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US military is meeting recruitment goals with video games – but at what cost?

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One reason for the armed forces’ recruiting success is the economic collapse and the ongoing jobs crisis. But this year’s record recruitment can only be fully understood in the context of the remarkable shift in tactics that began a decade ago.

In 1999, the military had its worst recruiting year in 30, and Congress called for “aggressive, innovative” new approaches. Private-sector specialists were brought in, including the top advertising agency Leo Burnett, and the Army Marketing Brand Group was formed. A key aim of the new recruitment strategy was to ensure long-term success by cultivating the allegiance of teenage Americans.

Part of the new campaign, helping the post-9/11 recruiting bump, was the free video game America’s Army. Since its release, different versions of the war game have been downloaded more than 40 million times, enough to put it in the Guinness book of world records. According to a 2008 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”

America’s Army targets 13-to-21-year-olds. The T for Teen rating was attained because designers were, as one Army spokesman said in 2002, “very careful on the blood thing.” Designers emphasize the game’s realism, but the game is only realistic on a superficial level. Their conception of authenticity consists of realistic movement, gun clips that fall away at the right speed, and night vision goggles that make the same exact whir as the actual goggles do.

The Navy’s 10-page graphic novel, “Bravo Zulu,” aimed at minority high school students, was released in May. Its plot is as cartoonish as its sound effects: “KLANK,” “FZZZZZZZ,” “KA-KREEK,” “FZAAAAAAT.” The Army’s graphic novel, “Knowledge is Power,” was released in tandem with “America’s Army 3.” The graphic novel portrays a staff sergeant surviving an explosion unharmed. His exclamation to the rookie soldier who saved him implies that this shows it was wrong to be “worried about bein’ here!”

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