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Kucinich hits 'Virtual Army Experience' as 'deceptive'
Stephen C. Webster
Published: Thursday March 12, 2009


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'Army simulation' tour cost taxpayers $9.8 million in 2007; Kucinich wants funds pulled


In real war, a "frag" does not earn more points or a higher ranking. It means something else entirely. And you don't respawn. Ever.

That's essentially the message carried by Congressman Dennis Kucinich in a letter to the leaders of the House Committee on Armed Services, urging them to pull funding for the Army's "deceptive recruitment" with its traveling VR simulation.

The popular, liberal representative's response was triggered by the latest "virtual reality" incarnation of America's Army, a multi-player, squad-based tactical shooting video game for the PC and consoles.

When it released in 2002, the game drew praise from reviewers, many of them ranking it among the best first-person shooters of its day, such as Unreal Tournament and Counterstrike. It was released initially over the Internet free of charge.

"America's Army: Operations clearly has a lot going for it, not the least of which is a level of realism that's constantly palpable and brought to life with very high production values," opined GameSpot writer Scott Osborne in 2002. "However, at this point, the game is limited by its focus on small-scale engagements between foot soldiers."

He must have been using the word "realistic" in relative terms. Today, the game is even more "realistic," thanks to the elaborate technology involved in the "Virtual Army Experience" (VAE).

Sporting prop Humvees in a massive VR combat scenario, a LAN (Local Area Network) room for multiplayer gaming and a team-based mission simulation encompassing a number of the various jobs inherent to soldiering, the VAE represents the latest generation of how America's military appeals to the 13-and-up demographic. The Army even pulls scenarios from "real missions."

That's a bit much for Kucinich.

"Although participants score points for shooting people in uniform and lose points for firing on noncombatants, no blood or carnage is ever seen in the simulation," writes the Ohio lawmaker and former presidential candidate. "The VAE shields participants from the realities of killing while glorifying the taking of human life in a thinly veiled attempt to recruit new soldiers. Making matters worse, if a child wants to take part in the simulation, the Army collects his or her contact information, as well as an assessment of the childís performance in the simulator.

"The VAE travels around the country to family oriented venues such as amusement parks, air shows and county fairs. When the VAE came to the Cleveland Air Show in 2008, I raised concerns and objections with the Army. Allowing children as young as thirteen years of age to participate in a simulation endorsed by the United States Government that glorifies and sanitizes extreme violence is unacceptable."

"I had fun during the intense but short experience," summarized C-Net writer Will Greenwald in 2007, when the VAE first launched. "It felt surprisingly real, with the gun and Humvee shaking and rocking wildly as I shot at terrorists on a huge screen. Unfortunately, it didn't really present the same level of risk most video games offer. As far as I could tell, nobody in the simulation died or got hurt. Sure, bullets flew and bombs exploded, but nobody lost a life ..."

Kucinich insisted that funds be pulled from the "Virtual Army Experience," noting that in 2007 taxpayers footed a $9.8 million bill for the program. Thursday morning, Kucinich's staff isssued a memo calling on the committee to "eliminate deceptive Army recruitment."

America's Army is not the only virtual recruiting tool used by the military. During a launch party for the popular Xbox 360 game Halo 3, underage kids were turned away from a GameStop location in New Hampshire because the game is rated "M" (Mature) and recommended for players ages 17 and up.

According to Game Politics, Air Force recruiters across the street welcomed the underage GameStop castoffs with their own Halo 2 tournament, including pizza, Mountain Dew and a "pimped-out military SUV" housing the consoles.

Kucinich is not the only one protesting military use of video games to pique the interest of teens. Iraq Veterans Against the War has confronted America's Army demos before, garnering widespread coverage across technology media.

In 2008, an activist group staged a protest outside of the game developer's headquarters. In San Francisco, Ubisoft was picketed by protesters who carried a banner that read "War is not a game." Wired also reported the group tried to put warning stickers on copies of America's Army for Xbox 360.

The following video of an IVAW protest in St. Louis, MO. was uploaded to YouTube August 19, 2007.



Congressman Kucinich's full letter follows.

####

Dear Chairman Skelton and Ranking Member McHugh:

I urge you to eliminate budget authority for the Virtual Army Experience (VAE) in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. The VAE is a state-of-the-art, interactive recruiting tool used by the Army to give participants as young as 13 years old a naÔve and unrealistic glimpse into the world of Soldiering.

The VAE allows participants to perform missions using adapted combat training technology meant to imitate the feel of real Army equipment through the use of air-pressured guns that mimic recoil and kickback, and Humvees that shake slightly from simulated IED explosions. Although participants score points for shooting people in uniform and lose points for firing on noncombatants, no blood or carnage is ever seen in the simulation. The VAE shields participants from the realities of killing while glorifying the taking of human life in a thinly veiled attempt to recruit new soldiers. Making matters worse, if a child wants to take part in the simulation, the Army collects his or her contact information, as well as an assessment of the childís performance in the simulator.

The VAE travels around the country to family oriented venues such as amusement parks, air shows and county fairs. When the VAE came to the Cleveland Air Show in 2008, I raised concerns and objections with the Army. Allowing children as young as thirteen years of age to participate in a simulation endorsed by the United States Government that glorifies and sanitizes extreme violence is unacceptable. Like many towns across the U.S. , Cleveland is trying to do the opposite because of its very real struggles with violence. Exposing children to America ís heroes is beneficial to both the children and members of the armed service. However, this exposure must be honest and complete, rather than portraying an unrealistic or incomplete picture of what choosing future service to our country might entail.

I appreciate the difficult job the Committee faces when setting the priorities for fiscal year 2010. I hope you will agree that it is irresponsible to continue the touring of the VAE exhibits. In 2007 the reported estimated cost to operate the VAE was $9.8 million. This money can be better spent. I urge you to eliminate from the budget the Virtual Army Experience in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

Dennis J. Kucinich
Member of Congres

This story has been updated to clarify the target of the congressman's letter.


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