August 12, 2005
The following item describes how commercial wargames, the ones available for PCs or game consoles, are adapted for use by the military. The author of the following piece, Jim Lunsford, retired four years ago, as an infantry lieutenant colonel. His last assignment was at the Command & General Staff School, where he created and programmed, in the late 1990s, a PC based wargame, Decisive Action, to meet a classroom requirement. The game is still used at the Command & General Staff School, and available in a commercial version as well. The following piece was initially created during a listserv discussion among military and commercial developers of wargames and military simulations.
Since I retired from the Army, I have been designing and developing PC-based trainers using gaming technology for both the U.S. and foreign military. I am currently involved with the development of two USAF trainers (PC games), a USMC trainer (MAGTF XXI), and the DARPA DARWARS program. In addition to my business development, design, and development experiences in this niche market, I have been intimately involved with the fielding of the completed trainers and the training of the instructors/users. During this time, I've seen a lot and learned even more from some very intelligent and talented people.
Listed below are my insights and OPINIONS that I believe may help with the development of "Best Practices" in the areas of production team experience and skills, appropriate use of trainer, good design, effective project management, and training.
1. Few, if any, COTS (Commercial, Off The Shelf) wargames can be effectively used by the military for training without modification. Granted, in the past, some talented military trainers effectively used COTS wargames for training or education for brief periods of time, but their use rarely continued once that innovator transferred or retired.
2. Government project officers who manage COTS games contracts should possess wargaming/computer gaming experience. Those that have a good working knowledge of wargames are much more likely to be effective in their role than those who have never played one before. To put it into perspective, could we expect someone to produce a passable TV sitcom who neither owned or watched a TV before? Although its great that more people recognize the value of using games for training, many project officers have a limited understanding of what they propose to manage.
3. The most effective PC-based trainers (wargames) have been developed by people with military experience or who employ SME (Subject Matter Experts) with both military AND wargaming experience. The quality of the SME's wargaming experience is as important as his/her military experience. It's so much easier to translate requirements and develop feasible, acceptable designs when both the developer and the government representative can easily talk using both military and gaming - speak (Example: Could we model "just-in-time" logistics in this trainer using something like a combination of the way PC game "A" and board game "'B" model supply?)
4. Wargames are best suited for improving the following skills: decision-making, visualization (friendly vs. enemy capabilities with respect to time, space, and distance), critical thinking, and communication/coordination. Keep in mind that wargames are often not the best training solution. Although they can be very effective in the military classroom/unit, they tend to use more time and resources than other instructional methods. This is rarely understood and could cause problems later if the end-user does not understand or is unwilling to make room for it in their training/instructional schedule.
5. STEP 1 (Government Project Officer): Identify a SPECIFIC need that can be satisfied in a SPECIFIC location in the military force using a PC-based trainer (wargame). Part of this search ideally should include the identification of a talented and willing military end-user (an innovator who will ideally become or designate the military SME). General solutions targeted at a wider audience will be less likely to succeed. This cannot be a "Field of Dreams" process - "we'll build it and they will come". If you can't achieve step 1, you should postpone your plans until you can meet this critical first requirement. Otherwise, you're wasting our valuable taxpayer's money and jeopardizing the reputation of everyone involved.
6. STEP 2 (Government Project Officer): Clearly and concisely define the requirements: intended training audience, training/learning objectives, training conditions (intended training environment), and other technical requirements. Keep these simple and clear. If it can't be described in a few pages, you are probably describing something so complicated that no one (end-user, project manager, or the developer) will be satisfied with the final product, and it will never be completed on time and within budget. These requirements should be clearly identified in your announcement so that potential developers know what you want when they write their proposals.
Developer: Be warned. Dealing with the government can be very frustrating. At times, the money may be good, but it's never easy. Although you will encounter many talented government professionals who are working as hard as you to create something great, they and you will often be severely constrained by a seemingly confusing and lethargic bureaucratic processes. Contract deliverables must be submitted on time - payments are usually slow! If this doesn't sound like something you're willing or able to accept, do not submit a proposal.
Developer: Always remember you are building a military trainer first! This must be job #1. Any plans on building/marketing a commercial me using the completed trainer must be a distant second priority. If you can't accept this policy, you shouldn't bid on the project. A successful military trainer that employs gaming technology to create a more engaging, experiential learning environment will unlikely be a quick port to a successful commercial game. Likewise, a successful commercial wargame will probably require some radical modifications before it will meet the needs of a military training audience.
7. STEP 3 (Government-Developer Team): During the first meeting, clearly articulate and then reach an agreement on what is being developed. A clearly defined requirements document should be the start point for this process. Once this is achieved, make every effort to prevent "requirements creep" ( frequent or major changes to the requirements). Insure the work schedule includes frequent meetings to review progress. If possible, the government SME/end-user should be present at this meeting. During the initial meeting, present and agree on the work schedule and contract deliverables.
8. STEP 4 (Government-Developer Team): Insure the developer spends time visiting and meeting with the end-user to better understand their needs, training environment, and culture. Whenever possible, the developer should observe the military training that the completed trainer is supposed to enhance or replace. Encourage and support frequent contact between the end-user and the developer. However, everyone must understand that no major decisions can be made unless all parties are informed and agree. The end-user and the developer must provide the government project manager detailed reports of their meetings when he/she is absent.
9. STEP 5 (Developer): Design a PC-trainer (wargame) using the following principles:
a. Stay focused on the training audience and training objectives
b. Design and develop simple but elegant solutions. Employ appropriate fidelity in the model to satisfy para 10a. - Abstract everything else
c. Design GUI for the military trainee, not for another engineer or wargamer. As much as we all hate plain vanilla windows interfaces, most military personnel currently prefer them over cool, game-like interfaces.
d. Manage expectations or they will manage you - In your zeal to please, dont create unrealistic expectations with your customer.
e. Effective communication is critical. Misunderstandings can create false expectations.
10. STEP 6 (Government-Developer Team): Conduct spiral development. Create and test sequential prototypes in support of actual end-user administered training. Document technical results and user feedback. Incorporate feedback into the development of the next prototype. The end-user must be willing to provide solid support during this step or the effort will be wasted.
11. STEP 7 (Government-Developer Team): Be flexible. No matter how good or experienced the team may be, or how solid the original requirements document, you will discover during spiral development what you didn't know when you started the project. When it doubt as to what action to take, remember to stay true to the fundamentals of the original requirements document: build an effective trainer that facilitates the target audience achieving their intended training objectives, under their stated training conditions (environment). Maintaining this focus greatly facilitates making quick and effective decisions about when and what changes must be made and increase the odds of success.
12. STEP 8 (Government-Developer Team). At the end of the contract, you must deliver a reliable, working trainer that achieves its intended purpose. If not, everyone has failed. Likewise, understand that it will not be perfect. It's almost a guarantee that more $ will be needed to further enhance/modify the trainer once more people use it and provide feedback.
13. STEP 9 (Government-Developer Team). Budget time and money to train the trainer. Even if the team builds the best PC-trainer (wargame) ever produced, it is only a tool. Like all tools, it's effectiveness is solely dependant on the skill of the workman who uses it.
14. STEP 10 (End-User). Gain and maintain chain-of-command support early and often. If the senior leader doesn't make its use a priority, it will fade into obscurity fast. -- Jim Lunsford