The U.S. Army Recruitment Command has always struggled to find new and innovative ways to connect with the ever-evolving youth. A poster of Uncle Sam saying he “wants you for the U.S. Army” may have worked wonders for one generation, but in 2002, young adults needed something new. The answer was a video game: America’s Army.
Conceived by Colonel Casey Wardynski, the Army’s Chief Economist and a professor at West Point, the idea was to provide the public with a virtual soldier experience that was engaging, informative, and entertaining. Wardynski felt that the best way to convey this was through the booming video-game market.
America’s Army approached the market in a pretty unique way (by 2002 standards). First of all, it was completely free to play — all it required to get started was an internet connection. The game was developed, published, and distributed entirely within the U.S. Army and was built upon the Unreal Engine.
The next major selling point was the game’s realism. When the first iteration of America’s Army was released, many of its competitors were over-the-top action games, like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or 007: Nightfire. Others popular titles of the time, like Splinter Cell or Ghost Recon, portrayed the military in a fun but unrealistic manner.
America’s Army went in a different direction. It put a heavy emphasis on little things. The focus was on immersion rather than spectacle. The game’s tutorial, for example, placed you with a virtual Drill Sergeant and gave pointers on real-world weapon etiquette — things more important to real life than to the game itself. The game also focused on the Army’s seven core values.
Realism wasn’t just about details, though — it was about gameplay. For example, being shot in the leg would make your character go limp and slug around. The game even went into great depth regarding practical medical aid lessons, and has since been credited with saving lives after a player remembered skills developed in-game as he approached a horrific car accident.
Above all, the game was enjoyable. It’s hard to find accurate recruitment numbers related to the game as it was released on the first 4th of July following the September 11th attacks, but the game was highly decorated within the gaming community and even earned Computer Gaming World Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Award in 2002.
To this day, the series continues to be free-to-play. The 2015 release of America’s Army: Proving Grounds still has an active player base.