Surface Forces: Gaming By Waving

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June 11, 2013: For two decades now military organizations have been increasingly using commercial game software as a basis for training and planning simulations. One of the latest efforts is a wargame for training boarding parties. This is used by sailors from NATO countries serving on anti-piracy or interdiction patrols who actually board suspicious ships. What makes this training wargame unique is its use of the Kinect motion sensor on the XBox gaming console. Released in 2010, Kinect was a more capable competitor for the Wii device that shook up the gaming world when it appeared in 2006. The developer of Kinect (Microsoft) allowed developers free access to Kinect software and released a version for Windows in 2012. This made it possible for all sorts of innovative applications to be created and sold a lot of additional Kinect hardware.

The boarding simulation (MIOmoves or Maritime Interdiction Operational moves) allows boarding parties to use hand and arm signals as well as voice commands to move through video game like training scenarios showing typical (or not-so-typical) boarding situations. It allows for boarding party personnel to train realistically but without the need to actually have a variety of ships to actually board and move through, or a lot of people playing passengers and crew on the many different ship types you can encounter in various parts of the world.

Over the last decade there has been growing use of commercial gaming software for military training. MIOmoves was not the first to use gaming technology to simulate tactical operations. For example, two years ago the U.S. army ordered a training simulation for infantry using the same underlying software found in the popular Crysis games. The developer bought a license to CryEngine 3, a software development system (or “game engine”) created from the Crysis software. A game engine is the basic computer code for a game. Add your own graphics and scenario information and you have what appears to be another game. Most commercial games either build their own engine or, more frequently, rent one from someone else. The CryEngine 3 was developed for Crysis, a first person shooter (FPS) wargame acknowledged as the most graphically stunning ever. Crysis first appeared in 2007, and the three versions of CryEngine have been used to create dozens of commercial games and training simulations.

Using CryEngine 3 the new DSTS (Dismounted Soldier Training System) was ready for use within a year and has become extremely popular with the troops. That’s because combat troops tend to be fans of video games and DSTS puts them right inside a very realistic video game. To do this each participating soldier stands on a 3.22 meter square (10x10 foot) mat that records the soldier's foot movements. This mat enables (along with other sensors) the game to record the soldier's movement. Meanwhile, the soldier will be totally immersed in the game via tiny goggle displays. The small video screens inside the eyepieces mean that, when looking straight ahead, there is a high-resolution display of what the soldiers should see. There is still some peripheral vision to help avoid moving off the mat or bumping into nearby soldiers. Earphones provide realistic audio. A hand held controller handles weapons and equipment. Running in place moves the soldier forward and a turning motion allows movement in any direction within the game's virtual world. Each soldier has the equivalent of a high-end gaming laptop in their backpack, to drive the system. All soldiers in a training exercise are networked and use existing commercial software to enable them to coordinate their movements. Troops can enter buildings, duck behind cover, or hit the ground. If they are "hit" they will be disabled to varying degrees or killed (and go off line, leaving only a virtual corpse behind for their fellow troops to see). DSTS is used to train fire teams (4-5 troops) and squads (two or three fire teams) and each DSTS system can be set up in a shipping container and moved around to different units as needed.

MIOmoves and DSTS are part of a trend that got into high gear 13 years ago when senior army commanders, noting that the troops spent a lot of time playing video games, hired video games developer Pandemic to create "Full Spectrum Warrior" (FSW). Compared to your usual FPS video game, the military version of FSW seemed to drag along at times. It could take a minute or more for troops to do some things, like move to another position or use a smoke grenade (it takes nearly a minute for the smoke screen to form) that would be nearly instantaneous in commercial games depicting the same situations. But reality is slower and that’s why the troops liked FSW.

The player assumes the role of the squad leader and uses the video game controller to intuitively give battlefield type commands to the two team leaders or, if need be, individual troops. The use of the game controller and the game software is pretty intuitive, allowing the player to handle a real time battlefield game without the game controls getting in the way.

FPS was played like any other FPS video game but was a big hit with the troops because of its realism. The troops could use the same drills and tactics taught to U.S. Army infantrymen and get similar results. The game was quite effective in showing users how well trained combat troops are supposed to move. One reason the army put over a million dollars into FSW was another program, begun in 2002, to improve the combat skills of non-combat troops. FSW appeared to be a painless way to expose these clerks, mechanics, cooks, and office workers what they should do when under fire. There were scenarios in the game covering situations where non-combat troops have to fight. Many non-combat units are informally organized into squad sized units and often have machine-guns assigned as well. But unless the non-combat troops take their machine-guns and assault rifles out of the arms room regularly and practice, it does them little good to be armed.

The initial batch of FSW scenarios involved going after irregular type fighters in Middle Eastern locations. By using the XBox, the players got photo realistic graphics and equally realistic sound. The army worked closely with the developers to make sure that the game was extremely realistic. The game was eventually available for free to anyone in the army (active and reserve). Ultimately, the military and commercial versions shipped on the same CD. That way, civilians could experience the more realistic, but less "fun", military version (which has strictly realistic ammo loads and time durations for battlefield procedures). The artificial intelligence of the enemy force was pretty realistic and deadly.

FSW was well received and led to DSTS and MIOmoves, which was made possible by advances in small displays (that, when placed in front of the eyes, and powered by Crysis class graphics, made you feel like you were inside the game), sensors, and graphics hardware. The CryEngine 3 also allows accurate representation of vehicles, missiles, aircraft, and all sorts of terrain. DSTS and MIOmoves are also used for mission planning and rehearsal, as well as training. The German firm that created CryEngine and Crysis has had a lot of success selling their development software for creating non-military training simulations for all sorts of civilian occupations.

For a long time the U.S. dominated the market for commercial and professional wargames, but firms outside the U.S. are becoming more prominent in the field of professional wargames. A French firm, for example, supplies military users with a large scale (battalions, brigades, or divisions) wargame (MASA SWORD) and a civil version for disaster operations. The French publisher got started in 2001 with Conflict Zone and then moved on to professional (as opposed to entertainment) games, models, and simulations.

 

 


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