Infantry: XBox Saved My Ass


March 14, 2010: The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have come to fully accept video games for training. For many commanders, this was done, "warts and all." That’s because video games depicting ground combat were always seen as inaccurate, and likely to teach the wrong lessons. But the games have become more realistic, and customized military versions are very accurate. Based on experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders have come to appreciate combat video games because they drill into the troops important details of combat operations. On the battlefield, it's those little mistakes that get you killed. Spending a lot of time playing accurate combat video games teaches you what to do, and what to avoid. It saves lives.

For over a decade now, the U.S. military has been developing several generations of highly realistic training simulations, using video game and movie special effects technology. This makes the experience real enough to teach the troops life-saving lessons. The army pioneered the use of video game technology for combat and command training, especially for unusual situations. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Army PEOSTRI organization (which is in charge of developing simulations and wargames) has taken the lead in using commercial video game technology for military training systems. Noting that the civilian action and adventure games now possess very life-like graphics, and have no trouble holding the attention of military age males, PEOSTRI set up an operation in Los Angeles (the Institute for Creative Technologies, ICT) to help adapt these technologies for military training.

Many simulation products have been produced, taking advantage of the movie and video game talent available in California. The army simulations that are most impressive are those that put the user (a soldier headed for peacekeeping duty) in a foreign village or city. There (in the arcade like, but very life like, game) the soldier had to deal with local civilians (friendly, hostile and neutral) and various situations that are typical of peacekeeping duty. The troops could interact with local civilians, who spoke the local language and moved realistically. The body language is important, because different cultures have a different set of physical moves. Some such gestures are similar to those Americans use, but have very different meanings. The video game based simulation proved to be very effective in teaching the troops this new "language" before they encountered it for real (and reduced the risks of violent responses to crossed signals).

Troops have long asked for systems like this, often pointing out that they see technology that can do it on video games they buy and play in their spare time. After September 11, 2001, the army got a lot more money for this sort of thing. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the video game technology enabled the army to quickly develop training simulations to help troops learn how to deal with roadside bombs and all manner of new dangers they encountered while fighting against al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni terrorists. The army went onto develop realistic video game type simulations to aid recruiting ("America's Army") and infantry combat.

Now, as the army amps up operations in Afghanistan, a new bunch of simulations are being developed to help deal with the complex tribal relationships, drug gangs and religious fanaticism. As with the earlier video game training simulations, the new ones do not replace actual training, but complement it. Troops can play these sims on their own time, and be better prepared for training exercises using real people playing civilians and Taliban gunmen. The troops have found that these video game sims are very useful, especially because of the growing trend of including scenario building tools in video games. This allows for rapidly upgrading these military simulations. The army uses the Internet to get feedback from the troops, especially those who have gone from simulated to actual combat. This made it possible to constantly tweak the video games to keep the realism as compelling, intense and accurate as possible.

Finally, an often unspoken reason for this general acceptance of video games is that the current generation of generals are the first to have grown up with video games, the first generation of video games. In the next decade or so, the first generation of generals, who grew up with the Internet, will take over. That should be interesting.





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