REPORTER: Sophie McNeill
St Cloud is a small industrial town in the northern state of Minnesota.
Saturday evening, and normally it’s pretty dead but tonight the local army recruiters have hit town armed with the latest teenage fad.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Seven seconds, five, four, three, two, one.
‘America’s Army’, the official video game created, designed and marketed by the US Department of Defense. Tonight, these kids have become virtual soldiers in the US army. They’re out on missions to defend freedom and take out whoever gets in their way.
And while some parents might worry about the impact of graphic virtual violence on such young minds, here, a government department actively encourages it. And with the video game ranking at number four in the US charts, it’s become an army recruiter’s new best friend.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: This is ‘America’s Army: Special Forces’ game. This is one of the latest editions we came out with. Kids can get it by calling the recruiting station, coming into the recruiting station. We take this to colleges, to high schools, it’s kind of just like a giveaway.
I’m the recruiter out at St Cloud state now.
Sergeant Scott Link has been in army recruiting for three years.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: You guys have played quite a bit? You realise we’re staying with the neutral settings?
Each month Scott is expected to convince three young Americans to join the army.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: You guys form a team. You’re here, right? You like pizza? Yeah. OK, there’ll be pizza a little later.
And with the current recruiting shortage, Scott has to try harder than ever.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Have you used it before? You’ll be fine, you’ve just got to register over here.
What I want to do is just talk with them, find out what they need and I want to see if what they need is something that the army can give them. And that’s what I do. Basically I’m like a counsellor to the kids, I want to counsel them and see if the army is what fits them.
REPORTER: Why are you here?
BOY: Um, I just came with my brother so I could have a good time playing the game with other people.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: They’re all going to be possibly new soldiers for me down the road. If not, maybe friendships there when I’m out in the community they can say, “Hey, that’s Sergeant Link, he was over at the gaming event, he’s a pretty cool guy.”
I even lost my star for a while. I got my star on there. I’ll be on on Saturday night until 4:00, 5:00 in the morning. Just keep playing and playing like you said, it’s different. The more people come on, different clans they jump in with, it just depends how the clan is how long you stay with that one. Get bored of a map, boom, you’ve got what, a dozen other maps to go to.
HEATHER: I’m staying in one corner.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Staying in your corner you’re not going to win.
13-year-old Heather and 14-year-old Amy are playing the urban assault map – an exercise in street warfare that has a disturbing resemblance to current US missions in Iraq. Armed with M16s and grenades, the girls have received instructions to conduct a house-by-house assault and capture the local insurgents.
REPORTER: Does a game like this maybe make you think about wanting to join the army?
HEATHER: A little bit but I’m kind of afraid to join the army.
REPORTER: What about you, Amy?
REPORTER: No? Not at all?
AMY: Maybe a little bit but I’m kind of afraid of guns so I just – I don’t think I could do that.
REPORTER: So it’s just for fun?
But that’s not what the Pentagon wants to hear. It takes this game very seriously.
The game was developed here in upstate New York at the prestigious West Point Military Academy. It cost over $25 million.
MAJOR CHRIS CHAMBERS: Well, this poster here commemorates the launch of the game in 2002.
Major Chris Chambers is the deputy director of the ‘America’s Army’ project.
MAJOR CHRIS CHAMBERS: In terms of just raw budget figures, we’re a very small percentage, less than 3% of the overall recruiting budget, and with 5 million registered users being added at 100,000 users per month, this is one of the most effective methods that the army has in reaching Americans of all ages.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: So what do you guys think about the realism in the game? It scares you? The cars are real, the bullets hitting off the buildings.
The army wanted to make this game as realistic as possible. The most talented web designers in America were hired to design the graphics and all the weapons in the game are identical copies of the real thing.
MAJOR CHRIS CHAMBERS: And that attention to detail is really important. Not only is it important for us, because that is what we bring to the industry is a new level of realism, but it’s important to the players because they feel that this vicarious experience they’re having with the army is closer and closer to reality.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: The bigger your target is, the easier it is to hit. You want to get down, coming in low. Coming down low. How much can people get me if I’m down low like this?
BOY: Not as much but then I aimed up and I shot him for like 10 seconds and then he aimed down at shot me.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Then your aim bites.
BOY: Shoot him in the head.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: You got to go up if you want to hit.
BOY: I always aim for the head.
Scott is keen to make sure everyone’s having a great time.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: They do have pizza over here now. So if you want to, eat up.
Apart from free games and giveaways, part of tonight’s appeal was the lure of free pizza and soft drink – after all, these kids are under-age.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: So how’s the pizza guys? Good? Have you guys played yet?
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: How did you do?
BOY: We lost.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: You lost? Which team are you in? OK, so what was your strategy, why did you lose?
BOY: We don’t have a strategy. We’d never played the game before.
And the army even has plans to use information gathered from the game to steer players to the appropriate career path.
MAJOR CHRIS CHAMBERS: We know it’s technically possible to record a lot of game play information that a player has under their pseudonym or their character name, and that player data could be valuable to a recruiter at some point in terms of tailoring their choice in the army based on what they did voluntarily in the game.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Right now, have you ever thought about joining the military?
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Why not?
AMY: I don’t think I could deal with that.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: Deal with what?
AMY: Like the stress and… I don’t know I’m not good with guns.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: OK, you don’t have to be good with guns. You think everybody that’s in the military is good with guns? Yeah. No. We have over 200 jobs in the United States army for people to do. Firemen, policemen, paramedics, people to run stores, people to run gas stations, dentists, optometrists, everything you can think of – medically, truck drivers. Everything that you see out here we have.
AMY: But like wasn’t like there like a truck driver in Iraq that got beheaded?
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: OK, I was a paramedic for 10 years in North Ambulance for this area. I was a paramedic for 10 years I saw probably I’d say 70 deaths, in that 10 years. That’s not in the combat zone, that’s here in the United States.
Now, you might not know this but there’s about 117,000 people that die from car accidents, violence, drunk driving, accidents in the home, tons of different stuff, about 117,000 per year die in the United States.
Now, put that in perspective – in a combat zone in two years, yes, we have had deaths but nothing compared to how many people die per year here in the United States.
Congratulations. Hope you guys had fun. Enjoyed it, everybody? Yeah. Good time. Do it again?
REPORTER: Amy, are you actually considering the army as an option now after tonight?
AMY: Yes, I thought that was so interesting what he was talking about and his experiences and how many different stuff people could do in the army. I didn’t know they could have their own radio stations or stuff like that. I just thought you’d like go over to like Iraq or some place and protect and shoot people. So it gave me like a wider perspective of stuff that they did.
REPORTER: So basically because of tonight you’re considering perhaps joining the military?
AMY: Yeah, yeah. He said he had a card so I’m going to definitely pick one of those up.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: My business card is right up here. It’s got my email, it’s got my phone number, it’s got my name.
MAJOR CHRIS CHAMBERS: The message to young people really is about this very strong team called the US army that performs missions with rules of engagement and within the laws of land warfare and that that’s a very powerful team to be a part of and that’s the strongest message we can send.
But obviously being a real-life member of this very powerful team is not all fun and games. With the US army suffering almost daily casualties in Iraq, it raises the question whether it’s appropriate to suggest to young kids that a career in the army is as safe and as exciting as playing a video game.
BOY: I killed seven people, yeah. Yeah, did they have some issues with friendly fire, I think one of their guys might have killed their team. That was pretty awesome.
REPORTER: Major Chambers, do you think that the game could actually desensitise young men and women to the brutal realities of war and actually killing people?
MAJOR CHRIS CHAMBERS: Well, I think again we depict consequences for action and our role in this is to honestly depict those consequences and always keep in mind that we have 13-year-olds as well as, you know, 45-year-olds playing our game. So with that as a constraint, then we are as honest as we can about violence and death and the role that the US army plays and its constitutional role in terms of, you know, the violence and warfare.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: And, then, yeah, the magazines, they’re just real simple. They’re 30- or 20-round clips that we put in these things.
But Scott has to fill his monthly quota and he can’t afford to let any of these nagging questions cloud the minds of his potential recruits. He has a job to do and, like all recruiters, you just never take no for an answer.
SERGEANT SCOTT LINK: But, hey, for all your friends that are like above 35 say “I’m too old to join”, we’ve upped the aged to 39 now, OK. So we have something for all of you.