Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Enemy of My Enemy Redux

Yesterday I interviewed Michael Zyda, one of the fathers of the military recruitment videogame America's Army, who currently directs the Gamepipe Lab at USC.

America's Army
has been called a "propaganda game" by Gonzalo Frasca, creator of the pacifist non-shooter game September 12. In the name of free speech, Zyda himself, who has left the America's Army project, says that he has no problem with in-game protestors, like the activist who messaged the names of soldiers killed in the current conflict under the nom-de-guerre "Dead-in-Iraq."

In addition to its over-the-top patriotic kitsch, America's Army serves up a mix of encounters with an encyclopedic variety of lovingly rendered military weaponry and a testosterone-oriented environment of male-only avatars shooting it out in a kilometer by kilometer field of battle with an elaborate system of in-game physics.

America's Army
is certainly a strangely psychotic game, given that you can play collaboratively as either attackers or defenders in the same game space, but you can only see yourself as a uniformed U.S. soldier holding a weapon produced in the Good Old U.S. of A. In other words, if you drop your M-16 and the enemy picks it up, it magically turns into an AK-47. If you seize his Soviet-era assault rifle in some nifty hand-to-hand action, it turns into a standard issue American weapon right before your eyes. I guess the only advantage would be that it would prevent Battlefield2 type misunderstandings when fan films are posted on the Internet.

In another weird switcheroo in AA, apparently security flaws allow online Gold Farmers to move into the game who can earn points for military training, service, and promotion for others in exchange for eBay dollars . It's sort of like the 19th century practice of paying a substitute to stand in for you during the Civil War, but apparently it's used just to bypass the boring parts of basic training.

Of course, being an electronic communication geek, I liked learning about some of the meta-rhetoric embedded in the game. For digital rhetoric fans, you can actually watch a PowerPoint lecture to further your training as a medic and then take a version of the real certification test. If you look closely at the game environment, you can also spot a framed copy of the letter to the game designers authorizing the game's development.

Yes, but what does all of this have to do with intellectual property and the duplication of digital media?

A lot, actually. Like some other military videogames, America's Army is based on the proprietary and prohibitively expensive Unreal game engine. As advocates for game-based learning, like James Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins, get heard by more policy makers, this stranglehold on the market by a few companies also makes public game development work for education and training more costly and inconvenient, because the entire enterprise is wrapped up in corporate red tape and secrecy. Now Zyda is working with the open source game engine Ogre and has plans to share his lab's customizing of the program at Gamepipe with others who are similarly pursuing peaceful and constructive ends. You can read more about it in Zyda's "From Visual Simulation to Virtual Reality to Games."

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home