They showed up by the hundreds, some in full military fatigues, ready to do battle - for the glory of being among the first to own Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 .
But while the Tuesday release of the latest edition of the war video game prompted consumers to line up at stores across North America - echoing a general surge of interest in military culture and history - that interest seems to stop short of military recruitment offices in Canada.
"Playing a military game does not mean you also are yourself pro-war," says Ed Halter, author of From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Videogames .
Indeed, at a time when wars are being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, Modern Warfare 2 is a likely candidate for the best-selling game of 2009, with expected sales of 11 to 13 million copies by the end of the year. But military recruitment in the country has fallen slightly short of goals in the past couple of years. In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the Canadian Forces hoped to recruit 7,995 soldiers, but managed 7,701. Recruitment results fell short of goals by roughly the same amount last year, although lower attrition numbers mean the overall force is growing.
South of the border, however, recruitment numbers have never been better. The 2009 fiscal year was the first time since the volunteer U.S. military started in 1973 that all the branches met or exceeded their recruitment goals, officials say.
It's largely due to the dwindling number of civilian jobs available in a weak economy. But observers also credit efforts such as America's Army , a U.S. Army recruitment tool now in its third edition. A sophisticated, online first-person shooter game, it's very similar to the Call of Duty series (which portray realistic combat missions), except much more difficult and merciless, says Brad Dorrance, the London, Ont.-based vice-president of Online Gamers Anonymous World Services, a registered charity to help recovering video game addicts.
Video games that put players into war zones have exploded in popularity since 2002, Mr. Halter says. Just because the games are more popular than ever, though, does not mean that interest in participating in actual war is rising, he says.
"Playing war can also be seen as a reaction to being aware of the horrible things that are happening in wars," Mr. Halter says. "There's got to be a little bit of a compensatory cultural reaction to want to romanticize war at a time when we're also being forced to think about the realities of it."
Kids may be picking up interest and educational threads from these games, says Jennifer Jenson, an associate professor of pedagogy and technology in York University's faculty of education.
Last winter, her graduate student Stephanie Fisher conducted a case study with a small group of Toronto teens who play World War II video games and found they were more interested in learning about historical battles than their non-playing peers, looking up terminology, researching how the game's storyline compared to their texts and being able to identify subtle details like costume and the types of weaponry.
And with Canada at war in Afghanistan, Canadians are now connected to its military in a way they have not been since the end of the Second World War, says Howard Coombs, a professor of war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. Still, while games such as Call of Duty may help strengthen that connection, it does so by creating a largely false understanding of war, Prof. Coombs says.
"It does allow a certain generation to connect with the military in a way they never would have had," he says. "But it does create false expectations, false perceptions."
"I don't think you can really compare the two," agrees Dan Black, editor of Legion Magazine. "One's played in the comfort of your own home and one's played out in very real terms."
These games do tend to stir an interest in war activity in its players, Mr. Dorrance says, but the educational elements are next to nil.
"If you ask a Canadian kid what happened at Juno Beach on the first day [by just the video game] they wouldn't be able to tell you," he says. "It's competitive, it's fun, it's an adrenalin rush. But it's not a history lesson. Let's get real."
Still, there is some evidence that soldiers themselves are among fans of Call of Duty .
A copy was among the tributes at a memorial for Britain's Richard Hunt, the 200th U.K. soldier killed in Afghanistan. A note found nearby, according to the BBC, read: "Happy Birthday 'Hunty'. Play you again one day. Dad."
With files from Omar El Akaad