The killing game: Army recruiting illegally targets kids

(8 am – promoted by ek hornbeck)

A few weeks ago, Wisconsin peace activists successfully challenged the Army’s use of a “Virtual Army Experience” game, aimed at recruiting young people, at a lakefront music festival. As reported then, the festival asked the Army to shut down the game, which offered a chance to shoot at life-sized human targets from a Humvee, replace it with something less offensive, and set an age limit of 17 to participate.

Now comes the charge that by targeting young teenagers the Army is actually violating international law:

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.

Before complaints from Peace Action-Wisconsin, Veterans for Peace and others, recruiters at Summerfest were allowing teens as young as 13 to “play” the “game” and collecting their personal information, for recruiting purposes, before issuing them a card that gave them access to the tent with the Humvee, machine guns and lifesize targets moving on a big screen.  The Army first raised the age at Summerfest, but ended up shutting down the game and replacing it with a tamer offering with stationary targets and no Humvee.

By the time the Army’s exhibit opened at a Duluth air show, the Army had raised the age limit to 17. Here’s a link to a report from Yahoo gaming news on protests over the game in Milwaukee and Duluth, and a report from a Duluth area activist.


Somehow, the Army’s defense for having the “game” at a family event is that the Blue Angels were part of the entertainment. But people don’t come to see the Blue Angels strafe a village.  They do precision flying.  They don’t kill anyone, or even pretend to.

The “America’s Army” game, developed at a cost of $6-million in taxpayer money, is clearly a recruting tool.  And it is clearly working as intended:

Four years after the game was introduced at the 2002 Los Angeles 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!”

… 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.

While initial protests targeted the Army’s exhibit, a national campaign is in the works, starting in San Francisco with the game’s manufacturer, Unisoft.  A coalition of more than 15 groups, united as Direct Action to Stop the War, wrote the manufacturer to request a meeting to discuss concerns about the game’s use to recruit children.  From the letter:

Ubisoft has been the exclusive publisher of the console and small screen versions, developed in order to access a wider, less privileged and younger market. The game has been granted a “teen” rating, allowing 13 year olds to play.

The [ACLU] report … say[s] 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.”

…Ubisoft’s role as publisher of “America’s Army” is contributing to an international crime.  But you are not alone: Gameloft is working on the cell phone application and Secret Level was a developer of the 2005 version of the game. Is child recruitment, recruitment to fight the cause of dubious wars, the proper business of your company and those of you in their employ?

Ubisoft has not responded to the group’s polite request for a meeting. The next step on August 6 will not be as polite.

Meanwhile, the “virtual reality” game tour will be in Six Flags in Jackson, NJ Aug. 1-10, Indianapolis state fair and air show various times between Aug. 6-24, Cleveland Aug. 30-Sept. 1.  Later visits include New Brunswick, Maine, Amarillo, and wrapping up in late October in Maryville, TN.   Schedule here.

With 30,000 players every day and 9 million registered users, it is too late to put America’s Army back in the bottle.  But it is not too late to challenge the use of the Virtual Army Experience as a recruiting tool, especially for under-age youngsters, nor is it too late to challenge the development of new, even more sophisticated games which are sure to follow in future Pentagon budgets, and are no doubt already under development.

Direct Action to Stop the War has another suggestion about how those who have participated in developing the game, and have profited from it, can repent and do some penance:

Consider the story of Joseph Rotblat. He was a nuclear physicist working on the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos in 1944 when he recognized that he could no longer in good conscience continue his work there. He understood that the danger of the Nazis developing an atomic bomb was past, and the bomb that he was working on had larger and dreadful purposes. When he left attempts were made to paint him as a Soviet spy and he was banished from the US, not to return for twenty years. After the bomb was deployed to horrible effect in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Rotblat determined that his future work would be channeled only toward peaceful ends. He directed his research towards the effects of radiation. He became a lifelong activist for peace and nuclear disarmament and received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 as part of the Pugwash Conferences.

America’s Army is hardly a nuclear weapon. It’s a game for some, a job for others.  But it IS a game with long-term negative consequence for some players.  Is the only way forward for America through the permanent militarization of our society, or are there other solutions that talented, creative and intelligent people such as those working on this game might discover if they turned their sights in another direction?


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  1. to violence – it is so widespread that it does seem by design.  I know your diary is about much more direct tactics, but my children are very young and are already pretty sure that fighting is the way grownups solve problems (except at home, where we use more “Cold War” tactics)

  2. “I like that I got to use a gun!” said 13-year-old Spencer Padgett, after trying the “Virtual Army Experience.” Article.

  3. Our Quaker Friends group, together with Veterans for Peace, has been for two years “tabling” at the local high school – under strict supervision, and with a lot of hassle, from the princial, etc. – in opposition to the ubiquitous miltary recruiters.

    I had not thought before about the illegallity of the military targetting children under 17.

  4. and torture and inflicting pain on others….these games are the vehicle, the misuse of MSM by not showing the results of war, ie. dead soldiers’ coffins or funerals, makes it all seem unreal and unrelated to anything we do. The systematic “dehumanizing” of the “enemy” and profiling of Muslims is all part of it. Put it all together and you get a “crusade” of American proportions that translates into big business for churches as well as for the military-industrial complex.

    Great Diary. As a retired teacher of students heavily into gangs, this is so true.

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