The U.S. Army’s Chat Bot Only Seems Creepy
Don’t blame the tech in military recruiting efforts
He’s no normal American soldier. Star is a chat bot—a computer program that the ground combat branch devised to hang around the Goarmy.com Website and answer visitors’ questions.
Sgt. Star may seem creepy. But he’s innocuous. A robot that saves time, money and manpower. And he’s just the latest in a long line of military recruiting tools.
We get it, new stuff is scary. Every year there’s some new technology that seems like magic to a lot of people. Every years there are reactionary protests against that technology. And if the military decides to use the tech, folks really lose their shit. Especially if the armed forces use the stuff—God forbid—to recruit new troops.
Take video games, a technology that moral pundits worry is corrupting America’s youth. It’s also a technology that Pentagon recruiters have been using for years.
It makes sense. A lot of the most popular video games are military-style games. The armed forces— particularly the American armed forces—are the heroes in many games. Video games would be powerful recruiters even if the military never got involved in their development and marketing.
But it should come as no surprise that the Pentagon has dabbled in games of its own, trying to optimize their recruiting value. And of all the branches, the Army understands games the most.
Inside, the facility looked like any busy suburban arcade. Sixty computers ran the latest Call of Duty and Halo games. Attendants in black shirts and khaki pants chatted with gamers. Teenagers wandered in from the skate park next door to play the video games on offer.
All for free.
This was the Army Experience Center, a little experiment the Army tried in 2008. The ground combat branch opened the center in a busy suburban mall in Philadelphia, right between an arcade and the aforementioned skate park. Officials repeated—over and over—that the center was not about recruitment.
“There is no recruiting mission here,” spokesman Ryan Hansen told reporters. “Here it is more about changing perceptions.” Hansen worked for Ignited Corporation, the entertainment company that partnered with the Army to build the facility.
Strange, then, that the Army closed five of its recruitment centers in Philadelphia at the same time it opened the glorified arcade. The center cost $12 million. Alongside the video games, it housed three different military simulators using Army equipment.
Kids rode in the back of a Humvee, shooting insurgents in a simulated Middle Eastern country. They lost points for killing civilians.
Watchdog groups and anti-military activists did not react well to the opening of what they viewed as an undercover recruitment center in the middle of a busy suburban mall—a center that lured impressionable youths with free video games that glamorized war. “There is no reset button in war,” one protestor told PBS.
The Army Experience Center shut down in 2012. One of the protests groups took credit for the closure. But lowered recruitment goals, the end of the expensive lease and higher military sign-ups in the early days of the recession actually ended the Army Experience Center. Not the protesters.
Also, the center was only meant to last two years. It was an experiment. The Army said as much in its initial press releases. And despite claims that the center was not meant to recruit, the Army still maintained a recruiting office within the building. Young people signed up. A total of 236 visitors joined the Army.
The Army’s other video game-based recruitment initiative is still going strong.
America’s Army is a first-person shooter that the ground branch released in 2002. In its early versions, the game was a window into the everyday life of a soldier on the ground in current U.S. wars. More of an elaborate simulation than your typical Call of Duty-style shooter.
Twelve years later and after dozens of updates and spin-offs, the game has evolved into a fairly basic online shooter with a smattering of Army propaganda thrown in. The game is free. Millions have downloaded it.
America’s Army is a perennial target of protesters. But the game isn’t going anywhere. Several different iterations exist, including mobile versions and a pretty awful spin-off comic book. The most recent version—America’s Army 4—is in the beta testing phase.
Storming the Taipei Game Show
America isn’t the only country deploying video games to win recruits’ hearts and minds. Taiwan is getting in on the action, too.
In January, Taiwan hosted the annual Taipei Game Show, the 2008 edition of which is pictured. Fans and developers explored the exhibits, getting sneak peeks at the coming year’s new games. Next to the Logitech booth, there was an exhibit manned by the Taiwanese military.
“We were invited by the organizers to show up,” an air force rep told Kotaku, adding that the military wanted to show the public how it spent its budget. There were bomb disposal units and guns at the booth—and the reps were happy to demonstrate them.
“Recruitment centers are often too intimidating for young people,” the rep continued. “The convention gives us a great relaxed place for young people to come and see what we’re all about.”
Which makes sense. Military service in Taiwan has been mandatory since 1949. The country is in the process of moving to an all-volunteer service and hopes to meet that goal by the end of the year. But recruitment is going to take hard work. Why wouldn’t Taipei try video games?
Technology comes and goes. Chat bots, too, will become obsolete some day when something even more sophisticated replaces them. Likewise, video games will evolve. For the military, the message—not the tech—is the point.
And the message is an ages-old one. Join the army. See the world. Fight for your country. Learn skills. Earn a living. If the pitch lacks nuance, it’s because teenagers lack nuance.