08 Aug US Military Recruits Children: “America’s Army” Video Game Violates International Law
I’m sure readers here are pretty familiar with what America’s Army is so I’ll skip most of the article, but there are some salient details that were new to me.
What the game’s “realism” is attempting to do is to mask the violent reality of combat, and military experience in general, for very specific purposes. At a minimum, the Army hopes “America’s Army” will act as “strategic communication” to expose “kids who are college bound and technologically savvy” to positive messaging about the Army. Phase one of the propaganda effort is to expose children to “Army values” and make service look as attractive as possible. The next phase is direct recruiting. According to Colonel Wardynski, who originally thought up selling the Army to children through video games, “a well executed game would put the Army within the immediate decision-making environment of young Americans. It would thereby increase the likelihood that these Americans would include Soldiering in their set of career alternatives.” To make the connection between the game and recruitment explicit, the “America’s Army” web site links directly to the Army’s recruitment page. And gamers can explore a virtual recruitment center through the “America’s Army Real Heroes” program. Local recruiters also use the game to draw in high school children for recruitment opportunities. Recruiters stage area tournaments with free pizza and sodas; winners receive Xbox game consoles, free copies of “America’s Army” and iPods. Game centers are also set up at state fairs and public festivals with replica Humvees and .50 caliber machine guns, where children as young as 13 can test out the life-sized equipment.
When players walk into Army sponsored tournaments, the government knows more about them then they may suppose. The game records players’ data and statistics in a massive database called Andromeda, which records every move a player makes and links the information to their screen name. With this information tracking system, gameplay serves as a military aptitude tester, tracking overall kills, kills per hour, a player’s virtual career path, and other statistics. According to Colonel Wardynski, players who play for a long time and do extremely well may “just get an e-mail seeing if [they’d] like any additional information on the Army.” The “America’s Army” web site, however, is quick to point out that the Army respects players’ privacy. The Army claims that player information is not linked to a person’s real world identity unless that person volunteers their identity to a recruiter. But it is not clear that recruiters have to give any sort of discloser that a voluntary relinquishing of one’s name is also an invitation to a player’s statistical information. Answering seemingly innocent questions from recruiters in “America’s Army” chat rooms or at state fairs about one’s screen name may divulge personal information without intending to.(7)
Most troubling of all, these recruitment and training techniques are targeted at children. Apart from sanitizing the violence of war, the Army toned down the gore in the game to get a Teen rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the equivalent of a PG rating on movies, so that children as young as 13 could play “America’s Army.” Chris Chambers, the game project’s deputy director explains that “we have a teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards. We want to reach young people to show them what the Army does … We can’t reach them if we are over the top with violence and other aspects of war that might not be appropriate. It’s a choice we made to be able to reach the audience we want.”(10)
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found that Army use of the game, and its recruiting practice in general, violate international law. In May, the ACLU published a report that found the armed services “regularly target children under 17 for military recruitment. Department of Defense instruction to recruiters, the US military’s collection of information of hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds, and military training corps for children as young as 11 reveal that students are targeted for recruitment as early as possible. By exposing children under 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the Optional Protocol.” The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, ratified by the Senate in December 2002, protects the rights of children under 16 from military recruitment and deployment to war. The US subsequently entered a binding declaration that raised the minimum age to 17, meaning any recruitment activity targeted at those under 17 years old is not allowed in the United States. The ACLU report goes on to highlight the role of “America’s Army,” saying the Army uses the game to “attract young potential recruits … train them to use weapons, and engage in virtual combat and other military missions,” adding that the game “explicitly targets boys 13 and older.” In June, at the 48th session of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee noted US violations of the Protocol and urged the United States to “ensure that its policy and practice on deployment is consistent with the provisions of the Protocol.”(11)
Four years after the game was introduced at the 2002 Los Angles E3, and half way around the world in Mosul, Iraq, “America’s Army” was having an effect. Sgt. Sinque Swales had just fired his .50 caliber machine gun at so-called insurgents for only the second time. “It felt like I was in a big video game,” he said. “It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” While Sergeant Swales found game training conditioned him for combat situations, other soldiers report “America’s Army” played a direct role in guiding them to the military. Pvt. Doug Stanbro told The Christian Science Monitor in a 2006 interview that he “never really thought about the military at all before I started playing this game.” An informal Army study of the same year showed that 4 out of 100 new recruits in Ft. Benning, Georgia, credit “America’s Army” as the primary factor in convincing them to join the military. Sixty percent of those recruits surveyed said they played the game more than five times a week. And a 2004 Army survey found that nearly a third of young Americans aged 16 to 24 had some contact with the game in the previous six months.(12)