If someone asked you to imagine how videogames could be used to train our military personnel, you might picture a horde of trigger-happy troops fresh from hundreds of hours playing the latest Halo equivalent, wreaking havoc and being a bit surprised that they only have the one life.
In spite of first-person shooters such as America's Army having been used by the military for recruitment, the focus of military training simulations isn't thinking with your proverbial rifle. The Army is using games as tactical decision aids, training soldiers to make better decisions and preparing them mentally for what they will experience.
The Army PEO STRI (Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation) uses several such programs to prepare their recruits for difficult situations in Iraq: BiLat, which was created by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California, is built on the Unreal 2.0 engine and teaches soldiers the appropriate tactical and cultural means for holding meetings and discussions with local government leaders in Iraq. Another Unreal engine game teaches Iraqi language and cultural skills; soldiers actually learn basic phrases through playing the game.
Like the CIA, the Army is also investing strongly in roleplaying simulations that put recruits in unexpected roles and situations, forcing them to consider their actions and experience their consequences. One such initiative is called AWE (Asymmetric Warfare Environment), a massively multiplayer simulation that will train troops in urban warfare. It will even allow soldiers to create their own scenarios, sharing their conflict experiences and helping prepare others to face them. This is a momentous development, as it will allow for the live updating of strategies and tactics. Without that, the training value of games soon goes out of date, as was the case with the controversial Full Spectrum Warrior. The game, developed by Pandemic Studios, took so long to materialize that its battle tactics were outdated by the time it was ready to be used by the Army. Full Spectrum Warrior was commercially successful, but because the Army had no rights to its profits, it was left millions of dollars in the red.
Even with such setbacks, however, training games overall work out to be much cheaper than traditional methods; old-school simulators cost over $1 million apiece, and the bulky hardware is not easy to deploy. The investment required to adapt a commercial game or even commission one is significantly smaller, and with the rapid advancement of games technology, the quality of the graphics and A.I. is quickly catching up to - or even surpassing - that of many simulators.