The Army Experience Center (AEC), which opened in August 2008 at the Franklin Mills mall in northeast Philadelphia, is a 13-million, taxpayer dollar experiment in military recruitment. This new 14,500 square foot “education facility” cut the ribbon six years after the launch of America’s Army, a video game and marketing tool designed and developed by the Army for $8 million. The AEC uses America’s Army technology to run “mission simulators” in modified Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. Before Philadelphia, America’s Army also existed as the mobile Virtual Army Experience (VAE), which for 18 months in 2007 and 2008, traveled to over 100 outdoor events in the US such as air shows, NASCAR races, and amusement parks. The VAE also used the America’s Army code base to operate armored HMMWV simulators that shake and pitch as players move over virtual terrain and fire position-sensitive weapons at large screen monitors.
We could consider the overflow of an extremely successful and free PC game into additional interactive platforms as we might view a Disney movie based on an amusement park ride that also spawns toys for sale in Disney’s retail stores – as products of industry-driven synergy. But I think something far more interesting and user-centered is occurring, particular among players who enter the VAE or AEC having encountered the parent platform, America’s Army, at home.
America’s Army and the virtual reality amusements it has become are not part of a franchise in the traditional, textual sense. Contrasting America’s Army with the Halo series, which relies heavily on the persona of Master Chief and the Covenant enemy, there is no reoccurring cast of characters or compelling narrative (beyond terrorist vs. soldier) that links these platforms. For visitors to the VAE or AEC, the facilities are essentially a tricked-out game room – a place to “virtually test drive” one’s gaming skills in a more realistic and sensory-intense environment than the living room. In addition to the simulators, AEC visitors can help themselves to an ergonomic chair, pick up an Xbox 360 controller and play Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2, Call of Duty 4, or, of course, America’s Army. The choice of these games is strategic. They all share important conventions of the military-themed action genre – terrorists, technology and tactics. But by placing America’s Army next to Call of Duty 4, the AEC is attempting to formulate a meaning about the Army that is not simply “military service is just like a video game,” as critics of the Army’s foray into gaming have complained. The meaning encouraged by the juxtaposition of popular tactical shooter game titles and simulation technology with the military, especially within the context of a recruitment office, suggests that the player is the link between these game experiences and the Army. To apply the franchise model in this interactive context, the reoccurring character is the player and the compelling narrative is his or her game play. It is the player’s skill at fulfilling the parameters of the game – from the home computer to the Apache cockpit simulator – that brings meaning to the overflow.
Spencer Elmore from the CNN story demonstrates this link when he says that people come to the AEC to play games and “your eye starts to wonder …what the Army does have to offer, and maybe it’s something for me?” The space becomes, and is promoted by the Army as being, a career education center where the player is encouraged (with military personnel on hand to answer questions about “Army life”) to consider whether his or her gaming skills are good enough to transfer from console to simulator to real life.
The consequences of overflow between the texts analyzed here cannot be overstated: Extended player engagement with the core text (America’s Army), at least as envisioned by the media producer (the Army), seeks to transform the virtual soldier who plays in a simulator into an enlisted soldier who fights on a battlefield.