Saturday, September 20, 2008

G I Joke

In "U.S. Army Invades Schools," Ian Bogost reports on an almost unbelievable story that the controversial military videogame America's Army will be used as an educational tool in K-12 learning. Through a partnership with a group called Project Lead the Way, which describes itself as a "501 c3, not-for-profit educational program that helps give middle and high school students the rigorous ground-level education they need to develop strong backgrounds in science and engineering," this initiative would mod the existing technology to create stand-alone teaching modules. A press release describes one possible application of the game engine to classroom use:

Utilizing the gaming platform, PLTW, Ohio DOE and the America's Army team have developed a number of applications which will be implemented over the coming year to enhance PLTW's engineering curriculum, currently implemented in 3,000 middle schools and high schools nationwide. The first educational module will be incorporated into the PLTW Principles of Engineering course. Students will use the America's Army gaming technology to explore kinematics in a ballistics project. They will be able to test the accuracy of their calculations in the virtual environment to observe how different variables such as displacement, time, velocity and elevation angles affect the principles of engineering. They will be able to visualize a parabola trajectory and calculate the varied velocities, ranges, and angles of their device within the game. Students will also be able to 'drive' a vehicle around a virtual obstacle course as well as perform a virtual helicopter drop and determine how various factors will affect the physics of the activity.

The politics of this game are already complicated: you can't play as a female, guns magically turn from AK-47s to M-16s to maintain the fiction that you can never be a non-American, and alerts to users about a "security patch" needed actually did nothing but change the name of "Sniper School" to something seemingly less anti-social for PR reasons. Furthermore, as Bogost points out, there are already international conventions against recruiting child soldiers. Grand Text Auto recently discussed how the America's Army game has fostered debate within the game development community, particularly among those working on serious games. Particularly when there are certainly stand-alone physics engines available, the particular choice of game title seems inexplicable.

By my nature, I am a suspicious and skeptical person, which is a necessary job requirement for anyone studying Internet culture, so I felt compelled to poke around in Project Lead the Way's website. I noticed that the group seems to have strong ties to the highly lucrative distance learning and educational outcomes assessment markets. I suspect that they may be more motivated by the cheap automation and standardization than pro-military political ideology.

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