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Army employs video game to help curb sex assaults; critics call it 'affront'

Courtesy WILL Interactive

A screen grab from "Team-Bound," the interactive video game used by the Army to educate soldiers about sexual assault.

The Army is using an interactive video game to train soldiers how to prevent sexual assaults in the ranks, and the technology has proven so popular, the branch just ordered a sequel, according to a spokesman for the company behind the video.

But advocates for military-rape survivors vilify the video — and the philosophy behind it — as “a waste of taxpayer dollars,” an “affront to victims of sexual assault” and a tool “of limited value.”

Titled “Team-Bound,” the program streams laptop-generated scenarios, allowing users to assume the roles of a male or female specialist who witness on-base sexual harassments and eventually — at a bar favored by soldiers — the warning signs of an alcohol-induced date rape. Players must choose multiple responses throughout the episodes then watch the consequences of either intervening or ignoring the observed behaviors.


If the video’s users pick passive reactions, an intoxicated female private is eventually raped in an Army barracks after leaving the bar with an aggressive, male private. In the video, the victim is shown ultimately reporting the attack then opting to leave the service, prompting an Army official to tell viewers: “A life damaged, a career ended, a unit falling apart. But it didn’t have to be this way. All you had to do was stand up and be strong.”


Word of the Army's requested sequel — currently in production and scheduled to film this summer — follows Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s decision on Monday to crack down on generals who now possess the power to overturn sex-assault sentences rendered by military juries.

Courtesy WILL Interactive

Screen grab from "Team-Bound" video game.

A spokeswoman for the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) Program did not immediately respond to emailed questions about the cost, content or implementation of "Team-Bound" or its sequel.

But a spokesman for WILL Interactive, the Maryland company behind both videos, said: “As part of its overall program to address and eliminate sexual assault, the military commissioned WILL Interactive to develop ‘interactive video simulations’ that combine behavior modification role-playing with a video game element.”

In 2010, the Army “engaged” WILL Interactive to produce “Team-Bound,” said Caleb Barnhart, an account executive with New York-based BLJ Worldwide, an outside communications firm employed WILL Interactive.

“The program was so well received by service members and Army administrators that they asked WILL to develop a sequel,” Barnhart said.

'Limited value'
The original episodes were written after focus groups consisting of Army members suggested several real-life scenarios, said Marc Smrikarov, a vice president of BLJ Worldwide.

In one scene, five Army buddies wearing civilian clothes arrive together at a nightclub where several female soldiers are relaxing, also wearing casual outfits. A narrator says: “Loud music, cold beer, hot girls, game on.” The actors then portray various behaviors, each triggered by users’ responses. Information about the Army’s sexual harassment policies, definitions, and how to prevent such behavior — and, ultimately, stop a rape — is offered throughout that segment and others.

Courtesy WILL Interactive

Screen grab from "Team-Bound" video game.

But the program is being slammed by some experts on the topic. 

“For decades, leaders in our military have thought that they can end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military simply through training programs, like the ‘Ask Her When She’s Sober’ campaign,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sex-assault victims. “This video game is another example of that line of thinking. Not only is it a waste of taxpayer dollars, it is affront to victims of sexual assault.

“Rape and sexual assault in the military is often about the abuse of power. It is a violent crime and should be treated as such. According to the DOD’s own statistics, the majority of these crimes are committed by an individual of higher rank,” Parrish said. The video “continues to portray rape and sexual assault as a misunderstanding of a social situation — (as with) ‘Ask Her When She's Sober’ — and places the emphasis on the victim and bystanders to intervene in an assault, instead of placing the responsibility squarely on the perpetrator.”

A leader of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) — which seeks to curb sexual discrimination, harassment and assault inside the military — similarly criticized “Team-Bound” as an example of the Army trying to teach its way out of the sexual-assault problem rather than focusing on disciplining and removing offenders. 

“My take is that it’s of limited value to focus on behavioral aspects (without) addressing the role of institutional deterrents,” said Rachel Natelson, the legal and programs director at SWAN. “Outside of the military, companies can’t simply ‘train’ their employees not to commit offenses — they also have to correct offenses once they occur or they’ll be held liable under the law.”

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