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.
Making it to the next level
Thanks for an intriguing post, Nina! My first thoughts while reading through it was how the movement from home videogame console to AEC to actual enlistment mirrors the hierarchical level progression in many games, in which the elite players are rewarded for their game skills and get to move forward, but as you suggest, this reading, perhaps, oversimplifies the narrative trajectory invested in this process. I agree with you that this is very much about self-actualization through playing the game. With the player as the lynchpin connecting the various America’s Army franchise nodes together, the “army experience” becomes about individual growth and accomplishments rather than about chain of command, service to country or even a place providing a steady paycheck during hard economic times. It becomes less about what the army represents, and more about what individuals can accomplish through rising to the challenges it offers.
Great post, Nina. This may seem a bit random at first, but it really got me thinking about the ways in which video game developers leave room for gamers to contribute to the production process (deepening what Hector Postigo calls the "content pools" surrounding the game). Whether it's by giving gamers the ability to design new maps and missions or even leaving the code open so they can produce more complex mods and total conversions, developers have frequently encouraged a kind of upward mobility in gamers--don't just be a player, be a content producer too. For many game developers, user-generated creation as an amateur is what they used as calling cards to break into the professional industry.
So as Avi notes, there's definitely something aspirational at work here with AEC--and I think it might be related to these dynamics of professional aspiration in amateur gaming cultures, except we're talking more about tactical/gameplay skill than design talent. It's an incorporation and professionalization of the amateur soldier. Another big difference is that very few game companies (or IP-owners licensing their property to game companies) make video games about their own business. Electronic Arts isn't making games about making games, whereas you have the Army making a game about being in the Army--so going to work for the company that made the game takes on a whole new significance here.
Kind of tangential and free-associational, but hopefully that makes sense!
FROM BATTLE ZONE TO EXPERIENCE CENTER
Thanks for this fascinating post and clip, Nina. It's interesting to consider the historical relationship between video games and the US military -- apparently a version of Battlezone was developed for the Army circa 1980, to train gunners on Bradley talks. Ironic that video games are blamed for encouraging violent tendencies (Columbine, for instance) and also harnessed for their training potential by the American military. I wonder if it was intended as a pointed observation that the Army Experience Centre is next to a banana republic?
Modding and Protesting America's Army
@ Derek, I don’t think your comment is random at all! Regarding user-generated content, when I interviewed Col. Casey Wardynski (the creator and director of the America's Army project), I asked him about map and level-building tools in future releases. They have experimented on a tiny scale with UGC, but from his response I gathered the Army is very reticent to allow players to mod Army games. They are not willing to take chances with the “Army values” at the core of the game’s design. Thus, creating an engaging experience, which for some players might include modding AA, is limited by the producer’s principle purpose.
Professional aspiration (beyond game developer wannabes) and skill building are, of course, key characteristics of many popular games. For example, Rock Band has a career mode, but I wouldn’t say the game encourages players to actually pursue a career on stage (though a player may think he or she is the next Lars Ulrich). On the other hand, the Army is suggesting exactly that by linking the game to simulators and recruitment centers. I appreciate Avi and Derek's comments on this point for further highlighting a critical difference between AA and most other commercial games.
@Will, I am headed to Philly this weekend to visit the AEC and film a protest planned by local peace activists. The main concerns (from blog posts about the event) are, of course, related to the video games and violence debate you reference, as well as "war is not a game" and the proximity of the AEC to a skatepark. Also included in the critique of the AEC, is the contradiction that a publicly funded organization is housed inside of a private, commercial space, essentially protected from protest and cushioned by commerce. As a result, peace activists have planned to march to the mall in order to gather attention before reaching the confines of Franklin Mills. Once inside, it is likely the protestors will be arrested for trespassing if they don't leave.
Excellent piece, Nina -- I won't try to add to the smart commentary already offered by you and others, but really neat way of thinking of overflow as having purchase and effects outside the realm of textual play
Add new comment