Locked and Loaded

Mike Gorman

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.

The Fort Ord-based America's Army Public Applications team worked hard to make the game as close to the genuine Army experience as possible. The graphics are based on actual photos taken in Afghanistan. Before being allowed to play, newbies have to go through virtual "basic training," including obstacle courses, airborne training and weapons familiarity. Medics learn the basics of first aid. "Honor" points, earned through additional training, lead to higher-level games with better players.

Teamwork and leadership are important. In theory (though seldom in practice), a game can be won without firing a shot. During tournaments, Army reps reinforce the realism. Before the games start, participants stand together and swear allegiance to the U.S. In the game's third update, called Overmatch and scheduled to be released soon, a small group of soldiers outfitted with the latest high-tech weapons will be pitted against a larger but less well-armed enemy. If this sounds familiar, it's intended to.

"We're excited to have the Army here," says Samantha Downing, Fat City's marketing manager. "Their game adds value for us." She notes, for instance, the synergy of Special Forces with the arcade's popular sharpshooter and spy games.

A couple of buff-looking, tightly shaved recruiters wander around, trying to whip up some interest. Staff Sergeant Marc Agostinelli is nearing the end of a three-year recruiting assignment. "Only nine months to go," he says cheerfully.

Agostinelli joined the Army after a stellar high school career fell apart in college because of drugs and alcohol. Intending to stay in the Army for only three years, he is now a ten-year vet, with a tour of Bosnia under his belt. "I'd like to be in Iraq," he says. "That's why I joined the Army."

Finally, at about noon, some prospects wander by. Dillon, thirteen, and Steele, fourteen, love Special Forces. "This is better than Medal of Honor," says Dillon. "Awesome," adds Steele. Seventeen-year-old Taylor is impressed, too. Still, none is exactly a recruitment coup; each boy says he's already heading toward a career in the armed forces.

In fact, the whole day turns out to be a letdown. Never bustling, the drive shuts down for good around 8:30 p.m., when a DJ starts setting up for a scheduled 9 p.m. singing contest -- a bad mix with combat recruitment. "It's not appropriate for us to be set up here when there's a karaoke contest in front of us," Powell points out.

Later, Agostinelli admits the drive wasn't one of his best. For starters, the predominantly middle-school-aged kids scrambling on the rock wall and playing Special Forces are not quite what the Pentagon is after -- yet. "The kids were a lot younger than what we needed to get them in the Army," he sighs. "Our rock wall was like an amusement ride."

In fact, Agostinelli says he notched only one solid lead out of the day-long affair -- one-tenth of his office's goal. "I think we're gonna slide away from these real fancy events that take time and money to put together," he predicts. "From now on, we're gonna stick with just old-fashioned recruitment drives."

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