Twenty years ago, the U.S. Army tried something that was revolutionary at the time.
In the early 2000s, video games were a political hot potato. Some elected officials were pointing to them as corruptive forces on the youth of America and an industry that was in dire need of regulation. Then, a few years later, the Hot Coffee mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (which let two characters in the game have animated sexual intercourse) found its way out into the wild and all hell truly broke loose. The cries for regulation eventually led to a Supreme Court case, which confirmed the video game industry was covered by the First Amendment, just like books and movies.
Amid all of this, the U.S. Army released America’s Army, a video game meant as a recruitment tool. The free-to-play tactical shooter was wildly successful, reaching 20 million players. But come May 5, the servers will be shut down—and America’s Army will surrender to the forces of time.
While it might be facing a very honorable discharge, America’s Army was an idea that was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. And it blazed a trail for a new type of recruiting that’s still being used today.
Video games have become a prime tool for a variety of industries to find workers. Game developers often cherry-pick talented players who have created mods or especially popular mini games on Roblox or other user-generated content-heavy titles. But even fields as complex as air traffic control are leaning into the gaming world.
Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration launched a hiring campaign with the goal of finding 4,300 air traffic controllers over the next five years, with a specific focus on gamers.
“Games like Call of Duty, you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings,” the agency said in a promotional video. “We’re looking at our radar screens, so we need to see out of the corner of our eye when another plane’s coming or just the minor little details.”
(The pay’s a good bit better for a controller versus a soldier, too. A private in the U.S. Army makes between $22,000 and $26,000 per year. The median salary for an air traffic controller in 2021 was $138,556.)
With the pandemic greatly diminishing the number of outbound recruiting drives, more companies are eyeing games as a way to screen candidates. Banking and asset-management companies are leaning more heavily into things like stock-picking “contests” and other games that act as tests in disguise.
To date, no industry has embraced games as warmly as the military, though. America’s Army, for example, started with an initial budget of $7 million of your tax dollars at play—and quickly grew from there. Recognizing that players know a quality title when they see one (and ignore and ridicule poor-quality efforts), it assembled a team of proven developers and bought a license for the Unreal Engine, which was (and remains) one of the premier game engines on the market.
America’s Army was only supposed to be a seven-year project, but its success encouraged the Defense Department to stay with the game, with the Pentagon spending more than $3 million a year to evolve and promote it—a drop in the bucket compared to the overall $8 billion recruiting budget.
How well did it work? A 2008 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that “30% of all Americans ages 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”
The end of America’s Army is hardly the end of the military’s use of games as recruiting tools. The Army has its own Twitch channel (with more than 23,000 followers) and has an e-sports team that competes at tournaments—with recruiters in tow.