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[infowar.de] Salon.com 4.10.02 Kriege, Simulation & Computerspiele
October 4, 2002
Weapons Of Mass Distraction
A new breed of computer games is teaching today's teenagers how to wage,
and win, the war against terror.
By Wagner James Au
You can never be the enemy, in America's Army. In this popular new game
multiplayer combat, you can log on as a U.S. soldier who must, say,
a terrorist camp -- but if someone logs onto the opposing side, to fight
you, he also plays as a U.S. soldier. It's just that from his point of
view, he's defending a U.S. camp from terrorist invasion. You will
see yourself and your squad in U.S. Army uniforms, wielding U.S.
Everyone who signs up to fight, then, fights as an American.
The game has become so popular with U.S. troops and Pentagon brass, says
Lt. Colonel Wardynski, director of the Office of Economic and Manpower
Analysis and the man who initially conceived it, that there's even talk
shipping computers to Afghanistan, so soldiers can play it from there.
"I had high hopes that it would be something pretty hot," says Capt.
Amerine, an Army officer who recently served in Afghanistan. A longtime
gamer who counts Command & Conquer and Rainbow Six among his favorites,
Amerine was not disappointed. America's Army was so realistic that for
first time, he says, "I was actually looking at it more as a soldier
even a gamer -- but it happened to be good in both ways."
But America's Army's real purpose is to be a recruiting tool, which is
the game has been made freely available since July, with new units and
missions added on a regular basis. (It'll be out on CD in recruitment
offices soon.) And while its impact on recruitment won't be evident
December, when July enlistees arrive for basic training, early signs,
Army spokesmen, are promising: 28 percent of Americasarmy.com visitors
click through to goarmy.com, the government's official recruitment site.
The Army claims that 470,000 people have the game or are playing it now.
But there is some skepticism as to whether such success will translate
more recruits. "I don't believe it is any more likely to do this than a
good book or a good movie," says Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's
Comparative Media Studies Program. But in terms of cost effectiveness,
might be enough. Compared to investment in traditional recruiting ads in
other media, says Mike Zyda, director of the MOVES Institute, the Navy's
Monterey, Calif., virtual-reality think tank that developed the project
with Wardynski, the game is much cheaper.
America's Army is the first game to make recruitment an explicit goal,
it snugly fits into a subgenre of games already in vogue: the "tactical
shooter," a first-person shooter that emphasizes realistic, squad-based
combat. The realism factor means these games are often modeled on recent
events. Next month comes NovaLogic's Delta Force: Black Hawk Down,
from journalist Mark Bowden's 1999 book and from Ridley Scott's film of
same name, which reenact the brutal firefight between U.S. soldiers and
Somalia's bin Laden-funded militants in 1993. Before that, gamers will
to replay an earlier battle: SCi/Gotham Games' Conflict Desert Storm is
loosely based on covert operations against the Iraqi defense
conducted by American Delta Force and British SAS commandos, in the days
leading up to the Gulf War.
Given the warlike tenor of current events, it's not surprising that
America's Army has taken fire from its left flank. An article on the
liberal-left Web site Tompaine.com called it "propaganda," part of
"America's escalating militarization -- designed by the Bush
administration," while the Nation's Web site recently fretted over the
"political implications" of its gameplay: "nonstop Army cheerleading,
frequent terrorist and Arab bashing ... What better way to reinforce
war on terrorism's] legitimacy?"
But the squeamishness some lefty critics are expressing over America's
only demonstrates how many people are still too incurious or too craven
acknowledge the brutal reality the terrorist threat currently poses.
now, antiwar advocates prattle on about the "root causes of terrorism"
when the only meaningful cause spurring on al-Qaida and their like is,
Christopher Hitchens' clumsily apt coinage, Islamofascism: a
assault on Western democracy and values (and a close nephew to the
Meanwhile, the spiritual sons of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual
turned his hatred for American secularism, Jews and sexually liberated
women into a galvanizing cry for totalitarian theocracy, are still
and influential, even now sending out calls for world domination.
During World War II, as the country girded for battle, director Frank
created a series of films to instruct the Army's soldiers. A classic of
righteous propaganda, "Why We Fight" laid out for the greatest
who the enemy was, and why they must be defeated. If the presentation
simplistic, its message was irrefutable, and comprehensible to the least
A contemporary version of "Why We Fight" seems unlikely to emerge from
Hollywood, outside of a rush of thrillers with stock terrorist villains.
But the need for one now is just as urgent, even as al-Qaida is whittled
away by gun battles in Karachi or raids on a Buffalo suburb. The war on
terror -- which, if we parse out the diplomatic niceties, really means a
war on Islamist militants, and the nations who back them (beginning with
Saddam's Iraq) -- must be fought, and over a campaign of many years,
In that regard, America's Army and Delta Force: Black Hawk Down are the
"Why We Fight" for the digital generation. Though not explicitly
doctrinaire in an ideological sense, by showing the very young how we
fight, applying the moral application of lethal force on behalf of
values, these games create the wartime culture that is so desperately
needed now. One hopes they'll inspire the best gamers to consider a
of military service, while preparing them for the battles to come. There
are even indications that playing these games provide useful experience
when they do go into real-world combat. All to the good: it will aid
in the war to conclude what is truly the unfinished business of 1945.
The first-person shooter was invented roughly a year after the Gulf War.
1992's Wolfenstein 3D, you mowed your way through a Nazi stronghold,
gunning down poorly animated waves of blobby fascists. (They yelped,
leiben!" when you shot them.) After that game and Doom, its follow-up,
archetypal antagonist for the FPS was pretty much set: Nazis, aliens or
some variation of either. And why not? The Cold War was over -- who was
left to fight in the real world?
That there was a larger geopolitical context to 1993's firefight in
Mogadishu would remain obscure, even after Bowden's 1999 book -- even
a grandiose fanatic began taking credit for arming the militants who
the Americans from Somalia. For the rest of the decade, it seemed as if
there would be no other real-world enemies worth depicting -- certainly
for killing over and over. Subsequent shooters like Unreal and the Quake
series made their aliens bigger, and their weapons more absurdly
elephantine. In a decade of peace and excess, this looked like grotesque
overcompensation to many, including myself; all that firepower directed
enemies who didn't exist, by bloodthirsty adolescents who'd never see
genuine violence in their entire lives.
Half-Life (1998) also featured aliens, but emphasized realistic,
contemporary weapons; many gamers counted as their favorite opponents
the spoogey invaders from another dimension, but the
artificial-intelligence-driven commandos who fought you with coordinated
precision at the beginning of the game. Counterstrike, a fan-made,
modification (or mod) of Half-Life, ran with the human element, to
the most popular multiplayer game of all time. Millions still gather on
thousands of servers worldwide, taking on the role of terrorist, or a
special forces operative out to stop them.
Rainbow Six and other Tom Clancy-derived franchises sold well, as did
NovaLogic's Delta Force series, but it was probably the growing
of Counterstrike that fostered the current audience for tactical
And while African bodies were removed from the rubble of the double
on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1999, and lifeless sailors
lifted from the thrashed hull of the USS Cole in 2000, Counterstrike
from free mod to retail game, and kept right on drawing fans. But it was
the gameplay, not hatred of terrorism, that made it a phenomenon.
games take the best elements of first-person shooters and add in
and teamwork," says Jason Bergman, news editor at Shacknews.com. "You
simply can not do well in a tactical shooter without teamwork."
Teamwork is also key in America's Army, as a strategy and as a value
Wardynski wants to impart. Notwithstanding how some misinterpret the
new "Army of One" slogan, says Wardynski. "What [that] really means is
the Army is a lot of individuals put together so that it adds up to more
than the sum of the parts -- and the game is sort of designed to capture
Some have dismissed the game as a recruiting gimmick. But the weight
the Army puts on this project might be better gauged by looking at the
other duties that fall to the colonel -- while he tracks the download
for America's Army, for example, Wardynski also handles personnel and
funding issues for Afghanistan's very fragile, very real army. This is
the brainchild of a geeky corporal in Pentagon P.R.
As it turns out, the priority placed on America's Army is due to its
integral place in "transformation," a new American military doctrine
aims to fully upgrade the Army into an information-driven force. "Mr.
Rumsfeld talks about it a lot," says Wardynski. Starting next year,
begin to implement helmet-mounted, heads-up displays [HUDS] that will
provide the next iteration of infantrymen with real-time data on
enemy concentrations and so on -- "and it looks a lot like a game,"
according to Wardynski.
While writing a dissertation at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica,
Calif., Wardynski would return home to watch his kids play games like
Mechwarrior, and he was impressed by their ability to process multiple
streams from several HUDs at once. "The kinds of kids that are very
comfortable with lots of information coming at them in visual
will feel very comfortable with our transformed Army," he says. This was
the seed to America's Army; the funding to create it was approved in the
final year of the tech-friendly Clinton administration.
So Wardynski and MOVES were already developing the game when American
Airlines Flight 77 went plowing through the northwest side of the
Among the 189 killed was Wardynski's boss.
Up to then, the designers were leaning more toward narco-terrorists or
traffickers as the opposing combatants. "After 9/11 it was pretty clear
United States was at war, and we do have real enemies out there," says
When I ask Wardynski about the theories of Lt. Col. David Grossman, his
"Oh, yeah" is mixed with a barely audible sigh. After the Columbine
massacre, Grossman enjoyed momentary prominence for his theories of
By playing first-person shooters, Grossman asserted to "60 Minutes,"
Clinton and anyone else who'd listen, kids were training in a "murder
simulator," being taught -- as the Army does in boot camp -- to deliver
expert kill shots on reflex.
So does this mean America's Army is rearing the next generation of
"We brought in Ph.D.s in behavioral science, political science, Army
experts in training, and I have yet to find one who [subscribes to these
theories]," says Wardynski. (Grossman did not respond to repeated
for an interview.)
In a similar vein, I challenge Wardynski on the game's dearth of
gore. (Hits are rendered with a prim red dot, as if the weapons were
shooting out magic markers.) Doesn't that sanitize the gruesome
of an M-16 hit? Gore would disqualify the game from getting the intended
Teen rating from the ratings board, he responds -- and besides, "We
our audience [enough] to know that if we don't have that in our game,
they're not dumb and they'll still know that [gore is] part of combat."
Even with terrorism designated as the primary enemy, care was taken to
scenarios and combatants as generic as possible, says Wardynski. While
men in Kabul are conducting subject-matter reviews, so that future
can be based on active units in Afghanistan, no nation or people is
identified in its depiction of terrorists: "There's some blond white
there's some skinheads ... so it's not like we settled on any ethnic
or anything like that." (This despite the Nation's dishonest claim that
game encourages "Arab bashing.")
There's nothing generic about the opponents in NovaLogic's Delta Force:
Black Hawk Down, who fire at you from turret-mounted jeeps, or from the
rooftops in the game's vividly rendered, 3-D Mogadishu. They
resemble the Somali militants who took the lives of 18 U.S. soldiers,
downing two troop choppers with rocket-propelled grenades -- an
orchestrated in part by Qutb disciple and bin Laden consigliere Ayman
The United States' subsequent withdrawal from Somalia was a milestone in
the al-Qaida narrative, one more victory that proved that atrocity would
met with retreat -- eventually making their designs on New York and
Washington seem like an inevitable next step.
For unrelated reasons, the game generated some controversy, especially
after Mark Bowden refused to have anything to do with NovaLogic's
"I think there's a substantial difference between a work of art, which I
consider a film to be, even a Hollywood film, [and a game]," Bowden
explains, reached while on a train headed for Manhattan. For him, "A
is a game. It's something that you play. And this story is about real
people, and I know many of the family members who lost brothers and
husbands and sons in that battle. And I did not want to be part of
something that turns it into a game."
"Mr. Bowden is certainly entitled to his opinion," NovaLogic producer
Eckhart e-mails me later, "but who is he to judge what a work of art is,
even what an acceptable form of entertainment is?" Eckhart says that
NovaLogic hired two Rangers who fought and were wounded in the conflict
the game's subject-matter experts, and on their request, will donate
of the profits from the game to charities that will benefit those
"[Games] have a certain amount of potential value in making someone
interested in history or in the military or how the military operates,"
says Bowden. "It has that kind of educational value." But he's skeptical
their utility may extend beyond that. "In terms of preparing someone for
the actual experience of combat, particularly infantry soldiers, I just
regard that as really unlikely. Because I think the essential element in
real combat is terror. And I don't believe you can re-create actual
in a video game. It's a game; you can turn it off whenever you want to."
I ask Bowden how many games he's actually played. "I think I got pretty
good at Super Breakout, but that's pretty much the extent of my video
experience." He readily agrees that declining NovaLogic was a visceral
reaction to the medium, though "I have no personal grudge against video
games; my kids play them all the time."
Bowden's repute as a journalist of military and international affairs is
without peer -- his stunning Atlantic Monthly profile of Saddam Hussein
a tour de force -- so it's understandable if he's not also versed on the
latest in interactive entertainment. If anything, his wariness says more
about the distance between generations, and the mediums they call their
The tactical shooter is already a tool in the military's regimen.
says Eckhart, "a modified version of NovaLogic's Delta Force is used for
training plebes in their first year at West Point. The software helps
principles of maneuver, elements of combat power and land navigation."
Capt. Jason Amerine, a West Point grad who recently served in
agrees with Eckhart's observations on the value of games as training
"The Army taught me all the skills I have, but at the same time, a lot
these first-person shooters, I think that they do tend to kind of get
in the right mind-set for some of the situations you might encounter in
real life," he says. He compares them to the battle drills of his field
training. "When you're sitting there in some of these multiplayer
shootouts, engaging your opposition, I think that it does kind of
you a little bit to know what to look for. You get those visual cues
I think is the best way to put it."
Capt. Amerine is a Green Beret with Fifth Special Forces Group. And when
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld demanded summary "boots on the ground," two
the first were Amerine's. Scarcely a month after 9/11, his A-Team
detachment was airdropped deep within Taliban-controlled territory, to
up with then-tribal leader Hamid Karzai and his lightly armed band of
highly irregulars. Armed with an improvised arsenal of satellite phones,
Karzai's charisma and the best air support after the wrath of God,
Amerine's detachment and Karzai's freedom fighters rode in motley
from village to village, fomenting rebellion, gathering a makeshift
militia, until they reached and took the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
friendly fire incident blew out Amerine's left ear and battered his leg
with shrapnel, removing him from action days before Karzai marched into
Kandahar's fall was a turning point in the conflict, but Amerine names
his proudest moment an earlier engagement, when he and his men deployed
a ridgeline above the small town of Tarin Kot. Kandahar's leaders had
500 heavily armed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters rumbling to the town in
vehicles, with orders to slaughter its civilians, sparing neither woman
child (retribution for driving out their Islamist masters, days
From the height of the ridgeline, Amerine and his men turned a
tripod-mounted laser onto the convoy, to guide in the F-18's that were
arcing into position, high above. (Amerine's unit was eventually forced
return to town, and continued directing the airstrike from there -- even
village children laughed and scampered at their feet.) The Taliban
party was still barreling through a narrow valley, closing on Tarin Kot,
when the laser-led bombs found them. And discounting the battered
who fled back to Kandahar, killed them all. The town was secure.
At the moment, though, Amerine is still trying to secure a copy of
Battlefied 1942, a new tactical shooter set in various World War II
theaters. "Babbages messed up and gave away the copy that I
he says, "but I should be picking that up I think tomorrow." He speaks
an easy, placid drawl that belies the ferocity of his chosen profession
but seems more reflective of a childhood spent on Oahu. Recovering from
wartime injuries, he's now earning a master's, in preparation for
lectureship duties at West Point.
When he first got a chance to play America's Army, "I was really curious
what the Army was going to come up with," says Amerine. "Knowing Col.
Wardynski and the people who were working on the game, I had high hopes
that it would be something pretty hot." A longtime gamer who counts
and Conquer and Rainbow Six among his favorites, Amerine was not
disappointed. It was so realistic that for the first time, he says, "I
actually looking at it more as a soldier than even a gamer -- but it
happened to be good in both ways."
And what's impressed him, playing America's Army, is how many
he's fought who come to the game without his experience base, but learn
usable tactics on the fly: "You could tell in some cases you have
significantly younger people, probably junior high or so ... they'd be
saying things back and forth that indicated to me that this was sort of
extension of guys who grew up on Rainbow Six and other first-person
shooters ... the techniques they would use just by figuring it out would
end up being very similar to what we would do in real life." He found
himself up against kids staggering their formations, using smoke to
their approach, closing on the enemy with fire and maneuver, individual
movement techniques (IMT) -- in short, acquiring through gameplay
that was once available only through military training.
At one point during his tour in Afghanistan, Amerine was on a ridge,
outside a town where Taliban gunmen had pinned down Karzai's men with
assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
"So I got on up there and started shooting to try and get my guerrillas
into the fight ... [T]he Taliban were all shooting AK-47s and RPGs, and
with my M4 and an ACOG, I was able to outshoot the Taliban. Especially
300 meters, they weren't very good shots. The RPG was getting close,"
Amerine deadpans, "but I got him before he could get me."
Emboldened, the freedom fighters returned to the fray, and helped
drive the Taliban from the village. But during the firefight, Capt.
had an odd thought. "It was kind of funny, because it was sort of like,
Well, this is just like what I did on my computer, I guess." Having
reenacted similar scenarios so many times, he found these games had
prepare him for that moment, when he came up firing. "It definitely made
easier ... in a lot of ways it was similar to what you would see if you
were playing a sniper in the original Delta Force, for example."
And apart from his concern for the safety of Karzai and the soldiers,
Amerine describes the experience as, well, fun. "It was exhilarating,
actual going through it, bullets whizzing over your head, bombs blowing
But as far as taking human life, that's a horrible aspect of the job --
you know, they were trying to do the same thing to us, and we got them
And about here is where the similarities end. "When I was in a shootout
with the Taliban, it occurred to me that I had to stick my head up to
at them and I might very well catch a bullet between my eyes ... and I
aware of it, but I knew what I had to do. That's not something you can
re-create in a computer game, the fact that your life is in danger. And
also, when you actually have to see the results of what you did, when
go over and you see the enemies that've fallen by your hand, that's
something else you can't re-create."
But even here, developers are seeking to convey, if not the horror, the
strategic implications of violence. With America's military dominance
in doubt, victory now depends not just on winning the battle, but on
preventing as much as possible the friendly fire and civilian casualties
that would turn domestic and world opinion against the action. So in
"America's Army," the server keeps tabs on your fealty to the military's
strict rules of engagement (ROE) -- crossing them too often gets you
removed from the game, thrown into a virtual depiction of Fort
prison. (Multiplayer games are usually anarchic, free-fire zones.)
And in the single-player game of Black Hawk Down, says NovaLogic's Wes
Eckhart, "In most cases, killing civilians or noncombatants will result
the player losing the mission and being forced to replay it." Not only
that, many of the game's missions emphasize the U.S. effort to protect
United Nations' relief effort to the warlord-enforced famine that was
This overall shift of focus is a positive development for the genre,
MIT's Henry Jenkins. "It seems to me that they may be making some
interesting steps toward achieving the 'meaningful violence' I have been
advocating," he says, "heightening the emphasis on choice and
For Amerine, it's an essential element to "America's Army" working as an
educational tool for gamers who'd consider a place in the military: "On
one hand, we're becoming extremely technologically advanced; nobody can
computer illiterate in the Army anymore," he says. "The other aspect to
though, the human aspect, that's the part that we also need to make sure
never lose sight of, because we can never forget our humanity. We still
need to remember we're out there using very lethal weapons; often we're
close proximity to noncombatants, to civilians, and [we must] protect
lives as well as we can while we're attempting to engage the enemy."
Fortunately, Amerine suspects that "America's Army" gamers who do end up
the recruitment office will have a reservoir of experience to draw from.
don't think that they'll really quite appreciate a lot of the lessons
they do it for real, and then they can kind of make the mental leap to
[the gameplay and real-world experience] together."
For his own part, as he heals and continues his education, his only
is that he's not part of the latest deployment. "All my friends, all my
soldiers, they could be invading Iraq soon, and I'm going to college --
that's kinda hard to take ... I'd want to be out there sharing the risk
with everybody rather than ... watching it on the news."
When asked about Hamid Karzai's recent narrow escape from an
attempt, he speaks of his friend the president of Afghanistan as of a
fellow soldier. "He's an incredibly brave man who's truly a patriot for
country. He knew from the beginning that there'd be people trying to
assassinate him ... So this really doesn't change anything -- he's still
going to work hard to bring stability to his country, and he'll just
dodging the bullets as he tries to do so."
He might soon act as an advisor to future expansions of "America's
so I ask him what kind of missions he'd imagine, if the designers were
implement, say, laser-guided airstrikes.
"You can lase a target from several kilometers away," he says. "So one
thing might be you have an observation post, you have a laser setup,
you're trying to lase the enemy, and you're trying to protect your
as enemy forces are coming right up on you."
It occurs to me that such a mission would resemble what Amerine did in
finest hour, when he turned a beam of light on the would-be butchers of
women and children, and brought down the thunder.
When Sayyid Qutb came to America, he reportedly admired the country's
scientific and technological achievements, but seethed with contempt for
its obsession with "entertainment, or what they call in their language,
'fun.'" But perhaps Western culture is poised for the ultimate in ironic
revenge -- America's Army heralds the day when computer gaming's
of entertainment and technology will become the greatest threat to the
terrorist menace, as it continues its struggle to carry out the jihad of
Qutb and bin Laden's fevered longings.
"We're going to continue to be out hunting for terrorists," Amerine
promises me, "and doing what we can to support the Arab world." When I
thank him for what he did in Afghanistan -- helping uproot the al-Qaida
network, liberating a brutalized people, stuff like that -- Amerine
cheerily, "I really had fun doing it."
In his early 30s, Amerine is among the first generation of soldiers to
up with computer games. It's not hard to have confidence in the soldiers
who'll come after him, kids in their early teens who are already giving
a hard fight, online. You can see them in the field, in subsequent
dedicated young men and women, their weapons merged into an information
network that enables them to cut out with surgical precision the cancer
that threatens us all -- heat-packing humanitarians who leave the
unscathed, and full of renewed hope. In their wake, democracy, literacy
an Arab world restored to full flower, as it deserves to be, an equal in
burgeoning global culture, defended on all fronts by the best of the
About the writer Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon.
HSFK Hessische Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung
PRIF Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
Leimenrode 29 60322 Frankfurt a/M Germany
Tel +49 (0)69 9591 0422 Fax +49 (0)69 5584 81
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