The Army Experience Center, a $12 million Dave & Buster's style gaming and virtual reality complex that sought to introduce young people to the Army via violent video games, is closing. The center was located in Northeast Philadelphia's sprawling Franklin Mills Mall, near an actual Dave & Busters, clothing stores and an indoor skate park.
This is how I described the Center in a 2009 article for the Philadelphia City Paper:
"The lobby is full of stainless-steel tables and columns, modern white leather furniture, big-screen plasma TVs and a snack bar. Beyond that lies a teenage boy's techno-violent dream.
After checking in at the front desk, hordes of young men race toward the three rows of Xboxes, playing tournament games of Halo, America's Army and Madden, as well as to the Apache and Black Hawk attack helicopter and Humvee combat simulators."
The Center became an after school hang out for area kids--what teen in their right mind, after all, would turn down free, cutting edge virtual reality and gaming?
There are also fancy touch screen "career configurators" that allow potential recruits to ponder various Army careers--the Army representative suggested a public affairs job for me--and a "base locator" that uses Google Maps to showcase U.S. military installations the world over.
The Philadelphia region, according to the Army, has the country's lowest enlistment rate. The Army Experience Center opened in August 2008 in an effort to change that, and they say recruitment is now up 15%. But this seems to be just as likely due to the recession--or, perhaps, because the Army lowered its target number.
Unsurprisingly, the Center was met with relentless criticism from anti-war activists who accused the Army of surreptitiously luring kids into uniform.
The Army now says that the Center was a two-year trial that has run its course. When I interviewed them in 2008, they told me the Center was an experiment--but I don't recall them indicating a set closing date. The Army shut down five local recruiting stations when they opened the Center, so this was supposed to be the future of recruiting. Did the experiment fail?
Maybe not. Following on the heels of the corporate world, the Army has made a serious commitment to "experiential marketing." While the Army may never again build another such comprehensive entertainment center, combat simulators and other technology could begin to make their way into local recruiting stations. These high-stakes war games are likely here to stay.
You can hear sounds from the Center in this 2008 Free Speech Radio News story.