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Little bit of landmark, end-of-an-era type news in the video gaming world. Long time recruitment game America’s Army is being retired after 20 years. The idea behind America’s Army was simple, it was a tool to recruit young people ages 18-25 into the United States military. It was a controversial move at the time but turned out to be a huge success in many ways. I wrote extensively about the innovative idea in my Gadgets, Games and Gizmos book released in 2007.
On July 4, 2002, the U.S. Army released the online role-play game design to provide “civilians with an inside perspective and virtual role in today’s premier land force: the U.S. Army.” The game provided players with a chance to participate in a number of military occupations. The online game was free to anyone who registered and by 2007 over 7.24 people had registered to play the game and in total over 20 million people played the game at one time or another.
Here’s a quote from a web article published in June 2002:
“From a propaganda perspective, though, the Army has seemingly hit the jackpot. (And the Army readily admits the games are a propaganda device.) “America’s Army” was one of the most talked about titles at E3 and is starting to appear in the many “best of show” lists that are popping up on gaming web sites these days. Even game developers were singing the praises of “Operations.”
The concept was to recruit, inform, and interest young Americans in a career with the U.S. Army. The game included everything from a virtual boot camp to learning how to load weapons to special mission assignments. In the game there were links to army recruiting pages and military brass indicated that a number of West Point freshman had played the game at one time or another.
The game was immediately met with protests. First of all, in the early 2000’s video games were politically unpopular. Only a few years earlier, there was the Columbine High School massacre committed by two boys who were obsessed with video games. Grand Theft Auto was in the news for it’s tendency toward violence and there were several high profile murder cases involving young people where the attorney’s attempted to link the act of violence to the playing of video games.
In fact, there was a huge push at that time for specific regulations on the video game industry that eventually led to a Supreme Court case. (The case confirmed that the First Amendment did, indeed, cover the video game industry.)
Additionally, the thought of recruiting young, impressionable kids into the military in a format similar to the Last Starfighter or Ender’s Game angered many. It was felt that the Army was glorifying war and mis-leading young people about life in the military. Protesters thought that it made war attractive and that it would lead to increased violence among the players of the game.
Also, the initial cost of developing the game was expensive. Initially, it was reported at about $7 million and that price tag alarmed a number of folks. Eventually, the cost went even higher with a 2009 article indicating the game cost U.S. taxpayers $32.8 million in development. The high price shocked many people who felt the money could be spent elsewhere more effectively.
Mitigating Negative Aspects
To counter the negative aspects of the game, the developers incorporated a number of elements to keep the violence and controversy to minimum (as much as they could).
In terms of violence, the deaths of enemy soldiers were not particularly graphic compared to America’s Army’s peers at the time. Mostly, death depicted as a red puff with no gore. Also, another unique aspect was that you never played as an enemy, you always played as an American soldier. Also, the “bad actors” where as non-descript as possible to avoid profiling, they were generic “terrorists.”
Additionally, many of the missions and tasks in the game did not involve shooting. You could train to be a medic or mechanic. In fact, the medic training was so realistic, it actually helped to save lives. A person named Paxton Galvanek performed first aid on two passengers who were in a car accident. Paxton used knowledge learned from playing “America’s Army,” to prioritize the situation, and choose which of the wounded travelers needed immediate attention and which could wait. He then proceeded to dress the wounded person’s hand (they had lost two fingers). Paxton credited his ability to respond appropriately to the combat medic training portion America’s Army claiming that it taught him the critical skills he needed to evaluate and treat the victims at the scene of the accident.
In terms of recruitment, the U.S. Army did not identify players or tag anyone for recruitment based on their game play. They claimed not have linked actual names to user names or passwords. And they did not look at behavior in the game and go seek out recruits. However, it was possible to request information and reveal our player name to recruiter. Once you volunteered that information the recruiter could use your gaming records to facilitate matching career opportunities to the missions where the player spent a great deal of time.
The cost controversy was countered by the military indicating that the cost of creating the game was actually less expensive then other forms of advertising and, for a while, much more effective. And, the cost of $32 million plus is actually “cheap” for a triple-A video game development project. For example, in July of 2014, “Call of Duty” was reportedly developed for a cost of around $50 million. Not to mention the marketing, production and distribution expenses which made the grand total of around $200 million.
Legacy of the Game
First and foremost, America’s Army was the first large scale government organization in the world to use a video game as a propaganda and recruitment tool. And the America’s Army proved that video games could do both. The game solidified in the minds of many the power of video games to influence decisions and behavior based on content, interest and gameplay activities.
Today, organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration now focus some of their hiring campaigns specifically on finding gamers who, they believe, have skills related to air traffic controlling that will be valuable on the job. They don’t have a specific air traffic controller game but look for skills developed in games. The stigma of sitting in a dark basement wasting time playing video games has eroded to a large degree and some of that erosion can be credited to the value and focus the U.S. Army placed on the use of a video game for recruitment.
Other organizations, based in part on what America’s Army was able to accomplish, have created recruitment games to help evaluate potential employees. There are now gamified talent assessments and even fully developed games for recruitment in several different industries. As an example, the consultancy, PwC created a game called Multipoly which is a 12-day game and virtual version of what it’s like to work for the accounting and consulting firm with tasks like meeting quarterly goals. Many other organizations have followed suit and there are a number of smaller companies specifically creating recruitment games to help other organizations with that process. Look for recruitment games to only grow with the great resignation.
America’s Army also underscored that by playing a video game, people can learn valuable skills. In, at least one case, life saving skills. The game wasn’t really designed to be an instructional game but it contained enough realism and enough instruction to provide a quality learning experience. Games can and do teach and America’s Army is a shining example of the power of games for learning.
While controversial, America’s Army was ahead of its time. It created an innovative approach to recruiting, highlighted the power of video games to capture and hold attention and expanded the thinking around what video games can accomplish. The sunsetting on May 5, 2022 is the sunsetting on a landmark in the use of games. Fortunately, the lessons learned will be used in the future for more exciting and critical use of games in all kinds of industries for achieving all kinds of goals.
Karl Kapp is a professor at Bloomsburg University and a learning experience designer who works around the global helping organizations create engaging and meaningful learning experiences using an evidence-based approach. Karl has authored several LinkedIn Learning courses including “The Gamification of Learning” as well as “Gamification for Interactive Learning” and others.
He is a learning experience designer who works around the global helping organizations create engaging and meaningful learning experiences using an evidence-based approach. He is founder of the L&D Mentor Academy, a members only group that explores the technology, business acumen and concepts required to take L&D professional’s careers to the next level. Apply to Join today.
Additionally, Karl is co-founder of Enterprise Game Stack, a serious games company that creates digitized card games for learning ranging from interactive role-play games to sorting activities and everything in-between. Find out more at Enterprise Game Stack.