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Army gunning for game players

The U.S. Army says its free PC game has turned into one of its most effective informational tools and could even help train real soldiers.

LOS ANGELES--The U.S. Army is looking for a few good gamers.

Beginning the second year of its experiment in using free, custom-built PC games to give young people a taste of military life, the Army is finding the games to be not only spectacularly popular but a uniquely powerful promotional tool.

Chris Chambers, deputy director of the "America's Army" project, said in an interview at the E3 gaming trade show here that prospective soldiers who contact Army recruiters after playing the game have a better follow-through rate than any other form of advertising or promotion.

"It's a much more efficient and effective vehicle for the Army to provide information to young people than the other media we use," Chambers said.

And game players may well turn out to be better soldiers, based on recent academic research that shows regular game-playing boosts certain visual-spatial abilities. "There's a very high level of visual acuity in game players that's different than nonplayers," Chambers said. "They're good at focusing on specific things in a chaotic environment, which is an important skill in a lot of Army situations."

The Army launched "America's Army," a series of PC games depicting realistic modern combat situations, two years ago to overwhelming interest. The game now has 3.3 million registered players, putting it far beyond similar commercial games.

Besides being a source of information for prospective recruits, the game gives nonsoldiering types a realistic view of Army life--a valuable mission as American troops face danger in Iraq and Afghanistan. All scenarios in the game are designed to actively reflect real-life tactics, said Christian Buhl, lead programmer for the game. Players who go in with the guns-blazing style typical of commercial war games quickly wash out.

"We conform to the rules of engagement," he said. "If you shoot someone on your side, if you harm a civilian noncombatant, you end up in prison."

"We think the game reflects positively on the American way of fighting a war," Chambers add. "That's why we don't mind that 25 percent of our audience is overseas."

The Army has released updates and add-ons for the game on a regular basis, and recent materials draw heavily from current combat experiences. Future add-ons may even be used as training tools for actual soldiers. One new training mission, which may be released to the public, is the only simulator available for a bomb disposal robot receiving heavy use in Iraq. Another mission reinforces proper driving technique for a new style of military vehicle prone to rollovers.