Army Complex — Arcade Or Recruiting Center?

The new Army Experience Center outside Philadelphia is a high-tech entertainment complex designed to hook potential recruits with video games and flight simulators.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. What is that awful noise, you ask? Why, it's me, trying and failing to fly the Apache helicopter simulator at the new Army Experience Center in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of helicopter simulator)

ROBERTS: What is that?

Unidentified Man: Bad guys shooting you.

ROBERTS: A better question might be why I was flying an Apache helicopter simulator. I was checking out the Army's 14,000-square-foot, virtual educational facility, built last year for about $12 million in a mall on the north side of town. It's as slick and gadget-heavy as an Apple store. You can climb in the simulators - a Humvee and a Blackhawk helicopter as well as the Apache - you can plan a mission in the high-tech tactical operations center, or just play a lot of video games, both Army-issue and standard-issue Xbox games.

The center's only been open for a few months, and some have criticized it for bait-and-switch tactics, masquerading as an arcade when it's really an Army recruiting station. So when I met program manager Major Larry Dillard at the center, that's where we started.

ROBERTS: Do you consider this a recruiting center?

Major LARRY DILLARD (Program Manager, Army Experience Center, Philadelphia): It's really much more than that. So if you look at a traditional recruiting center, there is really not a lot of ways to get a virtual experience about what the Army might be like. It's really is just an office to process applicants into the Army. And what we're really trying to do here is use this as a vehicle to communicate a lot about the Army. Now certainly, if someone comes in, and they're interested in what they see, and they want to join the Army, we can do that here.

ROBERTS: Philadelphia has almost no local Army presence. For one thing, the Army prefers to build bases where there is lots of cheap, available land. And when the Army is not around, Dillard says, recruiting numbers suffer.

Major DILLARD: People who have some relationship to the Army growing up, whether it's because they live close to a base or because they're from a ,military family, are far more likely to join our ranks. If you understand the Army, then you're inclined to think highly of it and join the Army, but if you've never had that exposure, you're probably not going to join the Army. You're not going to consider that as an option when you're either getting out of high school or college.

ROBERTS: There are a lot of big cities without a big Army presence; why did you choose Philadelphia first?

Major DILLARD: Frankly, because it was about the worst - one of the very worst recruiting markets we had. And so, we want to come in and see if we could make an impact here, and our hypothesis is that if we can do that here and it works here, then it would probably be effective elsewhere, as well. When we built the Army Experience Center, we shut down five recruiting stations and halved the number of recruiters. In the last couple of months, we've had the same number of recruits that the old recruiting stations in this area did.

ROBERTS: Do you consider that a success?

Major DILLARD: Yeah, I think for just getting started, that's a great success. I mean, fundamentally, what we are trying to do from the business side of this is really, kind of trade capital for labor, and try to get to a point where we have fewer soldiers committed to this job of recruiting and more soldiers out there doing what soldiers do.

ROBERTS: But of course, a large part of what soldiers do is fight wars. And if this center aims to represent Army life accurately, violence and danger must be part of it. On the other hand, kids as young as 13 come through here who aren't soldiers, and they might not be ready for all that reality.

Major DILLARD: We are not trying to hide the fact that sometimes, what we do as soldiers is dangerous. We want people to understand, you know, if you join the Army today, you're probably going to deploy somewhere, whether it be Afghanistan, Iraq or somewhere else, and so we want to make sure we're consistent and honest and transparent about that. That's the reality today. You've got to be careful about making it too violent and inappropriate for some people and so, it is a fine line. But I think we tend to err on the side of trying to be as realistic as we can.

ROBERTS: Of the 6,000 folks or so who have come through here, who's the average visitor? I am guessing more men than women.

Major DILLARD: It's about 80 percent men - 82 or 3 percent men. The average age is about 17 to 18. So for the Army's perspective, we're really hitting our target demographic exactly where we want to be.

ROBERTS: So can you give us a quick tour?

Major DILLARD: Love to.

ROBERTS: We start at the front desk, where kids sign in and give their contact information and a little demographic data. The Army collects a lot of data about what recruiting methods work, which fail, and what misconceptions potential recruits have.

Major DILLARD: I think a lot of the attitudes about the Army, or ideas about what the Army is, are really shaped by legacy information about a draft Army from the Vietnam era when people weren't volunteers, they didn't get paid much money, the living conditions were probably pretty poor, a lot of drug abuse in the Army. And this is night and day from that Army of the 1970s.

ROBERTS: And Major Dillard shows me some of the tools designed to counter those misconceptions: two giant video displays, one called a career navigator, the other called a global base locator. Think of them as huge, plasma-screen rumor debunkers.

Major DILLARD: So this is our global base locator. Again, one of the misperceptions we've found is that people think, oh, the Army is only in Iraq, that's all you can do in the Army. So we built this Google Earth interface where you can actually zoom all around the globe and see the different Army bases. Where are you from?

ROBERTS: I'm from Washington, D.C.

Major DILLARD: All right, let's go check out the D.C. area.

ROBERTS: OK, so we start with the entire Earth and zoom in, and you're doing all this just with a touch screen.

Major DILLARD: Yeah, so you can see the Army's got a handful of bases right in the metropolitan D.C. area, and you can touch on any one of these and learn a little bit more about those bases.

ROBERTS: There wasn't exactly a line for the base locator. The center wasn't very crowded in the middle of a school day, and the kids that were here were mostly playing video games. But 20-year-old Jake was intrigued.

JAKE: I like the little global maps. I never knew about that, that's nice.

ROBERTS: Jake said he's considering the Army more seriously, especially if he gets to drive…

JAKE: The Humvee, yeah. I could do that one day.

ALEX: Oh, got him. Oh, got him.

ROBERTS: A teenager named Alex wasn't so convinced. Taking a quick break from blowing bad guys away on screen in Tom Clancy's "Rainbow Six," he said the center had answered the big question: What was the Army really like?

ALEX: Yeah, it's scary.

ROBERTS: How so?

ALEX: It was the dying, I guess, because you die in here a lot. So I guess you would die on real combat. All right, follow me. Oh, wait, I'm dead, actually. Never mind.

ROBERTS: Major Dillard says the Army doesn't plan to open anymore Army Experience Centers just like this one. Instead, they're measuring how popular and successful each element in Philadelphia is, and figuring out what Army Experience Center 2.0 might look like.

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