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The New York Times The New York Times Technology July 11, 2002  

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Uncle Sam Wants You to Play This Game


BE all you can be"? Ancient history. "An army of one"? Last year's news. The military's newest promotional campaign is not even televised; it is America's Army, a free computer game produced by the military and aimed at winning the hearts and minds of tech-minded teenagers.

The game is the brainchild of Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point. Although Colonel Wardynski is not a gamer himself, his two sons are, and his oldest, 17-year-old Casey, is a big fan of the action game Delta Force. The colonel said the idea for the game came to him three years ago while he was researching ways to attract computer-adept recruits for an increasingly high-tech military.

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The Army is looking to hire 79,500 young adults this year and, as Colonel Wardynski said, "Gaming tends to be very interesting to young Americans."

Colonel Wardynski concluded that releasing a free, high-quality game and encouraging gamers to copy it and share it with friends would be an effective (and relatively inexpensive) way to reach those budding computer whizzes.

America's Army is actually two games. The first, Operations, is a multiplayer first-person shooter inspired by the popular game Counterstrike. Players log on through the Internet, take on the roles of United States soldiers and team up to battle terrorists.

But Operations is no Rambo-style shoot-'em-up. Although it uses the engine or basic structural programming from the newest version of the sci-fi game Unreal, the Army has gone to great lengths to make the game as realistic as possible, soliciting input from soldiers at bases nationwide.

The designers, primarily the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., say they have modeled each weapon accurately. A player's aim will be affected by his stance, breathing and movement. A player who charges an enemy trench, wildly firing his rifle, is unlikely to hit very much.

Everything from the direction and velocity of shell ejection to the way soldiers high crawl when carrying a rifle is based on the way the Army really operates, said Michael Capps, the game's executive director and a professor at the modeling institute.

Unlike many multiplayer games, Operations features mechanisms to ensure participants' good behavior. Gun down your drill sergeant on the rifle range, for example, and you'll serve hard time in a virtual Fort Leavenworth.

In another departure from gaming norms, Operations is not very bloody.

"We don't want to use violence as an entertainment vehicle," Colonel Wardynski said. Bullet hits are registered by puffs of blood instead of the sprays of gore typical of some first-person shooters. The game is rated appropriate for teenage players (most graphic first-person shooters are rated for mature players).

The enemy is designed to look as generic as possible. "We've got blond guys who are bad guys, black guys who are bad guys," Colonel Wardynski said. "Usually, they're not well shaven."

In the second part of the game, Soldiers, players progress through a virtual career in the Army, serving in a variety of units and improving their ratings in categories like loyalty, honor and personal courage as they go.

A preliminary version of the Operations game released on July 4 includes two training missions and four combat operations, including an assault on a terrorist camp that Colonel Wardynski said was modeled after a raid conducted in the early days of the Afghanistan campaign.

Maj. Chris Chambers, the project's deputy director, said that more than 500,000 copies of the game had been downloaded by Wednesday morning prompting a frantic rush for additional servers and an accelerated plan to release "community software" allowing groups to play without tapping into a server.

The full version of America's Army is scheduled for release in late August or early September. It will be available free as a two-CD set or by downloading from the Internet at americasarmy.com.

The Army is hoping the game will help cut down on one of its biggest expenses filling its ranks. Doug Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky., said the Army spends about $15,000 to recruit every soldier.

Colonel Wardynski said the government will have spent about $7.6 million to develop the game by September; he said he expected the cost of creating new missions and other updates to be about $2.5 million a year and the cost of maintaining the multiplayer infrastructure to be about $1.5 million.

If the game draws 300 to 400 recruits in the next year, he said, it will have been worth the cost especially since the game is considered likely to attract people attending or considering college, who tend to be more expensive to recruit.

He also hopes that by providing more information to prospective soldiers, the game will help cut down on the number of recruits who wash out during the nine weeks of basic training and subsequent specialized training, which can last up to a year. (All told, the Army loses 13.7 percent of recruits during training, according to a spokesman for the Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Monroe, Va.)

Recruits who signed up but then quickly changed their mind "had an information problem," Colonel Wardynski said.

"That's $15,000 down the drain," he added.

Initial reaction among gamers has been positive. The Army's display booth at the Electronics Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in May was packed despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of uniformed soldiers and military vehicles instead of the typical scantily clad women. Army officials said they had received more than 150,000 advance orders for the game before the preliminary version became available for download on July 4.

"It's a blast," said Amer Ajami, an editor at Gamespot.com who spent last weekend playing the game online. "It's pretty realistic you take one or two shots and you go limp, you take one more and you're done."

From a marketing standpoint, Mr. Ajami said, its prospects are excellent. "You see all these commercials on TV with catchy phrases, but nothing beats going in and seeing what the Army really does," he said. "Without actually having to do it."

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DEPLOYMENT - America's Army, a game to be distributed online and on CD, is intended as a recruitment tool.

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