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America's Army

Stars and Stripes magazine has announced the US Army is about to invest $50m in videogame developmen

More than any other national armed force, the US Army has enjoyed a curiously conspicuous relationship with videogames over the years. It’s been characterised by the organisation’s willingness to drop the controller, get up from the sofa and in full combat fatigues and bark out the benefits of playing them.

It’s a dedication at multiple strategic levels, encompassing not just staff development but also recruitment. This writer remembers watching several paratroopers descend from the skies over Los Angeles a few years ago, landing with (as you’d expect) military precision in front of a billboard advertising the “ONLY official US Army videogame”.

Hordes of tech journalists and pasty game-fans watched in awe at the P.T. Barnum spectacle, before claiming their free soft-drink and shuffling back inside the convention centre where Tony Hawk was about to do a stunt-skateboard demo. The game being advertised, Full Spectrum Warrior, another previously developed Army-funded title) the piece has Lt. Col. Gary Stephens explaining that videogames have a central role as training aids in the modern army. His unit is dedicated to keeping an eye on the commercial game sector and identifying technology that might be useful for military training. Reassuringly, Lt. Col. Stephens goes on to state that, “We don’t have the intent or capability to be a commercial game house."

It’s the proximity to the commercial videogame industry which is so interesting here. Recently, the vogue for videogame recreations of WWII battles (prompted by the stylistic reference point of Saving Private Ryan) has begun to wane. Fans on forums have begun to complain that the battlegrounds are starting to all look too similar, and it’s true that there are few WWII conflicts left to digitise. As gamers we are already able to fight a facsimile Mohammad Ali, attempt to return serves from an officially licensed Federer and tackle an unforgivably accurate 3D Wayne Rooney - the Army is clearly sitting on a potentially huge asset here in its field data. It’s surely a logical next step for that to be explored to deliver a more authentic representation of combat.

The birth of a new genre is upon us, the playable history. Rather than limiting their accounts just to the humble book, individuals and organisations should explore licensing their experiences and archives to Activision.

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.