"But it's only a game!" -- blurring the lines of war and entertainment, with the help of George Lucas
Thanks to Elaine Supkis and Operation Yellow Elephant for inviting me to post. I'm honored to participate in the blog.
Pushing America's Army at E3 2004.
It's only a game?
That's what some people are saying about America's Army.
But it's not.
A March 2005 entry at the blog Game Matters on America's Army - Behind the Scenes is an interesting one in which is published an anonymous gaming list post (with permission) of an individual who was involved with development and notes how the Army seems not to have expected America's Army, at 1/3 of 1 percent of its advertising budget, to have been such an outstanding success.
What's interesting is the developer, who was one of about 28 people working on the game initially, seems to be oblivious to social and political ramifications of one's choices, such as in one's work, and that one does not live in a gaming vacuum. America's Army was initially developed in a Naval Think Tank, but hired outside video game talent to work on the project. I could be wrong but the writer appears to have been one of those hired from outside, and there's a peculiar disconnect going on. He's hyped that the game was in the number three spot on the Gamespy stats and discontented that the Army then began to claim responsibility for development, made some changes to the team and "hemorrhaged talent". Rather than considering what his work means ethically to himself and the other developers and the people for whom it was created as a recruitment tool, he bemoans what he considers to be the decimation of the programming and design staff, and the politics that resulted with the Navy getting pissed at the Army that the Army didn't mention the game was developed in a Naval think-tank.
I don't want to get sidetracked into Army and Navy and hired-on video game developer tussles. That's not the issue here. But I did think it would be interesting to refer to a portion of his argument before looking at how America's Army was developed.
So, one morning about a year ago, the Army shows up in force at the Naval Postgraduate School. They arrive in full dress uniform and bring generals and lawyers with them. They go to the school's Provost and make accusations of mismanagement by the school. They make claims that the game is a failure and that the school has not lived up to its contract. Tempers flare and the Navy and the Army both agree that they should get the hell out of NPS. The Army takes their ball and goes home, and several of the team members are not invited to come along. I think the first resignation came within a month of this event, and the exodus has not stopped to this day. They've probably lost somewhere around 20 people since they took the game "internal", and they'll surely lose more before all is said and done.
At this point, I'm not sure if they're going to be able to ever recapture what they had. The Army is basically clueless when it comes to making games and they don't know how to treat people, especially game developers.
In the end, I'm happy for the experience. It was extremely valuable to me, and was a wonderful opportunity. It was unique and different, and a chance to take a shot at something that no one really had any expectations of. It was also a chance at creating a small snippet ofhistory. The game is far from perfect, but I'm still proud of it simply because of how much was stacked against it. I worked with some wonderful people, many of which I hope will have long and successful careers...Working on the game was a wacky adventure, and not the type of thing most game developers will ever experience. The job of a game developer is pretty strange as it is, but making a game for the Army was a down right surreal experience.
So, America's Army was created with the assistance of outside video game developers who were aware they were working on a recruitment propaganda tool but seem to have been able to divorce this from ethical concerns, instead only approaching it as part of their art and just another job added to the resume.
It's not so simple as that. Nor is it so simple with gamers who hone the skills of others, becoming part of the propaganda community, through participating in the team sport of America's Army.
At its surface "America's Army: Operations" seems like nothing more than a game made to take advantage of the recent success of games featuring realistic military tactics, but in looking into the matter many interesting bits of information are discovered. According to the official web site for "America's Army," Operations is actually designed to be a recruitment tool. If a player does exceptionally well at the game they may actually receive an e-mail from an army recruiter. This certainly changes how propaganda works in that it's not a one-way flow of communication. Being contacted directly as a result of using the propaganda makes the communication two-way and far more effective. This actually may have a psychological effect on certain players because encouraging army enlistment because of the person's abilities harkens back to how guidance counselors and family may encouraged them in the past.
As the quality of games increase the industry becomes more respectable and a more apparent vehicle for propaganda. For now, however, video game propaganda may be highly underestimated despite the industry's current acceptance as an art form by a wide range of people. It is because of this that video game propaganda will prove to be most effective.
Source: Video Game Propaganda, Travis Woodside, Cal. State
Michael Zyda is the Director of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering's GamePipe Laboratory, located at the Information Sciences Institute, Marina del Rey, California, and from 2000 to 2004 was the Founding Director of The MOVES Institute (Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation), at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. This paper at Gamepipe.isi.edu, "From VIZ-SIM to VR to Games: How we built a hit game-based simulation" was written by Michael Zyda, with Alex Mayberry, Jesse McCree and Margaret Davis, and details their development of America's Army and admits much about the game as a propaganda tool aimed at teens.
America's Army is not just a recruitment tool, of course, it is a "training simulator".
Program managers want games for their next training simulator or combat-modeling system. Corporations want their messaging put forward in game form. These desires are sharpened by the enormously successful career of the "America's Army" game, the first "serious" large-scale game ever produced...
Why do so many people want games for their next training simulator?...The average "America's Army" fan spends something like sixty hours in the game, counting those who completed the basic-combat training, and it is only one of the top-five on-line games: their cumulative hours must be staggering. Ask any parent of an avid on-line gamer--the number of kids hooked and time spent is scandalous. Games and their interfaces have become second nature to youth.
Games are also attractive for their immersive qualities. As a rule of thumb, there is more immersion in a typical game than in a typical training simulator. Teenagers often enter a game world before dinnertime, after which it is difficult to prise (sic) them out to eat: need more be said?...
So there are strong reasons to move our training simulations to a game basis...
One of the larger problems is the generation gap. Games mean 'frivolous wastes of time' to the older generation, so it is hard to convince them to buy off on such training systems or even the term 'game-based simulation.' Eventually this resistance will fade, but at present it is our biggest impediment. Meanwhile, we know we have to move (to game-based simulation). When we hear stories about nine-month learning curves for the latest combat-modeling system, we (cannot) but think of the five minutes it takes to drive (the latest) game. As a community, we want our systems to offer training in five minutes. We want our systems as immersive as games. We want them entertaining, so that work is play and people don't leave. In short, we want our training systems so immersive that soldiers forget to eat.
A question asked in the report is "Why Did We Start Thinking About Games?" Seems like a given but here's their answer...
The 1997 National Research Council report entitled 'Modeling and Simulation - Linking Entertainment and Defense' (Zyda & Sheehan, 1997) states that games and interactive entertainment--not defense research expenditures--have become the main drivers for networked virtual environments. To keep up with developments in modeling and simulation, that report indicated, DoD ought to examine networked entertainment for ideas, technologies and capabilities. We thought a lot about this insight when forming the MOVES Institute as a center for research in modeling, virtual environments, and simulation, and game-based simulation became a focus.
The paper goes on to discuss what individuals are going to make up the working body of the team that develop the games. People with formal education aren't of particular interest. What's desired are individuals with good demo reels whether they be personal, for companies or from schools. It's remarked upon that they will be young people, the executive producer and creative director being perhaps 30 years of age.
We will have to ensure that the games people and training people get along. Put military officers in charge of the project, and we have an extra dimension of fun and understanding. One group shows up at 11 am in t-shirts and flip-flops. The other group comes in at 6 am in uniform--but leaves at 5 pm, while the gamers toil till midnight. This makes for a prickly cultural interface and requires patience and understanding...
As a training simulator, AA is a first-person shooter (FPS) game, in which play is real time and the the player's point-of-view is through the eyes of his character. The goal of the developers was to create a game that had the appeal of "Counterstrike", but which had a heavy emphasis on realism, "Army values and training".
They hired three game-industry veterans as team leaders.
The first version, released July 4 2002, was a "runaway success" and a number of players "flocked" to the game. America's Army was downloaded 500,000 times the first weekend. The Army's servers were overwhelmed. People were having to wait days to play. When the game was introduced, one had to complete a sort of on-line basic training. The game used an authentication server that validated players' having completed this training before allowing them into the game server, these single-player training courses being rifle-range, obstacle, weapons-familiarization and tactical. When those courses were finished, then, going on-line, one participated in a multi-player training exercise before being introduced to the additional scenarios. "Until a user had played on-line and was part of a winning team in the MOUT McKenna training level, he could not proceed to other missions." But this caused a problem and finally this on-line-training requirement was changed so that only completion of the single-player levels was necessary.
On August 1, 2002, version 1.1.1 was released, the "Marksmanship pack".
This release added the Army's sniper schools and the M24 and M82 rifle positions to the game, features originally scheduled for the initial July 4th release, but fallen behind schedule. Eligibility to play the marksmanship levels was based on scores from the original rifle-range training level. A player who shot 36 out of 40 targets in the final test could try to qualify as a sniper. Only those players who passed the marksmanship training levels could take a sniper position in on-line play...AA opened the sniper role only after other team positions were filled, meaning there were only a few sniper positions available at any time. Virtual fratricide broke out as people killed team members just to steal their sniper rifles...
When visiting America's Army on-line game I noticed the remark in a featured "blog" (not a blog at all, instead a featured testimonial), supposedly made by a veteran who played the game, that the game should be played as a team. And above apparently paints a reason for this remark.
With the release of 1.1.1, the MOUT McKenna on-line-training requirement done away with, there was a player revolt against this among those who saw the training as a badge of honor. But it was deemed as essential in order to free up bandwidth.
The army at this point added a MILES-equipped grenade to the missions, MILES being a laser-tag system used in training, and the game thus also became a simulation of a simulation, a number of the AA missions based on MILES scenarios.
With the release of 1.2.0, airborne and ranger schools were introduced.
While the airborne school came with two training levels that depicted an abridged version of the Army's actual training...we discovered that a realistic grenade (in a game) does not necessarily equal a fun experience...
No doubt. So modifications were employed such as players being made aware of when a grenade had been tossed by a particular sound.
By the release of Version 1.5.0 in December of 2002, there had been some legal problems caused by "a Miami attorney on a crusade against violence in video games...the development team was required to make several modifications to counter the negative press generated by this man..." for which reason the word "sniper" was removed from the game, and parental controls were added so parents could monitor language, weapon usage, mission types and limit displays of blood.
The ability was added to let you know when an active member of the U.S. Army was playing the game, strengthening "camaraderie between military and civilian players".
In a later release, a distinctive patriotic theme song was added to open the game.
A combat medic training sequence was introduced, involving three classroom lectures and a field-training exercise. A new damage model was introduced that changed the earlier scenario where, say, bullets striking a player meant suffering a percentage of damage "while the remaining portion was doled out over time in the form of blood loss." Now a medic could treat a player and remaining damage would be avoided.
The 2.0.0. release in 2003 added the Special Forces and the Indigenous Forces roles. If one didn't pass SF training to play in the new missions, one could play them as an indigenous soldier, which "reinforced the point that a major duty of SF units is to train and fight alongside indigenous forces in foreign countries."
The paper notes a number of other changes and things like weapons additions to the game, and is a good outline of the course taken in introducing the general public to army training simulation camouflaged as a game. This general public--remember--acknowledged as being teens who will likely be playing 60 hours a week, entirely immersed to the point of forgetting to eat.
Not only are older teens targeted, but their younger siblings as well, who would be introduced to the game through their older brothers and sisters and grow up with an acquaintance and acceptance of it.
The paper by Michael Zyder mentions that America's Army Version 2.0 was the last release developed by the MOVES Institute, the Army choosing to take over development in March of 2004.
How do you get the web development community to play nice with the Army and not end up feeling that their art form is being intruded on by the military? The paper says they picked and supported the best team they could find, supplying video-games for them to play, sofas for them to rest on, an open and dimly lit area to work in so that no one was isolated and everyone was thus aware of the game as a "whole", gave them an industrial canteen, a secretary so they didn't have to be involved in any administrative work, "and shielded them from direct contact with with the client. Result: they stuck together and worked like madmen."
With no ethical concerns apparently about what they were creating.
Just a game.
Acknowledgments stated the development team was pictured in the 2004 Erba Buena guide, Michael Capps being original executive producer, John Falby doing all contracting, hiring, purchasing, and Rosemary Minns who as team mom kept administration away from the development team and "guaranteed the flow of sugar snacks so necessary for the game's proper development."
Nothing about the ethics of these video game developers working on military propaganda targeting youth and blurring the lines of entertainment and war, supposedly training them in their homes for real life military.
Except that no one can really be trained for real life war, can they?
Bringing the War Home: The New Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex at War and Play, by Nick Turse, lists Epic Games, NVIDIA, the THX Division of Lucasfilm, Dolby Laboratories, Lucasfilm Skywalker Sound, HomeLAN and GameSpy Industries as all having participated in the development of America's Army.
As I figure it, so much for George Lucas raining all over Iraq's parade in a May 2005 interview.
''In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship,'' Lucas told a news conference at Cannes, where his final episode had its world premiere.
''The parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we're doing in Iraq now are unbelievable."
Lucasfilm knew what it was doing when it hopped on the target-teen militiatainment band wagon. The THX Division of Lucasfilm LTD is also listed as a "partner" up at the America's Army website. And Lucas is ragging on Iraq??
Lucas is too old to qualify for Operation Yellow Elephant, but individuals employed by his company ought to think several times over about what they're doing. And Lucas, well, seems to me he's not got much of a right to come down on America in Iraq and at the same time be making money off partnering with the military to produce military recruitment propaganda to teens.
If you're against the war, partnering and making money off sending kids to fight in it seems a mite hypocritical.
Crossposted at Idyllopus - meanwhile back at the ranch