America's Army is a series of games being developed by leading game developers like Infogrames and Interplay. What makes this project so unique, though, is that these games are being financed by none other than the United States Army. Because of this, the game sports a price tag of exactly $0. The first two games - Operations and Soldier - were slated to be released on July 1, 2002, but only Operations was released. Operations is freely available to download from the Internet; those with 56k connections will also have the opportunity to snatch up one of the CD-ROMs being distributed with many PC gaming magazines. Sporting the brand new Unreal Warfare engine, America's Army has currently developed two games:


Operations casts the player as a member of an Army special-ops team. It is similar in nature to Counter-Strike. If a player suddenly decides to go Rambo, that player will find that death will come very quickly. The Army wants this to be as close to the real thing as possible; and according to PC Gamer's July 2002 magazine, they appear to have accomplished their goal. Silent hand signals will be essential due to the fact that the enemy can hear your radio. Guns can and will jam (except for the AK-47), often in the middle of combat. Each weapon even has its own muzzle flash!

The enemy, known as the OPFOR, is not playable. You are always on the American side. Depending on which side you join, you may be given different objectives. For example, one side may be required to secure an American embassy from the OPFOR, and the other side will be required to prevent the embassy from being taken over by the OPFOR. Ingenious.

Lamers and cheaters who currently plague Counter-Strike's servers are nowhere to be found on Operations servers. Team killers find themselves a nice comfy spot at the Fort Leavenworth military prison. Similarly, all official Army-funded Operations servers are patrolled 24 hours a day by HomeLAN admins. No SDKs are available, hindering cheating efforts, and should an exploit be discovered it will be quickly patched. In fact, several exploits have been patched already.

To ensure that players actually know what they're doing, each recruit is required to go through several offline training missions to accurately simulate what they'll be facing. These training missions are based on actual boot camp locations around the United States, and the Army has taken steps to ensure that boot camp exercises remain just as rigorous.

Update 7/17/2002

About two weeks have passed since Operations became available for download, and America's Army has literally been crushed by its own popularity. For some odd reason the in-game server browser doesn't work yet, so players are forced to rely on a third-party client like Gamespy or the All-Seeing Eye. At its peak, the authentication server was registering 15 players per second; it was absolutely swamped. HomeLAN increased their own servers by about 25%.

The gameplay is outstanding, although some server issues need to be addressed.

Update 12/27/2002

Currently at 1.5.0, the game has been vastly modified from its original version. A new "honor" system is in - your Honor score determines if you'll get that sniper rifle or not. Additionally, a Combat Effectiveness Meter has been added, showing how accurate your aim will be. Finally, several maps have been added - FARP Raid, FLS, among others.


Soldiers is a completely different game; it is an RPG casting the player as a boot camp recruit who must struggle with the actual hardships of Army life. Based on the real-life experiences of many boot camp graduates, the player must determine how the soldier is to act. A system somewhat like the Sims' method of measuring Hunger and Fun will be used. Instead of satisfying a soldier's basic needs, a player must choose whether a soldier will ultimately be brave and noble, or whether to act like a slacker and be kicked out of boot camp.

According to the site, the game " Story Engine inside the game updates the story from moment to moment. This story drives a Movie Generation System that assembles and plays video and audio. SOLDIERS is like a combination of a movie and a simulation game: you can watch and hear the results of decisions that you make for your character."

Source: PC Gamer, Operations forum admin postings

With the stream of announcements and hype (E3, anyone?) about this game series that has been inundating the Internet, some interesting questions have come up. Since mfk has done an excellent job of describing the actual game system above, I will skip right to the point. The most interesting question is, of course, why are they doing this? The software is being given away, with the Army funding its development by a number of gaming companies. What do they get out of it?

The following hypothesis is entirely my own, and in no way is derived from any 'privileged information' or official statements.

There are a number of possibilities, of course. Let's first look at the relevant characteristics of the game, as advertised:

One possibility is that the Army plans to use online gamers as an 'armed mob' OPFOR. While it presently is not possible to play anyone other than a U.S. soldier in the game, it is quite feasible for the Army to observe player performance and perhaps 'recruit' particular players for such tasks, both for prestige or perhaps monetary compensation. Consider the following points in favor of this scenario:

  1. 'Free' OPFOR on foot: The US Army struggled for quite some time in the late 1980s and early 1990s with integrating foot soldiers and AI-based OPFOR into SIMNET. AFAIK, it didn't work that well due to (in the first case) interface problems preventing soldiers from 'naturally' operating in the sim, and (in the second) insurmountable problems with the AI. If they were to utilize AA players, they wouldn't require an AI; and by tapping gamers, they would be able to capture a large group of people who are already comfortable with the current cheap interfaces (mouse/keyboard/joystick etc).
  2. Verisimilitude for certain scenarios: While it is true that it would be extremely difficult to utilize the online gaming community for trained force-on-force scenarios, there are other situations where it is extremely applicable. Think, for example, of the 'Blackhawk Down' scenario: A small, trained U.S. Army force is confronted with overwhelming numbers of opponents. While some or all of these opponents are well-armed and individually skilled in the use of their weapons (local fighters), a far smaller number will belong to any form of organized fighting force which actually fights together as a unit. Those that do belong to such groups, however, would really be indistinguishable from the crowd except by their actions. In this case, online gamers fit both of those criteria quite well; for additional verisimilitude, online gamers are usually quite willing to self-sacrifice both for individual and team small gains, a quality it is difficult to get proper soldiers to emulate, even in training.
  3. Genetic combat algorithms: The computing world has figured out that one of the best ways to get efficient algorithms is to steal a page from biology and simulate natural selection among candidates until winners emerge. In the case of combat, tactics can be viewed as algorithms. While it is possible to run the hundreds of thousands of trials or more required to evolve these algorithms inside a computer model, you lose the stochastic resolution achieved by having each trial done using 'real' agents. With this game, it would be possible to inject these algorithms into the game AI and watch thousands of players eagerly fight them. Even if they don't end up allowing players to play OPFOR, there's no reason the scenarios can't be tweaked to get the same effect, or the model simply constructed to account for that.

There are other advantages to having this pool of 24/7 testers on line as well. Readers of Ender's Game or watchers of Toys may well be first in line to suspect a devious X-Files-worthy scheme to harness the insanely creative destructive impulses of America's youth to remotely fight her wars. While this isn't likely in the case of the 'first person shooter' genre, it might be practical for screening for which demographics of younger gamer show aptitudes the Army is interested in. Although I doubt a The Last Starfighter scenario is in the offing, it would certainly allow the Army's Recruiting command to most efficiently allocate its advertising dollars - besides giving them a channel directly to those gamers!

The game interface itself could be made to serve the Army's purpose. The Army is on the verge of spending a great deal of money to create what it terms the 21st Century Land Warrior - an extreme-tech foot soldier. Individual systems are already in the field, such as wearable computers, helmet-mounted GPS systems, laser designators with position computers in them, head-mounted displays, and more. The problem with all this technology is, as the sage Robert Heinlein once said:

"If you load a mud foot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, somebody a lot more simply equipped- say with a stone ax- will sneak up and bash his head in while he is trying to read a vernier."

Thanks to TenMinJoe for the precise quote from Starship Troopers

The wide distribution of an interface would allow widespread experimentation with features that might show up on individual soldiers' displays or gear. Algorithms might be embedded in the code to determine how often players use various features of their equipment, which might offer insight into what bits of gear are actually useful and which take too much attention and/or time to use.

These are merely a few of the possibilities. While I'm not saying any of these are being done, it is at least clear that the U.S. Army is quite serious about pursuing the youth of America to serve, and perhaps trying to overcome the popular notion that computer jocks tend to join the Air Force. In the meantime, I for one plan to enjoy their largesse; being a tad too old for the draft, I can safely go spend some time trying to get the 'Expert' rating in the Basic module so that I can qualify for Sniper School, soon to be released...because then I can select weapons like the Barrett .50 sniper rifle in online play. Heeheehee.

Note: Judging from messages I've gotten, I was not too clear in my last paragraph. Yes, I too think the most likely explanation is just that they're doing it as a buzz-generator and advertisement. But that's no fun to pick apart!

America's Army's license has a nice little twist: the game cannot be downloaded in certain countries. Here's why, a quote from the license: "-- neither the Software nor any underlying information or technology may be downloaded, used or otherwise exported or re-exported (i) into (or to a national or resident of) Cuba, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Iran, Syria and any other country to which the United States has embargoed goods --". I wonder how they are going to enforce that part of the license...

For my money the most interesting thing about AA:Operations, is the unintentional lesson in moral relativism it might teach it's young impressionable players.

Each map has two opposing teams, and before the game starts, you read the objectives for each team side by side:

Assault: Terrorists have sized control of such and such and you must take it back...

Defense: Terrorists are about to try and size control of such and such and you must defend it...

So players have to ask themselves, why am I on this team, with these men (the character models are all male as of press time), killing those men? It's all just random chance, they're no different from me, this whole thing is just arbitrary distinctions, some shadow government is making me fight, but there's no real reason.

America's Army: Operations is therefore a road towards a more peaceful future.

One of the more interesting and puzzling (from a play perspective) aspects of this game is the weaponry.

Firstly, real weapons are utilized. As stated in previous writeups, you are always the US Army, so each side always has the same choices. Ignoring the special forces scenario, your choices are usually limited to the following:

The puzzling aspect occurs when you, on the Army side, face your opponents on the OPFOR side (even though the OPFOR team thinks they are the Army).

The enemy shoots at you with burst fire and single shot M16s... yet if you kill them, you can pick up their weapon... which is miraculously an AK-47, which has two fire choices, full auto and single shot!

This occurs throughout the game, as the weapons the enemy uses and the weapons they drop always have small differences. This is understandable, as the Army wants you to play the Army, not the OPFOR, yet puzzling, when you hear an AK-47 fired burst fire when it doesn't have that option.

Another small note is that the M80 sniper rifle is billed in training as a ordnance disposal rifle. The training for it is hitting a small mortar shell several hundred yards away, and they mention in training that this gun can be used to destroy vehicle engine blocks.

This should make you think, as you sight in for a head shot, on what exactly this gun will do to the human body.

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