War Games in Northeast Philadelphia


by Peter Lehu

Picture rows of tweens in comfortable armchairs playing shoot'em up video games.  The air is filled with the sounds of bootsteps, the percussion of machine gun fire, the same repeated scream of anguish every time the enemy is hit.  The kids (mostly boys) are in their glory, their eyes only
turning from the screens to slurp at soft drinks.  Seems like a mostly harmless way for kids to relax on a wintry Saturday afternoon, right?  Now picture army recruiters circling around these kids, chatting with them, congratulating them on particularly skillful kills.  If you are a parent your protective instincts should be blazing right now. 

To play war video games is the main reason teens and children visit The Army Experience, a $12 million entertainment and recruiting center that was opened recently by the US Army in Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia.  Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the Army is testing a new strategy by associating the amusements that children and teens already enjoy--like video games, sports, and movies--with the experience of being a soldier.  If the Franklin Mills Army Experience entices enough kids to join up more of these centers will be built throughout the country. 

That the Army invested major funds into this experiment is evident from the moment you enter the Experience at the north end of the mall.  Huge touch-screen monitors are embedded in the walls where youth can explore career opportunities in the Army.  One particular screen shines a brightly-colored graph that shows dubiously that a life in the military will lead to a six-digit salary, more than any teen could hope for as a civilian.  Visitors can also navigate a customized version of Google Earth showing the vast reach of the US military and dream of traveling the world.  In the center of the large main room is an array of couches in various shades of gray.  Above hang large TVs turned to ESPN and visitors can relax with snacks brought in from the nearby food court.  Recruiters roam this area as well.  The area has the comfort of an opulent basement den and would be an awesome place to watch the big game. One cannot help but wonder if the Experience takes away business from the arcade and eatery Dave & Buster's next door. 

Beyond the rows of gaming stations loaded with Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, World of Warcraft, Gears of War 2 and more of the latest software that kids covet, is the part of the center that the recruiters got most excited about.  This is where the line between entertainment and real-life simulation is irrevocably blurred.  Three rooms hold life-size mock-ups of Army vehicles: a Blackhawk helicopter, a Hummer, and an Apache helicopter.  The walls of these rooms are giant screens that display in great detail a hilly, Tora Bora-like terrain.  If watching kids in chairs shoot enemies with a video game controller supplied by the Army is disconcerting, then watching them hunched over giant machine guns shooting out of helicopter windows at nameless Arab simulations is horrifying.  As they leave the s(t)imulation rooms the first thing they see are the glass walls and open doors of the recruiting offices. 

The recruiters at The Army Experience are very friendly and offer tours of the facilities whether you are of recruiting age or not.  They invite you to come to the regular events held at the center: movie night, a celebration of Black History Month, and Mythbusters, where recruiters challenge unfavorable notions about the military.  They will tell you that the purpose of the center is to show people the truth about the Army: that career opportunities with the Army extend beyond infantry.  This comes off as disingenuous since most of the enticements of the center involve shooting.  There is no simulated nursing station for the imaginary unintended casualties of the helicopter missions, no video or audio clips to help teens build a stomach for real blood and howls of pain.  In fact, there are no video clips at all.  Apparently, the "truth" about the military can be accurately portrayed by video games that were made solely to be entertaining.  
Supposedly, the recruiters at The Army Experience have signed up 46 people since opening in September.  On a recent Saturday afternoon there were only about 35 people hanging out at the center, most below recruiting age.  But the adrenalin rush of hanging out the window of a Blackhawk with a deadly weapon must become ingrained in a child's memory, especially if a parent drops them off there regularly while they get some shopping done.  The sleek architecture, the abundance of technology, and the warm smiles of the recruiters all do what they are supposed to do.  And at some point these future soldiers will discover that it wasn't even close to the truth.


Main Iraq War Games in Northeast Philadelphia


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