Sergeant First Class (SFC) Mike Decker’s platoon rolls out of their forward operating base in total darkness. Their four Humvees full of men and weapons are on their way to a cordon and search of a suspected insurgent safe house at dawn. En route, an unknown vehicle approaches the convoy from the rear. Not knowing if the incoming car is friend or foe, the gunner in the rear vehicle, Specialist Blair, does what he was trained to do. Standing out of the turret of the Hummer, he yells “Stay back!” and throws glow sticks in the direction of the car. Still, the car keeps gaining on them. Then Blair fires warning shots with his mounted M 240 Bravo machine gun. Oblivious to the warnings, the car continues to close the gap to the column. If this was a suicide bomber, the car was now at a near-lethal distance. Specialist Blair follows standard procedures for the escalation of force: He fires directly on the vehicle, killing its occupants and leaving the sedan a smoldering mess of glass and blood on the side of the road.

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In a war zone, decisions happen fast. The whole incident from start to finish lasts less than 30 seconds. When the platoon stops to assess the vehicle and its occupants, SFC Decker finds that the car wasn’t filled with insurgents. It was an elderly couple; no weapons, no explosives and no reason why they didn’t heed the repeated warnings. As SFC Decker observes the look on Specialist Blair’s face, he knows he has to make a decision and he needs to make it fast: is Specialist Blair emotionally fit to continue his post, or should he replace him?

The dilemma above is not an unusual one for a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq. While traditional training programs prepare young soldiers well for day-to-day tactical and operational functions, there are learning gaps that leave them underprepared for issues involving leadership, improvisation, cultural awareness and interpersonal relationships. So how do military training commands and schools teach soldiers to handle these delicate situations, where they are forced to make decisions that could save (or cost) lives? Increasingly, they are turning to virtual experience learning systems and advanced training simulations that pause to allow users to weigh their options at critical decision points, providing a safe environment in which to make these choices before facing them in potentially life-or-death conditions. The situation above, based on actual events in Iraq, appears in A Day in the Bam, part of the U.S. Army Armor Center‘s training. Non-commissioned officers apply classroom lessons in A Day in the Bam‘s simulated combat environment while enforcing good decision making and building leadership skills. The game prepares soldiers for what they will face while shaping their expectations prior to deployment.

Now consider this scenario, taken from Outside the Wire, a simulation developed for the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools and now also part of the curriculum at West Point: You are Lieutenant Lisa Carter, whose maintenance platoon mechanics work around the clock in Falluja to keep vehicles on the road. Today you get an unusual mission to lead a convoy transporting potentially dangerous detainees. Your job is to protect them to the same level as your own soldiers. When you overhear one of your guards, Private Grimes, taunting a detainee with threatening gestures, you correct him on the spot, but there’s a bitter look in his eye that raises a red flag. You learn that Grimes lost his best buddy in a recent ambush, but his leaders say he’s never let them down on the job. Do you take Grimes off the mission and force another soldier to pull double duty; do you let him drive a truck he’s not fully trained to operate; or do you keep him on the mission with extra oversight and take a chance on his stability?

The Department of Defense and Army leadership are increasingly turning to new technologies and serious games like Outside the Wire to prepare soldiers for these decision points. As Gayle Olszyk, Deputy to the Commander for Training at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools sees it, “just the opening scene of Outside the Wire, where you have people who are being shot and killed, [is] enough to awaken lieutenants, who [will] now understand the impact of their decisions – that they’re responsible for lives under their leadership. That’s a reality that is very difficult to present to an officer in a written scenario.”

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A Day in the Bam and Outside the Wire represent the cutting edge of military training technology. Almost half of the U.S. Military is currently under the age of 25, meaning today’s soldiers grew up playing videogames. What better way to prepare them than by engaging them using the medium they love? Olszyk, who employs Outside the Wire to train thousands of officers each year, feels that, “at one time, putting materials out in a book format was appropriate, but this younger generation, they like the use of games and technology. They need to have their fear tightened through this type of environment because that’s the reality of what they’re going to face.”

These gamers turned soldiers have exchanged their digital guns for live ammunition, but they have not given up their computer games; the games have just changed. Previous training methods (and a few consumer games) prepare soldiers for operational and tactical aspects of war, while serious games address a range of complex critical thinking issues and diplomatic solutions. First-person shooters attempt to increase realism and immerse the player in the role of the lead character by displaying the action from that character’s perspective. Users see enemies approach them, become aware of guns and weapons in their hands and are able to briefly view the casualties they inflict. These fights generally exist in a PG-13 world of half-truths, where blood sprays, bodies fall and then disappear from the screen. After a fight, the player doesn’t see the lethal consequences of his actions or need to react to the results; they move on or try again.

In today’s world, these FPS programs are of limited use. War has changed, and twitch-response shooters no longer represent a soldier’s reality in combat. Today’s soldiers are more likely to face a difficult decision, with a need to weigh ethical concerns with potentially global consequences, than to fire round after round at clearly identified enemy soldiers. While consumer games are still rooted in simply defeating the enemy, U.S. Military programs focus on the subtle nuances of war.

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According to Major General Vincent E. Boles, Army Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, “the most critical skill for junior military leaders is the art and science of decision making. There is always ‘more’ for leaders, more information that masquerades as ‘knowledge’ but in reality is just a series of data points to attempt to grasp as they wrestle with the choices in front of them, usually without having a wealth of experience from which to make those decisions. All this in a combat condition, where the stakes will be high, the pressure will be on and the outcome uncertain.”

With the changing role of the Army in mind, leading-edge learning technology companies and the Department of Defense are working together to create programs that move away from traditional shooters to emotionally engaging serious games that deal with subjects never before included in simulations. The recently developed Beyond the Front goes beyond leadership and combat operations to address the increasing problem of suicide in our armed forces by reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health help. In Beyond the Front, players deal with some of the most emotionally jarring experiences of war, including the death of a friend in combat. They experience different outcomes based on the decisions they make throughout the game. Make poor choices, and the result may be the tragedy of suicide; make good choices and you save lives. Outcomes are based on the users’ ability to cope with a continuum of complicated emotional behaviors and ask for help.

Serious games such as these overcome the limitations of animation by using actual video to realistically simulate environments and the decisions users face in a multi-dimensional slice-of-life setting. Contextual adventures with elaborate branching storylines create an intricate web of critical decisions that soldiers are likely to face, and provide a safe environment in which to make these decisions before facing them in potentially life or death situations. This increased realism not only prepares users for the realities of a potentially hostile environment, it teaches them to think under such circumstances.

“What these virtual enactments do is to provide our junior first line leaders a bridge into the experience and judgment part of decision making,” says Major General Boles. “Specifically, it enables our leaders to see the impact of their decisions and, most importantly, learn from the experience of making a bad decision. This is true learning.”

Not only do live-action virtual experiences give soldiers a better idea of the actual environment they will face, but they emotionally engage users, thereby increasing the retention and effectiveness of the lessons. Further, these immersive learning simulations compress experience by allowing learners to “play it out before they live it out.”

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“The Army does a magnificent job in training leaders,” said Olszyk, “but it’s tough to teach the experiences. You don’t want them to get to Iraq and have to experience the learning through mistakes. Outside the Wire allows them this safe environment to make wrong decisions and understand what the second- and third-order effects are.”

The importance of these second- and third-order effects is part of SFC’s Mike Decker’s dilemma in A Day in the Bam. Can he leave Blair, age 19, in his position of responsibility as a gunner? Or is the kid’s confidence shot, and therefore a risk to the platoon? If he sits Blair down, the platoon might be safer today, but that would undermine Blair’s confidence in the long term and worsen the emotional impact of the event. Also, by sitting Blair down, would he send the signal to other soldiers that following standard procedures for escalation of force could still land you in trouble with the platoon sergeant? You can’t have an emotional wreck making life or death decisions as a gunner, but would sitting Blair down cause other gunners to hesitate, with deadly results?

Dawn is coming. SFC Decker has perhaps a minute to talk to Blair and decide to get him back up on the gun or sit him down. The chain of events in war is complex and unforeseeable; this could be a decision of no consequence or one that determines life or death. What would you do?

Sharon Sloane, CEO of WILL Interactive Inc., has helped revolutionize the virtual experience and interactive gaming industries. She holds the patent for Virtual Experience Immersive Learning Simulations (VEILS®), a unique blend of live action feature films and videogames, and has developed 25 serious games in use by the United States Military.

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