Arts First-person recruiter 

Hezbollah and the U.S. Army employ the same strategy to fill their ranks: video games

Two years ago, the video game Special Force began circulating on the internet. This "first-person shooter" immerses players in convincing, three-dimensional combat environments. In terms of underlying game mechanics, it is almost identical to such titles as Battlefield Vietnam and Brothers in Arms, which one might find on the shelves of Best Buy.

Unlike those games, Special Force is the handiwork of the militant Shia group Hezbollah, who designed it to attract new recruits to the terrorist organization while bolstering opposition to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to a Hezbollah spokesman cited in the Sunday Herald, the game "offers a mental and personal training for those who play it, allowing them to feel that they are in the shoes of resistance fighters."

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Special Force (above) is a 2-year-old videogame created by the militant Shia group Hezbollah to lure recruits. America's Army Special Forces (below) is a realistic recruiting game distributed for free by the U.S. Armed Forces.
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By any definition, Special Force is political propaganda. It deliberately taps into the widespread appeal of video games, encouraging youth to pick up arms in support of controversial objectives.

Meanwhile, in the United States, another first-person shooter has attracted more than 5 million players. America's Army Special Forces is a recruitment tool developed for the U.S. Army by the Modeling, Simulation and Virtual Environments (MOVES) Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. Lauded by the game press for sophisticated graphics and intuitive interface design, the game can be downloaded for free by anyone with an internet connection. It is also distributed on CD-ROM at local Army recruitment centers.

With comparable games retailing for $50, one might wonder why someone would distribute this popular product for free. The answer is simple: The military is overstretched, recruitment is plummeting, and the public remains overwhelmingly opposed to a draft. Our armed services need recruits.

Developers of America's Army are quite explicit about their goals. "If you don't get in there and engage `young people` early in their life about what they're going to do with their lives," explained one of the game's designers to the San Francisco Chronicle, "when it comes time for them to choose, you're in a fallback position." According to an internal report released by the MOVES Institute, the game has been a wild success, promoting "positive awareness of soldiering among twenty-nine percent of young Americans age 16 to 24."

America's Army is part of a larger military effort to successfully exploit information technology. At the same time that young Americans are flocking to discussion forums on the game's site, the Defense Department has announced plans to build a recruitment database containing demographic information for more than 30 million people between the ages of 16 and 25.

The designers of America's Army promise parents that the game will not be used to collect personal details about their children. On the other hand, if a gamer voluntarily supplies his or her account name, a recruitment officer can access details about the player's performance. From reaction time and accuracy to demonstrated teamwork, the game functions brilliantly as a stealth assessment of potential recruits.

Whether designed by Islamic militants or the U.S. military, first-person shooters deliver all of war's glory with none of its brutality. When missions go awry, digital body bags are not stacked at a virtual recreation of Dover Air Force Base. Failed gaming sessions do not culminate in prosthetic limbs, the death of close friends, or horrific visions in the middle of the night.

Yet, if there is one thing on which supporters and opponents of the Iraq war can agree, it is that war is not a game. According to one recent study, one in six soldiers returning from Iraq is likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. With more than 1,743 American fatalities, 12,855 American casualties, and the death of approximately 24,000 Iraqi civilians, the battle in the Middle East is deadly serious.

Faced with video games that build support for warfare and terrorism, some might be tempted to reject the new medium entirely. Yet, this is like turning our back on the cinema because it gave us Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. We could censor or ignore games, but it is more useful to dissect and understand their persuasive mechanisms. Video-game literacy is a skill that all citizens should possess, and it is a crucial antidote to the excesses of the Information Age.

By Aaron Delwiche


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