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War! What is it good for?

First-person shooters may be zesty fun for young gamers, but when the games are put out by the Army, it puts a whole new spin on computerized soldiering.

Anyone who reads the news knows that computer games cause brain damage. They are also addictive. And, of course, they promote violence in youngsters. The good people of St. Louis will attest to that; they recently tried to ban the sale of violent video games to minors until the Federal Court of Appeals slapped them down.

But wait: Isn’t there anything good about computer games?

Well, yes. They promote patriotism! They wha-at? Yes, indeed. If you’ve never visited the America’s Army Web site you’ve never been treated to the absolutely free first-person shooter that is just a 338MB download away. Based on the Unreal Tournament 2003 engine, “America’s Army” is designed specifically to talk up military life to our impressionable youth. You start with basic weapons training, obstacle courses, and sniper training–and then move to an intense multiplayer opportunity to defend America against terrorist threats.

The Army is hoping that the game, which was introduced last July, will help attract the tens of thousands of young people it needs to join its ranks each year.

Naturally there have been parental complaints about the game and what they call its glorification of violence. But the Army denies the charges. According to an Army spokesperson, “America’s Army” is about military values. And patriotism. And those are good things, right?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, young gamers in the Shiite neighborhoods of Beirut are also learning a thing or two about patriotism through gaming. The hottest title there is a first-person shooter called “Special Force.” According to the New York Times, the game–which has sold about 10,000 copies in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates–is a creation of Hezbollah, the strongly anti-Israel militant organization on the United States’ terrorist list.

Boot up “Special Forces” and the first thing you see is an exploding Israeli tank. In a pre-game “training session,” the forehead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a target worth 10 points. “Victory comes from no one but Allah,” exhorts the screen before the missions begins.

Said a member of the game’s design team, “We want others to know our land is occupied, our people are imprisoned in Israeli jails, and our houses are being demolished.”

While not the first politically-oriented video game to enter Middle Eastern cyberspace, “Special Force” is a sign of Hezbollah’s elaborate propaganda efforts, especially toward its youth.

So there you have it. The Army has spent more than $8 million to create and distribute its elaborate first-person shooter. And Hezbollah is hoping to win the hearts of its young people with its shooter. Sounds to me like they might both know something about gaming that the people of St. Louis only suspect.

As a long-time gaming advocate who has always pooh-poohed the idea that violent games create violent kids, suddenly there is one question nagging at me: How will anyone decide which game is more successful? Will it be the one that gives its players the best taste of computerized soldiering? Or will it be the one that persuades more youngsters to try it for real?

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