Driving into Swindon over the weekend, I was delighted to see a posse of fighter planes swooping low over the city, targeting smart bombs into the locker room where the policeman who pulled me over at 2am and spent 45 minutes giving me the third degree before fining me £60 for having a dirty number plate, was getting changed to go on shift.
Imagine my disappointment when I realised that the planes were actually engaged in a basic PR stunt. What credulous youth could fail to rush to the nearest booking outlet to buy tickets for the Fairford Air Tattoo after witnessing such a glamorous display of blazing after-burners and Biggles-like derring-do? In fact, what citizen could fail to feel a deep sense of security knowing that should terrorists attack, our lads will scramble into the skies and fly about in funny formations with red, white and blue smoke trails billowing behind?
Tragically, this recruitment technique is awfully old hat, terribly British and really rather quaint. As anyone in the media will tell you, America is always five years ahead of the UK. (Like a lot of media wisdom, this is nonsense: if America was always five years ahead of the UK, it would have won the World Cup in 1961). But in the case of military recruitment, I have to confess that the received (oxymoronic) tabloid wisdom is true.
In the UK we spend a few hundred thousand on an advert featuring a Land Rover driving off the road into a tree, and a bunch of old crates dancing around over Swindon. In the US they spend $6.3m on America’s Army – a PlayStation experience designed to ensnare young geeks into thinking modern warfare is a bit like the normal geeky delights of life (ie, something pleasurable you do late at night alone in your bedroom: for an earlier generation it was masturbation, these days it’s playing computer games).
America’s Army broke cover at E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles. According to Marc Salzman of USA Today (my thanks to Tompaine.com for the information). “the game is the first computer product created… to give an accurate depiction of army life”. Marc doesn’t explain how it succeeds in persuading gamers to take a four-hour route march in sub-zero temperatures in their underpants whilst being humiliated by a psychotic Texan sadist who thinks they didn’t clean their sneakers properly, but hey, that’s just a minor detail.
Actually – listen up Borkowski, you smart-arse Polack scum – “America’s Army is a communication tool designed to show players what the army is: a high-tech, exciting organisation with lots to do”.
There are two games. One is Operations: Defend Freedom, the other is Soldiers: Empower Yourselves. The first lets you sign up for basic training, the airborne division, and sniper school. Then you can try out any of 20 missions, with as many as 32 players. The object is to reach the end of the mission without getting your balls blown off. (True to life, you can opt to play Cock-up In Cuba, Bye Bye My Lai and there’s a mid-mission R&R porn-break via a link to www.jiggy-jiggy.com).
Then you can pop off to the fridge, crack open a bottle of Bud, and return for hours of fun empowering yourself as a soldier. This lets you follow any of the career paths in the army – infantry, combat engineering, air defence artillery, special forces, e-warfare systems maintenance, public affairs, chemical, transportation, medical, military police and military intelligence – and if you hit the exit button at any point, the screen knots a noose out of a sheet, hangs it over a block-house rafter, the CD blows up, and you’re out of the game for ever.
Oh all right. Enough silly jokes. A senior simpleton in the army, Major Chambers, says: “This isn’t a recruiting tool. There are no embedded messages. This is simply an entertaining and informative tool to connect with America about what the army is about.” Oh yeah.
My thanks again to Tompaine.com, which undermined my cynicism on this point by reporting that “Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Media Metrix, told USA Today that he believed the game is “more of a positive marketing tool than a recruitment strategy. Clearly the 18 to 24 male market that plays these types of games might find appeal in something that was ‘authentic'”, he added. Tools, tools, tools. As these comments attest: when it comes to America’s Army there are an awful lot of tools about the place.
So if it’s not about recruitment, then it’s about getting gamer geeks to buy into the idea of having a gung-ho American army. This would suggest that the military has fears that subscribers to gaming subculture may be trying to undermine “God Bless America”. So the powers that be – rather than running into geek bedrooms and vaporising hard drives to stop them engaging in un-American activities – have opted for subtle persuasion by talking the gamers’ own language instead.
Other commentators suggest that the army is trying to charm tech-savvy whizzkids into joining up so that they can earn exciting salaries using their programming power to win the next war that needs fighting. If so, the game’s got to be better than any naff recruitment ad, and according to E3, it is. It won runner-up in the action category at the 2002 Best of E3 awards.
Of course, all this might miss the point entirely. Gamers might just like a good game, in which case, it doesn’t matter who makes it, or what it’s about so long as the bells and buttons are bigger and better than whatever it was that was bigger and better before. How many people who liked playing Super Mario go out and grew a funny moustache?
In which case, I’d advise CND not to spend $6.3m on developing Disarmageddon, a non-interactive videogame in which a character picks up basic intelligence and then spends years walking around the screen being ignored.