Peace Time: November 6, 2002

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Like guerillas, PC and console wargames have been sneaking into the military for two decades. For a decade before that, in the 1970s, board game based wargames began to show up on military bases, and even the Pentagon. These, oddly enough, were more readily accepted than the later PC wargames. Mainly because the board (manual) wargames had a think rule book (where all the procedures and probabilities were explained) and a real map (usually overlaid with a hexagon grid, rather than the more familiar square grid of military maps.) While the early computer games looked impressive, many officers were reluctant to trust anything that did not clearly show how and why things were happening in the game. That began to change in the 1990s, as "military simulators" for warplanes, warships and armored vehicles became more realistic. A lot of this had to do with continuing improvements in PC graphics, but that, in turn, was the result of an enormous increase in PC computing power. There was also a sharp decrease in price. Put another way, an average new PC today has ten times the computing power of a supercomputer from ten years ago, and costs less than a thousand dollars. 

While generals and admirals had good reason to doubt computer wargames, the simulators were another matter. A general who had flown a fighter or commanded a tank could sit down with a "vehicle simulator" and quickly decide for himself if the PC simulation was accurate. Increasingly through the 1990s, these vehicle simulators proved more and more accurate. In the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force had fighter pilots systematically evaluate the many "flight simulators" available for PCs. While the pilots found a lot of flaws, they also found a lot that was quite accurate. Around the same time, the navy ran an experiment in which some of their new pilot trainees were ordered to spend time playing a PC flight simulator. These students got through their flight training more successfully than the trainees who had not used the simulator. 

The army and navy found that PC based vehicle and ship simulators were also becoming very realistic. And these products were cheap (several thousand times cheaper) compared to what the military was paying for vehicle simulators from the usual defense contractors. All of a sudden, by the year 2000, vehicle simulators were cheaper, more realistic and, best of all, networkable. Having multiple soldiers playing the same game via the Internet created an enormously effective training tool. Currently, the American military is even looking into creating training simulations that will run on a PDA with Internet access. 

While computerized wargames are still viewed somewhat suspiciously, the simulators are being enthusiastically adopted. Even when it turns out that some of the simulators do have accuracy and realism problems, it's the appearance of being real that counts. Just like on the battlefield. 

 


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