Your kids can download the "America's Army'' video game for free. Well, it is free for them. You have already paid for it with your tax dollars. In the game, kids get to kill people with cool weapons that look and respond like the real things. They get to ambush terrorists and, when caught in a firefight, they can hear bullets whistle past their ears and even hear the shell casings from their M-16s clatter onto the concrete floor.
The only thing better would be an actual war with actual weapons!
Which is pretty much how the Army hopes your kids will respond.
"America's Army'' is one of the U.S. Army's most popular and effective recruiting tools -- conceived, designed and distributed free to reach the 13- to 21-year-old crowd. It is a brilliant marketing tactic. Unlike 30-second TV ads, the game is what the ad industry calls "sticky'' advertising: Consumers are engaged for much longer periods than with traditional commercials and ads.
The game and its upgrades have been downloaded more than 16 million times since the original version was released to strong acclaim in the gaming world two years ago. It comes bundled in gaming magazines. It is given away at NASCAR events and state fairs. Since the game's release, players have completed 600 million missions during 60 million playing hours. There are more than 4 million current registered players, making it the No. 1 on-line action game.
So what's the problem? After all, the Army needs lots of recruits. The target for this year is to sign up 77,000 young men and women for active duty. Next year, according to an Army spokesman, the target is 80,000. Video games are the new frontier for marketing and advertising. McDonald's, Pepsi, Nike and ESPN are among the many companies using games to attract customers and foster brand loyalty at young ages.
More recently, games have become the way to sell ideas, too, particularly to kids who are still trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. The Islamic group Hezbollah produced a game called "Special Force,'' which hit stores in the Middle East last year. In it, Palestinian good guys try to vanquish Israeli soldiers and settlers. There's another lovely game called "Ethnic Cleansing,'' put out by a white supremacist group.
"Games are now a more important entry point into the consumer world than any other medium,'' said Curt Feldman, senior editor at Gamespot, a Bay Area- based web site for gamers. "It has risen to the surface as the perfect way to reach very key demographic groups.''
The Army was smart enough to recognize this marketing trend and use it effectively. But there are several troubling issues: Should the government be in the business of producing violent video games when research indicates a correlation to heightened aggression? Is it appropriate to depict war as a game at a time when real men, women and children are being killed in Iraq?
And what are the ethics of using video games to feed propaganda to 13- and 14-year-olds, especially propaganda with such complex moral and life-and- death implications? Let's face it. The Army isn't trying to sell kids hamburgers. It's trying to sell kids on the notion that joining the Army would be a really cool thing to do when they grow up. Yes, they might get killed. They might get maimed. But just think of the awesome grenade launchers they'll learn to use!
"America's Army'' taps into so many of the longings of a boy who is coming of age, says Diane Levin, author of "Remote Control Childhood'' and a professor at Wheelock College in Boston.
"(If they join the Army) they'll be part of a group outside their parents, '' Levin said from Boston. "They'll feel powerful and important. They'll be masculine and attractive. The game is working to create an image that bypasses the mind and gets to the soul.''
What the game does not capture of Army life is what it feels like to kill someone. Or what it feels like to see a buddy's leg shredded into a thousand pieces. It doesn't give kids a sense of the mind-numbing boredom and stomach- churning fear. In the real Army, you cannot press the escape button on your keyboard and come back to life.
Col. Casey Wardynski, who supervised the game's production, points out that only 41 percent of the game is simulated combat. The rest relates to adventure training such as parachuting, as well as medic training, weapons training and team-building. The game, he said, depicts the Army's values of respect, discipline and camaraderie.
And he says the difference between the Army's marketing to kids and, say, McDonald's, is that a kid can impulsively buy a hamburger as a result of targeted advertising, but because he's not old enough to enlist, he can't impulsively join the Army. But marketing to kids is important. Wardynski says, because, "If you don't get in there and engage them early in life about what they're going to do with their lives, when it comes time for them to choose, you're in a fallback position.''
Psychologist Susan Linn, author of the new book, "Consuming Children: Hostile Takeover of Childhood,'' disagrees.
"There should be different standards about marketing to kids,'' she said from her office in Boston. "The frontal cortex of the brain, where judgment sits, doesn't fully mature until the late teens or early 20s. (Kids) tend to be more swayed by emotion because of that.''
Linn played "America's Army'' during research for her book and said that it depicted war in the way teenage boys would want it to be: exciting and even attractive. "The fact that the Army needs to recruit doesn't mean it has the right to exploit children's vulnerabilities, and do it dishonestly by glamorizing violence and minimizing or ignoring the other, more complicated facets of war,'' she said.
Wardynski has heard all the criticisms before.
"Kids aren't stupid,'' he said. "They know the Army is not a game. What the game does is allow them to try it on for size and get more information about the many job opportunities.''
The Army, he said, put him through college all the way to his Ph.D. He loves the Army. It's a career choice he wants to share with all kids. His enthusiasm is not dampened by the fact that 30 percent of today's recruits will fight in Iraq.
America needs a standing army. So the army needs to recruit. But not at all costs. The army will have time enough to grab our boys for war when they turn 18. In the meantime, maybe it can let our kids be kids for just a while longer.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle