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 Without that, the training value of games soon goes out of date, as was the case with the controversial Full Spectrum Warrior. The game, developed by Pandemic Studios, took so long to materialize that its battle tactics were outdated by the time it was ready to be used by the Army.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.

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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.

Dr. Roger Smith, Chief Technology Officer and Chief Scientist at the PEO STRI, sees the advantages of games over simulators quite clearly: “Time-on-task is an important part of learning. The more time you spend rehearsing, exploring options, and studying outcomes, the better you will become at a skill. If a simulation is so difficult to use that you spend all of your time and mental energy wrestling with the hardware and software, then there is little left to apply to learning. If you cannot get your hands on a simulation every day, then your learning is limited due to lack of access. Games can improve both of these situations and potentially boost the existing motivation of soldiers by adding back story, artwork, interactivity, immediate feedback, intuitive GUIs and accessibility.”

Many soldiers serving in the U.S. Armed Forces today have never known a world without videogames. This generation, weaned on first-person shooters from an early age, is what Retired Marine Col. Gary W. Anderson, former Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, called “the new Spartans.”

Gaming literacy can’t be taken for granted when using games in training, however, as there is a risk of excluding some people altogether. According to PEO STRI research, only about 50 percent of young enlisted soldiers considered themselves gamers or were familiar with the mechanics of game play, and among young officers that number dropped to around 33 percent. Smith explains that in training they are careful to pair up recruits so that teams have a mixture of experienced and novice game players. “When we do this, it does not take the novices long to acquire the skills necessary to use the games.”

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So what makes training games essentially different from your average off-the-shelf titles? “I listened to a great presentation on virtual worlds by Daniel Laughlin from NASA last week,” says Smith. “When asked the difference between games and simulations he replied, ‘With a simulation you have to bring your own motivation.’ I thought that was an excellent way to differentiate the two. The soldiers that we train have a motivation for succeeding that resides outside of the game – it is proficiency and survival. If a game can make them more proficient at a skill and help them survive in a lethal environment, then they are going to be all over it.”

Creativity is not something defense contractors are often accused of, so the work of developing engaging and effective training games is usually outsourced to developers who understand how to put the artistic aspect into these games. “I think the U.S. Military has always been visionary in inventing and adopting new technologies,” says Doug Whatley, Founder and CEO of BreakAway Games, “but to their credit, they realized early on that the game development community was driving technology and design innovation with entertainment games and simulations and decided to take advantage of the industry’s model of smaller teams and iterative development processes.”

BreakAway has developed several successful training games for the military, including one to train medics to treat uncommon injuries sustained in bioterrorism and other catastrophic scenarios. Whatley believes that having a captive audience for their games does not mean they can afford to make them less engaging, even if they are not exactly fun as we know it. “There are many design elements of serious games that are similar in nature to entertainment games. We absolutely have to create engaging, thought-provoking and immersive environments, the interface must be intuitive and the gameplay should reward and encourage good decisions, but not necessarily lead players down the right path. I believe these are all characteristics of great entertainment games, but whether or not someone finds diagnosing and saving lives in an emotionally realistic, stressful hospital environment fun is very subjective! The more important question is, are game-based training tools effective, and the research is pointing to a resounding ‘yes.'”

“Educational” has always been something of a dirty word when talking about games, but most people don’t actually realize that figuring out the paths, strategies, rules and tricks of a game and adapting them to different situations really does amount to learning. Educational games have been reborn as “serious” or “training” games, and because people do not always realize that they are learning, they play these games in their free time, saving corporations millions in their training budget. Understandably, these games are experiencing a period of very healthy growth across the board.

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But is there a limit to what games can teach? At the moment, we don’t think of gaming as a physical activity, but even that may change if the trend towards peripherals such as the Wii Balance Board continues. For the moment, however, Smith believes games are much better at teaching cognitive and team-oriented skills. “The scenarios we create with games attempt to teach people to work together toward a common goal and to learn the patterns of behavior that are effective in completing a mission. In most cases, the soldiers also practice these skills in a live environment. Games allow us to spend more time on cognitive tasks without the limitation imposed in the physical world.”

Games are often undervalued and dismissed as a lower class of entertainment, but they are very much our generation’s medium, and are moving firmly into the forefront of our entertainment choices. The increased use of gaming technologies across society is the logical next step for the future, a move that is likely to look as logical and unavoidable in retrospect as the adoption of email or the Internet. The U.S. Military, in the meantime, feels confident enough to literally trust the lives of its soldiers in the effectiveness of games as training tools. That’s a pretty strong endorsement.

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio is a freelance journalist currently working for games™ and 360 magazines. She has also been involved in the launch of a groundbreaking open-source film project called The 10 Pound Horror Film which can be found at www.the10poundhorrorfilm.com.

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