'America's Army' Video Game Blurs Virtual War, 'Militainment' Today's hyper-realistic video games transport players to the battlefield. The Pentagon uses games to recruit and train soldiers. And it's using similar technology in the war zone to guide unmanned drones. A recent article explores how realistic the games really are.

'America's Army' Blurs Virtual War, 'Militainment'

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #1: Squad, form up.

INSKEEP: Weve been looking over the images of a video war game. You see the world as it looks to a soldier.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #1: Move.

INSKEEP: You walk through the streets of a bomb-blasted town and around the corner, you spot an enemy.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #2: Enemy spotted.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Man #1: Medic. Enemy down.

INSKEEP: The game is called "Americas Army." Millions of people play.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #1: Follow me.

INSKEEP: And the developer is the United States military. The game caught the interest of Peter Singer. He wrote in Foreign Policy magazine of the way that real and virtual war have merged.

Mr. PETER SINGER (Director, 21st Century Defense Initiative; The Brookings Institution): Once youre physically in the game, its what they call a first-person shooter.

INSKEEP: First-person shooter, meaning youre looking at the world through your gunsight.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #2: Enemy spotted.

INSKEEP: "Americas Army" started as a military recruiting tool, and parts of the game show what military training is like.

(Soundbite of video game)

(Soundbite of gunshots)

INSKEEP: Yet Pete Singer says the games popularity has gone far beyond its original intent.

Mr. SINGER: This game has been one of the top 10 games downloaded off the Internet - of all games. Its hugely popular not just in the U.S., but even in places like China; the Chinese government tried to ban it. But more important to that, in terms of - the Army really didnt care about its popularity is, did it help with recruiting or not? And one study found that the game had more impact on actual recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.

INSKEEP: Why do you suppose this game became a success beyond its value, apparently, as a recruiting tool?

Mr. SINGER: Its actually a pretty good game. You know, its got good packages, good graphics, etc., compelling stories. The interesting thing, though, is that this game is just the start of a broader spectrum of something that I call militainment, where the military is drawing from entertainment for its tools. That is, everything from tools of recruiting, like in "Americas Army," to the tools of entertainment in terms of actually using the weapon systems. Many of the controllers for robotic systems on both ground and air, things like the Predator

INSKEEP: The drones that are over Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example.

Mr. SINGER: Exactly, but also things like the Pacbot, which is a little - a tiny ground robot. Theyre actually modeled after the Xbox and PlayStation controllers. And the reason was, the military found, is these video game companies had spent tens of millions of dollars designing systems that, you know, fit in your hand perfectly. But more importantly, the training costs had already been taken out because you hand these to an 18-year-old, and they automatically know how to use it.

INSKEEP: Are these virtual games in some ways more valuable than real-world training, because you can build up an intricate and life-threatening situations on the screen that might be hard to duplicate in real life?

Mr. SINGER: Its an interesting question and something that the military is wrestling with right now. The advocates of the game say things like, you can build more complexity in than you could in a regular training program out in the field. More importantly, you can run through it again and again and again, in a way that you can't in real-world training. But, of course, theres other aspects that go into real-world training that maybe you do need in there. And one of those that I think is a concern, is that the video games often forget about what we call the fog of war.

So, for example, there is one package that recaptures what happened in a real-world battle during the invasion of Iraq, where a Green Beret team fought off an Iraqi battalion that had tanks and the like. And so, in the game, you can do the same thing that the Green Berets did. What the game leaves out, though, is that when the Green Berets called in an air strike, the air strike accidentally hit some of their own, and also killed some of our Kurdish allies. The unexpected is often hard for us to program in.

INSKEEP: There are any number of writers on military affairs who have raised concerns about this sort of thing because you make war antiseptic, you make it virtual, you make it clean for the shooter. But in the end, on the other end, there may well be a dead person.

Mr. SINGER: And thats what some have jokingly called avatar fatigue. That if you mess up, if you lose, so to speak, in the game, you just reboot. Youve lost your avatar. Whereas if you lose in reality, you actually have to call your buddys wife and explain what happened. A bigger concern within the military is whats called the OBrien effect, taken from that incident where the talk show host, Conan O'Brien, challenged Serena Williams, the tennis player, to a tennis match. She came out, and he handed her a Nintendo Wii.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SINGER: And he proceeded to beat her, and the point here was that just because you excel in the video game of something, it doesn't mean that you excel in the real-world version of something.

INSKEEP: Peter Singer wrote an article in "Foreign Policy" magazine called "Meet the Simsand Shoot Them." Thanks very much.

Mr. SINGER: Thank you.

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