testimonials of why they joined. Just one year after America's Army was released, one-fifth of West Point's freshman class said they had played the game. By 2008, a study by two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that "30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined." Notably, this is from a game that the Pentagon has spent an average of $3.28 million a year developing and promoting over the last 10 years -- compared with the military's roughly $8 billion annual recruiting budget.
Playing a game is different than actual combat, but the level of competence that can be achieved virtually is amazing.
America's Army quickly expanded from a potent recruiting tool into a valuable training system for soldiers already in the military. Military contractor Foster-Miller's Talon robot, for example, is used widely in Iraq and Afghanistan to dismantle roadside bombs, the most deadly weapon used against U.S. troops there. The game's Talon training module cost just $60,000 to develop, but took training in how to operate robots in war to a whole new level. "Prior to this, the only way to train was to take the robot and the controller to the trainees, give them some verbal instruction, and get them started," Bill Davis, head of the America's Army future applications program, told National Defense. "This allows them to train without breaking anything."
But with these advances, it's getting harder to figure out where the games end and the war begins. In Talon the game and the real-life version, soldiers are watching the action through a screen and even holding the very same physical controllers in their hands. And these controllers are modeled after the video-game controllers that the kids grew up with. This makes the transition from training to actual use nearly seamless. As one Foster-Miller executive explained to me, describing the game's training package for the Talon's pissed-off big brother, the machine gun-armed Swords robot, "With a flip of the switch, he has a real robot and a real weapon." Because of "the realism," he said, the company is finding that "the soldiers train on them endlessly in their free time."
I've read in other places that these sorts of games can also teach players important tactical lessons, such as how to properly clear a building, advance under cover, provide covering fire, perform flanking maneuvers, and so forth.