There’s one aspect of the online version America’s Army which fascinates – the fact that they can collect huge amounts of data about the aptitude and interests of each player. (This is quite a complex matter, so I didn't refer to it in the Guardian article, for fear of simplifying the issues at hand.)
In the Smart Bomb book, one of AA’s progenitors, Mike Zyda, admits that the Army had considered using the aptitude profiles of players as a means of direct recruitment, but that they decided against it. As Heather Chaplin, one of the book's co-authors, put it to me in an e-mail, "they were pretty far along going that way and pulled back at the last minute...As far as I understand it, they considered it then realized it 'wouldn't play'". I presume that means they feared being portrayed as underhanded or covert in their recruitment techniques, particularly given the target age of the game (early teens to early twenties).
The America's Army game itself is very explicit about privacy in its own FAQ:
Q: Will the game put cookies on my computer?
(Last Updated: 2003-08-21)
Q: How do I initiate contact with an Army Recruiter?
A: … game there are web links through which players can connect to the Army of One homepage.
In the America's Army game there are web links through which players can connect to the Army of One homepage. On GoArmy.com you can explore Army career opportunities or contact a Recruiter. Of course, you can always call your hometown Recruiter directly.
(Last Updated: 2004-02-02)
Q: Will the Army know whether or not I'm a good player?
A: The Army will not be able to identify you individually unless you choose to reveal your personal information.
No. The Army will not be able to identify you individually unless you choose to reveal your personal information. Prior to any point at which you provide sufficient information for an association to be possible between your game data and your name, you will encounter an advisory dialog box from which you can back up. Players who request information AND reveal their nom-de-guerre to Recruiters may have their gaming records matched to their real-world identities for the purpose of facilitating career placement within the Army. Data collected within the game such as which roles and missions players spent the most time playing could be used to highlight Army career fields that map into these interest areas so as to provide the best possible match between the attributes and interests of potential Soldiers and the attributes of career fields and training opportunities.
(Last Updated: 2004-02-02)
All very voluntary - they'll let you choose when to be identified with your game-play as a potential recruit. This piece by the late Gary Webb from 2004 casts some doubt on the Army's probity in this:
In Germany, a group of America’s Army fans created a sophisticated statistics-tracking system, AAO Tracker, which can tell how much time a player spends online (top players average four hours a day), how many kills he’s made, which battlefields he’s best at, how many kills he averages an hour, and similar minutiae.
But the creator of the popular AAO Tracker system, a 23-year-old German computer engineer, quit in disgust in August after learning that the Army was rolling out its own statistics tracker for the game.
“You can understand that I don’t want to spend (much) time on our stats-tracking system when I know that all my work is useless and for the trash when the official stats tracking system goes online,” the engineer complained on his Web site.
One of the Army’s game developers, in an interview with a fan site, confirmed that “we have started some development on an integrated stats tracker. As far as what we can track, that is really up to what we want to track, as every single event in the game can be recorded and logged. From every shot fired to every objective taken. It simply becomes a matter of which events we want to parse out.”
Why would the Army spend tax dollars tracking and collecting arcane statistics about the players of its game? Because the data can be used to scientifically predict what kind of soldier they’d be.
“Suppose you played extremely well, and you stayed in the game an extremely long time,” Wardynski explained in an interview last year. “You might just get an e-mail seeing if you’d like any additional information on the Army.”
America’s Army isn’t merely a game, recruiting device or a public-relations tool, though it is certainly all of those things. It’s also a military aptitude tester. And it was designed that way from the start.
In a paper written while he was still developing the game, Navy computer expert Zyda said that “the research focus is to determine if games can be instrumented to be able to determine the aptitude, leadership abilities and psychological profile of the game player.”
That work was done by a senior psychologist for the Army Research Institute of Behavioral Science in Alexandria, Va. Zyda said the goal was to “instrument the game” so that it would perform the functions of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test new recruits take to help the Army figure out what kind of job to give them. Zyda was told that the research was a success, but couldn’t discover any details.
“It was odd. I had people tell me (the researcher) had done PowerPoint presentations and research papers on it, but I was never able to see any of that, and I asked to see it. I know at one point the Army’s lawyers had some problems with the whole idea of using that data, and we certainly did, too, from a personal privacy angle. We didn’t think it was a good idea. But I don’t know the status of it,” Zyda said.
Wardynski confirmed that the aptitude testing research had been successful. “That’s as far as we’ve taken it. It’s something we’ll be moving ahead with in the coming year.”
In a posting deep inside the official America’s Army Web site, the Army reveals that “players who request information (about the Army) ... may have their gaming records matched to their real-world identities for the purpose of facilitating career placement within the Army. Data collected within the game, such as which roles and missions players spent the most time playing could be used to highlight Army career fields that map into these interest areas ... ”
The Army has been collecting player information in a vast relational database system called “Andromeda,” Wardynski said, which recruiters will be able to use to look up a player’s statistics if one of them shows up in a recruiting office. A version of America’s Army now in development will take that a step further, allowing players to create a “persistent” online alter-ego, one that steadily progresses through the virtual ranks by taking additional training or specialized missions, generating valuable data along the way.
Recently, an updated version of the game called Special Forces was released, and there was a reason why that particular theme was chosen--one that had little to do with entertainment value. “Specifically, the Department of Defense wants to double the number of Special Forces soldiers, so essential did they prove in Afghanistan and northern Iraq; consequently, orders have trickled down the chain of command and found application in the current release of America’s Army, which features Special Forces roles, missions, and equipment,” a Navy-produced booklet states. [Can't find the booklet he means, but this one from the MOVES institute may cover the same material - PK]
Andromeda does indeed exist, as this news article from Gamespot shows:
Andromeda New Tournament System
The Army is co-developing a data driven game middleware solution named Andromeda for implementation within America's Army. Andromeda is a set of services that includes a detailed statistics package, a single sign- on facility and a unique authentication system designed to make game server hosting and administration easy. Andromeda will warehouse game data ranging from basic authentication information to full player settings. It will also incorporate features that will allow players to establish Official Honor servers on the fly.
I suppose players will just have to assume that the US army is "warehousing game data" with all the privacy safeguards they assert in their FAQ. Though the recruitment crisis is deepening... And if a draft seems culturally and socially untenable, then maybe the military will be forced to start data-mining AA for likely recruits.
One last quote from the writer Marc Prensky, in an extract from his 2001 book Digital Game-Based Learning (pp 8-9 of this pdf), which seems to show that from the earliest planning stages, AA was two games - a 'Career Game' and an 'Action Game':
In terms of data, both the Action Game and Career Game are “instrumented” to provide an understanding of the players’ interests and aptitude, the latter through a link to their AFQT— Armed Forces Qualifying Test — score. Players can link to a variety of career, job, and school information from inside the Career Game. What they choose, how long they spend on the information, and downloads or printouts is noted, summarized and output. Both games collect information about the player’s approach to problem solving and dealing with frustration. The Career game collects AFQT (Armed Forces Qualifying Test) information from a player, and correlates it with other standardized tests such as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). While the Career Game provides an indicator of aptitude, the Action Game, says Zyda, provides an indication of leadership potential. He plans to instrument the Action Game to understand the player's ability for team focus. By combining the information from both games, he expects to get a “complete picture” of the potential recruit.
A metric for measuring "aptitude and leadership potential"? Based on an active constitutency of 6 million? In a climate where you can't get soldiers to sign up? We should watch this space with interest, or perhaps disquiet would be more appropriate. As they used to say in Starship Troopers: Want to Know More?