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"America's Army" Set For Battle

The Army's free computer war game debuts tomorrow. Some have concerns.
'America's Army' set for battle

New computer game, to launch tomorrow, targets Army recruits

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 7/3/2002

here will be digital fireworks in thousands of American homes this Fourth of July, courtesy of the US Army.

Tomorrow, the Army will premiere its latest recruiting tool - a multiplayer computer game that will let thousands of would-be warriors do battle over the Internet. The new game, called America's Army, will be available for free download over the Internet, and will be offered on free CD-ROMs later this summer.

America's Army will put the US military in competition with a host of wildly popular computer games like Counter-Strike, Ghost Recon, and Medal of Honor, which allow players around the world to do battle over the Internet. And at least one specialist on computer game violence fears that the US government may be sending the wrong message by giving away free wargames to adolescents.

Lieutenant Colonel Casey Wardynski came up with the idea for America's Army. Wardynski, an economics professor at West Point, had been fretting over an unexpected consequence of America's move to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s. Back in the days of the draft, millions of Americans with military experience shared their knowledge with youngsters. Not any more, said Wardynski.

''When we went to a volunteer force, we ended up with a far smaller population that had been in the Army,'' he said.

Many young people never meet anyone who's actually served. Wardynski said he wondered whether technology could provide a substitute. He created a computer software that could offer a realistic, but entertaining, vision of the soldier's life.

The idea isn't to boost military recruitment immediately; the Army's recruitment command said the service is having no trouble meeting its monthly quotas.

The goal, Wardynski said, is to ensure plenty of willing recruits. ''The people who'll play this game, not all of them are of an age to be recruited,'' he said. ''We're trying to reach people who are 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.''

America's Army is actually two games. One, called Soldiers, is a role-playing game that depicts the course of a soldier's career inside the Army, as he or she learns the Army's principles and values of courage, integrity, and honor.

But the second game, called Operations, may have more appeal to adolescents. It's an action game in which players carry out a variety of military missions. Players form teams, assigned to a specific objective. One team may be assigned to seize a particular building, while another must defend the building. But each team sees itself as fighting for the US Army against an undefined ''enemy.''

''The teams that play as a team are the ones that win,'' said Wardynski. And the object of the game isn't ''killing'' the enemy. ''The key is, did you achieve the mission? You can achieve the mission without destroying the enemy force.''

Since the game was previewed in May at a Los Angeles trade show, 150,000 people have signed up to receive copies of the software. With its price and real-world pedigree, America's Army could be a hit with adolescent gamers.

It's a prospect that worries Kimberly Thompson, assistant professor of risk analysis and decision science at the Harvard School of Public Health.

''Probably what has not been given enough consideration is the impact of this game on kids,'' Thompson said, ''and how, in fact, the game might have a role in how they start thinking about their own potential for violence.''

America's Army bears two ratings from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Soldiers is rated E for everyone, while Operations is rated T, considered appropriate for teenagers, but not younger children.

America's Army cost $7.5 million to make. Of that, about $5 million went for the game itself. The rest paid for a network of 140 server computers across the United States. Wardynski estimates that the servers will be able to support between 5,000 and 6,000 players at the same time.

America's Army will be available for free download tomorrow at a number of Web sites, including www.goarmy.com, www.homelan.com, www.fileplanet.com, www.nvidia.com, and www.americas

army.com. But since the file is more than 200 megabytes, only users with broadband connections will be able to get it this way. The game will be distributed later in the year inside computer game magazines, and, of course, at Army recruiting offices.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at  bray@globe.com.

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 7/3/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2002 New York Times Company