Peace Time: August 27, 2002

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: Ever since commercial wargames first appeared in the late 1950s, soldiers have seized upon them as useful for training. Most of the generals didn't agree, either because they didn't understand wargames (the army dumped them after World War II) or because they didn't think they couldn't be useful. But with so many of the troops using them, the few generals who recognized the benefit got wargames reintroduced into the army in the 1970s. When personal computers became widely available in the 1980s, wargames went from complex manual games to easier to use computer versions. But it wasn't until the graphics became extremely realistic in the 1990s that the army realized that they had an excellent training tool available in computer wargames. The big problem was that the most popular computer wargames, the "first person shooters," were not really that realistic. The marines discovered that when they tried to have their guys use DOOM on networks to practice small unit tactics. It seems the computer represented the bad guys in a very unrealistic way. The young marines were learning fatally flawed lessons. This was 1995. The marines modified DOOM and went on to produce more realistic and useful training games using modified versions of commercial games. Taking the concept one step further, the army decided to create an online game that would introduce prospective recruits to the army. Starting in 1999, and spending over $7 million, the Army modified the commercial "Unreal" game engine to produce "America's Army: Operations." A lot of the money went to set up a server farm so that kids who downloaded the free game could play online. The idea was to take advantage of the fact that FPS (First Person Shooter) games were popular with the same young men the army wanted to recruit for its combat units. While developing games for internal use was a lot cheaper (the army already has lots of computers and networks), it was a major move to produce a free game for potential recruits to play online. It will be a year or more before the army knows how successful the idea is. It will probably work, for similar online promotional campaigns have succeeded. One shortcoming of the army game is that it does not show that most of your time in the army is spent doing maintenance of weapons, buildings and equipment, or just waiting around for something to happen. But then, even the commercial games sidestep that aspect. It's unlikely the kids will be fooled, real life is just too full of the same kind of tedium.

 


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