Saturday, December 02, 2006
Do Robot Recruiters Dream of Electric Lies?
Back in the day, at the dreary end of the Vietnam War, I had to deal, as a JAG officer, with the results of Army recruiter lying. I've been watching the recent spate of television commercials with earnest teenage boys (if they have ones with teenage girls, I haven't seen them) trying to convince their skeptical parents that joining the Army or the Reserves is a good idea. The kids inevitably come to the point where they extol the training they'll get that can be used in later civilian life. About that time I start yelling at the screen "That's what you think, kid!"
I can't begin to guess how many kids I spoke to back then who thought they were going to get training in cutting edge electronics, only to find out that "communications specialist" meant they'd be trained to run, under fire, with rolls of wire to connect WWII surplus hand-cranked telephones together, or similar tales of woe.
And those were the relatively honest recruiters. There was the time that a recruit showed up who had been in special education at his school and had an IQ of 80. His grandmother, who he lived with, didn't know where he was and had reported him missing. When he was taking the screening tests he looked at the person next to him and, as he put it, "When he made mark, I make mark." We couldn't figure out if the recruiter told him to do that or not, but it was clear that the recruiter must have known he wasn't suitable for service.
To be fair, it was not just the recruiters' fault. Being assigned to recruiting at the time was widely known as a "career-killer." Political considerations were forcing the military to rely less on the draft and more on volunteers and the pressure to meet unrealistic quotas was incredible. Failure to meet them meant that people who had served for 15 years or more, including tours in Vietnam, might be RIFed (Reduction in Forces), forced to leave the service before they got their 20 years in and earned their half-pay pension.
And nobody thought to check the recruiters performance by keeping tabs on what happened once the recruits got to places like Fort Dix. A common ploy was to tell kids who had been convicted of serious charges as juveniles not to put it down if their juvenile records had been "sealed." That would, indeed, get them passed the initial screening but, about 6 weeks later, when the FBI check, which is unaffected by state court orders, came back, they'd be bounced by administrative discharge. Nobody would go back and remove those kids from the recruiter's count. In short, the system gave them every incentive to cheat and made no attempt to catch them if they did. On the other hand, recruiters who played by the rules but couldn't manage to sell an unpopular war were "punished" most severely.
Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that the same forces are at work in today's unpopular war?
Anyway, that was all prologue to this story about a new video game "that puts players in the driver's seat of 18 systems at the heart of the military's new net-centric warfare approach" that has been commissioned by the U.S. Army as a recruiting tool. But does it lie?
Now, the game is labeled as future warfare, as it might be fought in 2015, but do you think kids on the adrenaline express are going to stop and think about that? I know the recruiters aren't going to be making much effort to remind them.It's an impressive game, simulating weaponry the military is actually using or building, gamers say. But the gameplay is designed so it's hard to lose: The equipment holds up awfully well and the enemy doesn't learn from experience.
"They didn't ask for hole punchers," says Mark Long, co-CEO of Zombie, where the game was built under contract. "High tech has all kinds of low-tech vulnerabilities and they didn't want the vulnerabilities programmed in."
All those high tech weapons won't seem so cool when you're rolling down some road where a few pounds of buried explosives might go right through the vehicle you're in ... that the politicians back safe at home thought would be too expensive if they equipped it with armor.Gamers on Battlefront.com give the title good reviews, but complain about the game being paid for with their taxes and offering an overly optimistic view of America's tactical superiority over fictitious enemies.
Susan Nash, an e-learning expert and associate dean at Excelsior College in Albany, New York, has played F2C2 and the Army's first recruiting game. She gives both high marks for fun and for the learning experience. But she agrees with Long that the new game presents an artificially rosy view of warfare.
"It's a great game and a really good training tool that creates conditions for learning, teaches strategic thinking and tactical thinking, and it's got really cool weapons," Nash says. "But ethical issues loom."
For example, there's no consideration that military power or technology could fail or be jammed, she says. And the enemy doesn't learn, in contrast to a certain real-life conflict where the hallmark of insurgents is their ability to rapidly gain knowledge and evolve.
"All their use of technology is so off-label, so future-forward," Nash says. "And you've got to figure the enemy is playing the game too."
Kids, if you want some honest career advice, just remember: everybody lies. Recruiters lie, game makers lie and, most of all, the old guys in Washington, getting a whole lot of money from a bunch of people who not only don't give a damn about you but don't even give a damn about the United States, are guaranteed to lie.
Even if it was an honest video game, the gig they're selling ain't no game.