WSJ | July 28, 2008

GURNEE, Ill. — In the Tweety Bird section of the parking lot at an amusement park here, visitors are trying a new attraction. They jump into Humvees or Black Hawk helicopters and use fake firearms to hunt down “genocidal indigenous forces.” They shoot at huge video screens.

“I like that I got to use a gun!” said 13-year-old Spencer Padgett, after trying the “Virtual Army Experience.” His dad, Scott, from Laporte, Ind., said he wanted his son to gain an appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the Army.

The Virtual Army Experience — a traveling exhibit of the U.S. Army — has been touring the country for the past year and a half, stopping at amusement parks, air shows and county fairs. The Army, which collects information from the thousands of people who play the game, says it’s an innovative way to reach a new audience. But critics don’t like the idea of the military using giant videogames as a recruiting tool.

While the Army met its goal of adding 80,000 new soldiers last year, it faces a tough recruiting environment. These days, “parents are less likely to encourage their children to consider military service,” said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

The Virtual Army exhibit is based on a videogame the Army began developing in 1999, after missing recruiting goals. Not only do videogames give the Army a new way to relate to the public, they also present “an opportunity to shape their tastes,” said Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point.

The Army spent about $9 million building four versions of the Virtual Army Experience, Col. Wardynski said. It cost $9.8 million last year to operate the exhibits. This year, the main exhibits will visit 40 events. The smaller “Delta” version will visit 31 separate events.

It’s catering to the interest of America’s youth,” said Nicholas Mantych, 21, from Genoa City, Wis., who recently tried the Virtual Army game. He suggested another idea the Army could offer players: “They should give them gear and paintball guns.”

Recent player Miles Cahill, 23, who works at a videogame retailer, said the Army’s game wasn’t as good as other shooter games he’s tried, but it was still fun. He didn’t mind the marketing aspect.

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