Since its release July 4, 2000, the video game has garnered 3.3 million users around the world, who have spent 60 million hours hunched over their computer screens.
The creative thinker behind America's Army believes that an attractive video game not only will help recruit soldiers, but will encourage them to continue training after entering the service.
"Since America's Army is engaging, special government builds of the game could be useful in extending learning for soldiers beyond the duty day," said Col. E. Casey Wardynski, the West Point economics professor who directs the Army's office of economic and manpower analysis.
For now, the military variants of America's Army focus on specialized tasks that rely on the game's rich graphics and user-friendly interface. One variant trains operators of the Talon, a mine-disarming robot, while another tests the tactical effects of an experimental grenade launcher. The Army also is exploring using the game to train soldiers in force protection, first aid and survival skills, maintenance, intelligence gathering, critical thinking and leadership.
"I don't know of any other application that would give the kind of capability that we're going to provide with America's Army," said Bill Davis, team leader for America's Army future applications, at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
Davis heads the effort to modify the computer game into a Talon trainer. A suitcase-sized test unit, containing a laptop computer and a replica of a Talon control unit, was delivered to the explosive ordnance disposal division in July. Talon operators are practicing driving the vehicle and manipulating its robotic arm. More importantly, they are practicing using the Talon to move an improvised explosive device (IED) to a pit, transferring an explosive charge to the pit and detonate it.
"Prior to this, the only way to train was to take the robot and the controller to the trainees, give them some verbal instruction and get them started," said Davis. "This allows them to train without breaking anything." The simulation doesn't teach trainees how to identify IEDs or disarm anything other than a couple of types of generic bombs, but Davis said more options could be added in the future.
It cost $60,000 to develop the Talon variant of America's Army, not counting licensing fees. But that's far cheaper than practicing on real Talons, which are needed on mine-strewn Iraqi roads, Davis noted.
"It shows where we should be going with robotics," he said. Talon will the first robotic system in America's Army, and the first virtual trainer for an explosive-ordnance disposal robot and for armed robots. Indeed, work soon will begin on adapting America's Army to simulate armed robots, he said.
America's Army is also being developed to simulate the XM25 airburst grenade launcher, which uses a laser ranging system that displays targeting cues on a small video display. Using a video game to simulate the laser sights enables troops to upgrade their tactics prior to the weapon's introduction. "The real key feature is the modeling of the fire control screen," Davis said. "It will give people a chance to try out tactics, techniques and procedures in small unit settings."
Even as America's Army is adapted to military use, its civilian version is receiving a facelift. America's Army 2.0 is currently driven by the Unreal 2003 game engine that also powers many commercial first-person shooters. But the advent of Unreal 2004, with its superior graphics as well as physics models, has given Army developers a more powerful tool.
America's Army 2.1, using the Unreal 2003 engine, will come out this summer. Version 2.2, based on Unreal 2004, comes out in the fall. Version 2.2 will have Stryker light armored vehicles and "technicals," which are armed pickup trucks favored by irregulars. Players can enter and fire weapons, but the vehicles don't move.
The next version, 2.5, will have moveable vehicles, said Jerry Heneghan, a former Apache pilot who is now an executive producer for America's Army.
Version 2.5 will also be the first to feature a real-life combat scenario. Players will step into the shoes of a 26-member special force A-team that used Javelin missiles to repel an Iraqi motorized rifle company backed by artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers. This was the same incident where a Navy fighter later dropped an errant bomb that killed 17 people. The event was not modeled in the game.
Adding vehicles means adding larger maps. "When you've got Javelins and Strykers, a four-square-kilometer map isn't going to cut it," Heneghan said. It also requires careful attention to play balance. "If I'm in a Stryker, then you should be in a BTR-60. If the special forces have Hummers, then we have to give Toyota technical trucks to the other side," said Heneghan.
To avoid disclosing classified performance data, the civilian game will be vetted for operational security. So Javelins, for example, will not simulate the performance of actual missiles. Yet Davis believes that the game could potentially enhance Army's existing non-virtual Javelin trainer, which relies more on static background photos rather than the dynamic virtual world of America's Army. "It would take a little hardware development to make that happen. But you would have a total combined arms world, where you would set the Javelin up, shoot and move again."
Perhaps the most significant change in Version 2.5 will be the use of artificial intelligence, so players can tackle solo missions. The game currently only comes in on-line multiplayer mode, which prevents players from playing it solo, as well as barring those who don't have broadband access. The Army has inked a deal with Ubisoft Entertainment Inc., a major publisher of computer games, to develop America's Army for consoles such as X-Box and Playstation.
This will bring more users to what may be one of the Army's most cost-effective recruiting tools, and one all the more remarkable because it bypassed the Army's traditional simulations establishments, officials noted. America's Army cost only $2.5 million to develop, according to Wardynski, although admittedly it cribbed off an existing civilian engine. Its annual development budget has been around $2.5 million.
Considering it has snagged 3.3 million registered users, America's Army has been far more economical compared to the millions that might be spent on a single 30-second television recruiting, Wardynski said. It has been consistently popular since it came out, a notable achievement in a cutthroat market where the journey from store shelves to bargain bins is only a few weeks for many games. "It's been so popular in China in Internet cafes that the government has shut it down," said Heneghan.
A poll commissioned by the Army last December surveyed a large random sample of young Americans and their parents. It found that 29 percent of males 16 to 24 years of age, as well as 19 percent of their parents, had more favorable views of the Army after they had played the game, said Wardynski.
Heneghan sees the value of the game in teaching potential recruits what Army values are, and what they are not. "I didn't grow up in a military family," he said. "My experience with what the Army was about was watching 'Full Metal Jacket.' Kids are learning that the Army is a very disciplined, ethical organization that values duty, loyalty, respect and personal courage, and not a bunch of knuckle-draggers out on the battlefield killing men, women and children."
Heneghan pointed to the teamwork aspect that distinguishes America's Army from its civilian rivals. "We're more of a military-themed action game. We're not just dodging and jumping out in front of people. There is a much more precise, methodical way of movement. Every mission we create is structured around team play. Teams succeed when teams work well together. The Rambos out there do not get rewarded."