US Army Bold Recruiting Game/Exhibit Lets Kids Play Soldier

The U.S. Army has launched what they are calling “an innovative way to reach a new audience and an opportunity to shape their tastes.” And, I gotta say, I completely agree with that statement.

It’s called The Virtual Army Experience. Unlike its predecessor, America’s Army Game, a multiplayer game boasting eight million players worldwide, this is a traveling video game exhibit that is making stops in more than 80 places like Six Flags, air shows and state fairs.

Here’s how it works. After a mock briefing from a real Army PR/Staff Sgt., players embark on their assignment, billed as “based on a real mission.” For example, “genocidal indigenous forces are attacking international aid workers and the Army has been called in to protect them.”

Players sit in modified Humvees or Black Hawk helicopters which are mounted with fake rifles and automatic weapons. They fire air-pressure guns — which apparently mock the kick-back of real weapons — as they shoot at a massive screen projecting the game in front of them.

According to the Wall Street Journal, The ethnicity of the bad guys they shoot at is ambiguous. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire blares from the game’s speakers and the Humvees shake from the simulated blasts of roadside bombs. Some participants hoot and holler. Despite the nature of the game, there is no blood or guts on screen.

After the game is completed, a decorated soldier talks about his experience in Iraq and encourages the players to visit the Army’s videogame Web site. In order to play, you must fill out a form including your age, address, phone number, email and other information which Army recruiters use to follow up. (The Army insists they only follow up with those who give them permission and who are 18 or older.)

The game has certainly seen criticism, including some from veterans who feel this is a misleading recruitment practice. “War is not a game,” Sholom Keller told the WSJ. Keller, who served in the Army from 2001 to 2005 and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, is now the national membership coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War. And, while on display at Summerfest, the game drew criticism from Peace Action Wisconsin, which called it “totally inappropriate and offensive.” The organization’s press release stated, “War games should NOT be presented as entertainment. War is NOT a game. Summerfest is meant to bring people together for a good time in peace, not to present opportunities to practice shooting people.” In response, the Army shut down certain programs at the festival, making the game more of a generic shooting gallery with inanimate objects.

But, not surprisingly, the target audience seems to love it, “I like that I got to use a gun!” said 13-year-old Spencer Padgett, after trying the “Virtual Army Experience.” His dad, Scott, from Laporte, Ind., told the WSJ he wanted his son to gain an appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the Army.

Now, I’ve never fired a gun, nor do I want to. Even when some crazy junkie recently tried to get into my house and my mom suggested I go buy a gun, I refused, because it’s just not who I am. And, I’ve never been all that into video games, except the Atari of my youth. I have, however, worked with gamers, lots and lots of gamers. The kind of guys who would come into the office early to play their shoot-em-up games. Then, they’d play again during lunch. And, they’d stay at the office until the wee hours of the night, sitting in a dark room hollering at each other through the hallways as they shot up the enemy on the screen. To those guys, war is not only a game, it’s a very very fun game.

So, as a peace-loving, can’t-we-all-just-get-along kind of girl, I get the criticism here. But, as a marketer, I say this is genius strategy. By bringing the “action” directly to these kids in a way that has them “hooting and hollering” the Army will go far in communicating their key message of high stakes adventure. Similarly, the one-on-one recruitment time could ultimately pay off.

Politics aside, this is smart marketing and it will be interesting to watch.


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