The U.S. Army has led the American military — and the world — in the development of realistic computer simulations to enhance training and recruiting. These sims have drawn heavily on popular video games. In 2002 the Army published America’s Army, a free 3D “shooter” game that has been downloaded millions of times and has helped draw tens of thousands of recruits into the service, according to studies.
America’s Army was just the beginning. A wide range of training games are in development, ranging from simulated engagements interfaced via personal computer, to “immersive” simulations the require extensive, stand-along installations.
Tactical Iraqi is one of the former. This PC sim, using computerized avatars in highly restricted scenarios, requires a soldier to engage a simulated Iraqi civilian in conversation.
The Army is also developing a PC trainer similar to the popular Massive Multiplayer Online Game World of Warcraft, that would expand Tactical Iraqi to the scale of an entire conflict. “Potentially an MMOG could be created which adheres to the physical and behavioral reality of the world and provides an ‘always on’ environment in which to execute training, something like World of Warcraft, but focused on the military training customer,” said Army scientist Dr. Roger Smith.
Soldiers would log in with their units for periods of training. They would create avatars and roam a realistic battlefield alongside their squad-mates, interacting with a simulated local populace and engaging in combat with a smart, adaptive, simulated enemy.
The Army wants to go one step further, adapting this PC trainer to the needs of senior commanders. This so-called “first-person thinker” — a play on the “first-person shooter” game genre — would be closer to the daily life simulator Second Life than to the combat- and exploration-oriented World of Warcraft. “The collaborative element [of Second Life] is useful – you’ve got chat and avatars –- but the actual content and setting aren’t what we’d like for having role-players have committee meetings with the State Department,” Major Kyle Burley said.
In the first-person thinker, officers would roam a digital command post during a simulated conflict, meeting and interacting with other players representing military and civilian officials, in an effort to shape U.S. intervention in the conflict. Meanwhile, a game moderator might change the conditions of the conflict to force the players to adapt.
Parallel to these PC sims, the Army is working on simulations that are more physically interactive. The land service contracted the Institute for Creative Technologies, at the University of Southern California, to demonstrate the “FlatWorld Wide-Area Mixed Reality” trainer, pictured, which surrounds a room with giant computer screens and projects a high-fidelity computer simulation onto the screens, so that soldiers inside the room appear to be immersed in an unfolding conflict.
“You can imagine walking into an apartment room that looks like it’s in Baghdad, and looking out a synthetic window in that room, that physical room, and doing their call for fire in an urban environment,” said ICT’s Dr. Randall Hill. “Think of this as [a] cognitive training because it’s training them how to make decisions under stress, and how to perform their tasks and … use the skills that they have under stress.
“There’s been a huge emphasis here … on the development of cultural awareness and developing applications that will enable soldiers and leaders to be more effective in cultural situations, through negotiation or just even in meetings that they have or conduct with people in other cultures,” Hill added.
The key to making the cultural aspect realistic and useful is programming believable behaviors into the computerized players, Hill said. “We … work with experts. … Say you’re doing a scenario in Iraq or Afghanistan. You would want to work with people who … are from that culture … so that you can come to an understanding of what those patterns of behavior are, so that you can implement them.
“And finally, you know, I think this is where Hollywood comes in. We work with people who are writers, Hollywood story-writers who understand — you know, they understand human nature and they understand … what looks right, feels real, and they add that element to it, too.”