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a soldier from the game 'America's Army'
Playing in an Army of One

By Anthony Hecht

I'm not a gamer. Very few video games have ever grabbed my attention. The few times I tried to hang with the guys who play Unreal Tournament after-hours at work, I set records for getting killed most often, usually while trying to find the button for "duck." I couldn't get the hang of the controls, and when I watched the good players, they scared me.

I'm also not a particularly hawkish kind of guy, though I must admit to a certain curiosity about military service. There's something appealing about the discipline, the knowledge of deadly techniques, the camaraderie. And of course the agonizing exercise drills — which is the only way I'd ever have rock-hard abs.

Given these propensities, the question is: Could I still be successful in the United States Army? Am I kidding myself about the sit-ups? Is there some kind of a video game that could help me answer these questions?

To find out, I went to the Army's recruiting website — — and downloaded their video game recruitment tool, America's Army. This highly popular game cost the Army more than $6 million to develop, and it's distributed free on the Web. After providing a fake name to register on Army servers (check your mail, Anthony Henckt), I was off to basic training.

My first assignment was to learn to fire the standard issue M16-A2 rifle. An officer told me to gather my ammunition. I dutifully obeyed. Helpful hints like "Hit 'R' to reload" popped up on the screen. I obeyed those too. With my weapon locked and loaded, I was told to proceed into position on the range. Instead, I shot the guy who gave me the ammo.

"Cease Fire! Cease Fire!" blared from my computer speakers and the screen faded to black. Oh boy, I was in trouble. Surprisingly, I was given another chance. Rookie mistake, I guess. It could happen to anyone. So I did it again.

This time, after the shouting was over, I found myself in jail. A lonely harmonica tune drifted down the corridor and into my cell, which had a cot, a toilet and two small bookshelves. The bed was neatly made, the books had no titles and the toilet didn't work, even when I jumped up and down on it. No instructions popped up on the screen, no hint was given — it seemed I was in for good. After a few minutes of jumping around, I hit the Escape key. It worked! I was on the lam.

My prison break didn't seem to raise any eyebrows, though. No posse was formed, no hounds were released — I just had to start over from the beginning.

logo of 'America's Army' game

This time I refrained from virtual cold-blooded murder and proceeded to the firing range where I qualified as a marksman. Then I moved on to the obstacle course, the part that looks the most fun in the movies. Sadly, the video game version was pretty boring. Crawling under barbed wire loses its excitement when you only have to press "C" to crawl. There weren't even any bullets whizzing over my head. No scorched earth, nothing.

The next stage of my training was U.S. Weapons Familiarity where I learned to fire giant machine guns and throw grenades. I also discovered another way to restart the game — by dropping a grenade at my feet and blowing myself up. "Medic!"

I still felt a bit green after I completed my training, but war is hell, kid. It was time to get out and defend some virtual liberty. In order to deploy on a mission, one must join a game on a host server. There are hundreds of games going at any given time.

I had hoped to find a Band of Brothers-style camaraderie in America's Army. But each time I tried to join a game, I was told that I wasn't experienced enough. I attempted to join many games, some on "official Army servers" and some not, with no success. As you can imagine, this was very frustrating for a young guy with an itchy trigger finger. I eventually joined a game that listed basic training as the only requirement, only to be thwarted again. Apparently my "Honor Level" wasn't high enough. If my sergeant had heard the string of profanity I let loose at that point, it would've been back to the stockade with me.

Reluctantly, I returned to the training area to get my Special Forces Badge. In order to complete this training I had to — I kid you not — sit in a virtual classroom and listen to a 10-minute lecture on vehicle and weapons identification, and then take a test, which I failed. I had to sit through the entire lecture again before I could re-take the test. Thankfully there is always the Escape key. I've been assured the real Army is much less lenient with quitters.

As our military becomes more dependent on technology, the skills used to play video games may become more and more relevant to actual warfare. Many soldiers now, and many more in the future, will be fighting wars from behind a keyboard, a safe distance from any havoc they may wreak. In this way, using a video game as a recruiting tool is perfectly appropriate. If you're good at this game, you will probably excel at certain jobs in the real military.

But the most realistic aspect of the game is surely the boredom. Real military life is made up of long periods of inactivity punctuated by furious bursts of exhausting and terrifying work. The game never terrified me, but it exhausted me — it almost put me to sleep trying to teach me to recognize an Apache assault helicopter from below, and to differentiate between the Delta and 181 Officers in a Special Forces Squad.

What was missing was the camaraderie. When I was all trained up and ready to go, no one would let me play with them. I'm sure with enough perseverance I could have joined a game, but it should have been easier. In the end, I didn't run down to my local recruiter to sign up. And I uninstalled the game.

author Anthony Hecht
Anthony Hecht is a freelance writer and Web developer living in Seattle. He writes frequently about politics on his blog at