By Joel Warner
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The most disconcerting moment of playing Special Forces, a video game developed by the U.S. Army, comes after one of the terrorists hits you with gunfire or grenade shrapnel. You immediately crumple to the ground -- but apparently you don't die right away. Your view suddenly skewed sideways, you watch from ground level as your attacker, wearing a dark balaclava, walks slowly toward you and levels his gun at your face. It's real-life scary.
The game boasts other authentic features. A "flash-bang" grenade exploding nearby can temporarily blind you. A fragmentation grenade detonated in a hallway or other enclosed area will do more damage than one that blows up in a field. Hit one of your own soldiers with friendly fire and you'll end up in the brig. Special Forces also depicts American soldiers fighting alongside "indigenous forces" -- a feature the disc's jacket refers to as "enhanced realism."
The most realistic feature of all, however -- the one that separates Special Forces from other popular shoot-'em-up video games like Doom and Quake-- is its finality. Once you've been shot or blown up, you're dead for good. Game over.
On a recent weekend, Jean Powell, an event and trade-show specialist from California who contracts with the Army, arranged to show off Special Forces. A subcontractor techie, Frank Dennis, had set up eight computer consoles next to the bowling alleys inside Fat City, the huge indoor entertainment center in Littleton.
A large flat-screen TV set over the monitors played an endless loop of film that mixed images from the game with real-life video footage from Afghanistan and Iraq. Inspirational messages flashed over the pictures: "Threats to freedom do not stop." The goal of the display was to introduce young people to the game. For many, that wasn't really necessary.
Special Forces is actually the updated version of America's Army, a game first released by the Army on July 4, 2002. It caught on immediately. Websites that rate the popularity of games routinely name America's Army as one of the most-played games in the country, behind only such heavy hitters as Halo and Doom. "It's a well-done game and very technically accurate," says Dennis. "Plus, it's free."
The reason the Army is giving away its game isn't complicated: The Pentagon's interest in young people extends well beyond providing armchair entertainment for them. "Recognizing computer games and the Internet as great mediums for educating while entertaining, the Army has produced an exciting game in order to allow civilians to virtually experience and learn about Soldiering in the U.S. Army," a handout detailing the game's history explains.
In other words, the Fat City event was a recruiting opportunity. To draw young players over to the gaming area, Powell had arranged for a camo-bedecked DJ to be nearby. Downstairs, the local recruiting office had set up a climbing wall next to a blue-black Army Hummer.
Powell says she does about eight such recruiting days a month during the summer, usually at sporting events or music concerts like the Warped Tour. She measures the day's success by the number of people who stop by to play Special Forces, as well as by how many recruiting appointments local Army representatives are able to schedule -- although, she adds, it's impossible to know how many soldiers the Army has added to its ranks solely because of its video enlistment campaign.
Still, Debbie Cannon, the Army's advertising and public-affairs manager for the Denver area, says video games have been hugely successful in introducing potential soldiers and early enlistees to the Army lifestyle. "We're like any large corporation, in that we spend a lot of money on marketing," she says. Some recruiters have even branched out from their service's own game, piggybacking on the popularity of video games in general among the important fifteen-to-21-year-old demographic. A few weeks ago, the Army recruiting team based at the Auraria campus sponsored a Halo 2 tournament at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
When he first came up with the idea for America's Army five years ago, Colonel Casey Wardynski, a father of two boys and director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, recognized the challenges of creating a suitable recruitment game. It would have to be entertaining enough to hold the scattered attention of today's adolescents. Realistic fighting scenes featuring the real-life munitions would take care of that.
But the game would also have to be graphically sound -- no small matter. After years of being a leader in the field of computer simulation, the Army lost considerable ground in the 1990s when the video-game industry took off. Following three years of development, however, it appears to have accomplished its objectives.
In America's Army, teams play against each other online. A squad leader, other soldiers and a medic try to complete an objective: stealing information from across enemy lines, say, or protecting a downed helicopter. An opposing team of terrorists -- their nationality is unidentifiable -- tries to thwart them. Each player represents an on-screen soldier, his point of view over an M-16 rifle barrel -- or, for the team's "heavy weapons" guy, a larger assault gun.