18 Feb 2009
Guns and games
The US Army invests millions in non-commercial video game technology to assist in the latest form of military training and recruitment, Jody Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN
No longer for sheer after-school entertainment, video games are now being used by the US military to prepare soldiers for battle. The US Army recently announced that it would invest US$50 million over the next five years toward the development of "games and gaming systems designed to prepare soldiers for combat."
While the US military already uses a first-person shooter game for training simulation called DARWARS Ambush!, the US Army will soon create an entire video gaming system platform to be launched this month.
The new gaming system is managed by the Project Executive Office - Simulation Training and Instrumentation (PEO-STRI), a department within the US Army that will set up "70 gaming systems in 53 locations in the United States, Germany, Italy and South Korea between February and September 2009."
Unlike the previous gaming technologies used for military training, the new system will allow trainers to modify combat scenarios, missions and even terrains. The US newest game, Game After Ambush, will take the scenarios in DARWARS Ambush! a step further: Users will have to deal with insurgent ambushes, casualties from roadside bombs and other attacks that target convoy vehicles while trainers can send in additional attacks, modify weather conditions and terrains and update mission objectives.
Over the last decade, the US Army has developed an interesting relationship with the video game industry resulting in the creation of both commercial gaming software to attract a younger demographic to enlist as well as off-the-shelf software used to train soldiers against unconventional attacks on non-traditional battlefields as characterized by the fourth generation of modern warfare.
Since then, military alignment with the video game industry has manifested itself into a web portal, the Department of Defense Game Developer's Community, which is maintained by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and private video game developers that network military software developers and private industry, software engineers and consultants. The network has produced several other realistic military games for training, many of which have been later modified for the commercial market.
The training game
In the mid-1990s, the US military modified the popular commercial game, Doom II, for military training purposes and titled it Marine Doom. Like most commercial first-person-shooter games, the game was only able to address simple targeting and reaction-time scenarios for trainees.
With the advent of Marine Doom, the US Army began an interesting - and ongoing - relationship with a video game industry that targeted commercial consumers only. By the turn of the century, the Department of Defense would turn to one of its engineering contractors, Coalescent Technologies, in conjunction with Czech-based video game developer Bohemia Interactive, to develop realistic military simulation and training software. This ultimately produced VBS1 (Virtual Battle Space), a non-entertainment, non-commercial 3D training program.
The software boasted that trainers could "teach doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures during squad and platoon offensive, defensive, and patrolling operations [as well as] teach and rehearse security emergency response procedures in lethal and non-lethal environments."
The software's first customer was the United States Marine Corps and eventually went on to be used by the UK Ministry of Defense and the Australian, Israeli and Canadian defense forces. A new version titled VBS2 has been developed by Bohemia in close cooperation with the US Marine Corps and the Australian Defense Force.
The recruitment game
After having forged a close relationship with the commercial video game industry throughout the 1990s, the Department of Defense and US Army turned to video game giant Ubisoft to develop a game to increase recruitment among a younger generation of Americans, many of whom were teenagers with little or no connection with the armed forces. The game that was produced was titled America's Army and was offered as a free internet download on 4 July 2002.
The video game is the first to be distributed by a state military branch to a commercial market - and for free - costing the Department of Defense between US$8-US$10 million to create.
The game looked similar to the popular Counterstrike first-person shooter and was built on the Unreal engine, indicating that the US Army knew exactly the demographic America's Army would target. The objective of America's Army was to demonstrate real-life battlefield scenarios like high-intensity gunfire and various safety and medical procedures to potential military recruitments. From the perspective of the Department of Defense, the game was an essential recruitment tool to parallel the US invasion of Afghanistan and later, Iraq.
America's Army gained high ratings from the gaming industry, receiving several awards from prominent video game reviews not only for the features in the game but the marketing strategy behind the game's release as well.
However, some have criticized the game, stating that while it may adequately depict the use of military equipment and vehicles, it does not or cannot portray genuine injuries and battlefield stress experienced by actual combat scenarios.
Another criticism came out of a study released by MIT titled, "The Potential of America's Army the Video Game as Civilian-Military Public Sphere," which theorized how military involvement in various facets of a society's cultural entertainment contributes to the militarization of society.
The impact on training
Prior to the US military's utilization of PC and console video game training systems, training relied entirely upon large simulation systems built with advanced hydraulics and real-size cockpits and tank seats. These systems are highly expensive and cannot be reproduced or transported easily, forcing training time to last longer for fewer soldiers against high costs of project implementation. Games like Game After Ambush will be able to reach more soldiers facing potential deployment on non-traditional battlefields.
Some games have been developed to train those in leadership and critical thinking skills that will parallel lethal training software. By 2003, Full Spectrum Command was developed for high-ranking US military officers only. The game assigns a fleet of soldiers to a commander controlled by the trainee who must then "interpret [an] assigned mission, organize his force, plan strategically, and coordinate the actions of about 120 soldiers under his command." A version made for the CIA will allow agency analysts to "assume the role of terror-cell leaders, cell members and operatives."
Released in 2003, a study by the US Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences titled "Training Effectiveness Evaluation of the Full Spectrum Command Game" compiled the opinions of former deployed military personnel who used the game in order to assess how its impact on this facet of military training. The report concluded that while most former servicemen found that the realism was very accurate, trainees had to focus their attention to the controls and display of the video game system, thus distracting from the mission and experience they would have otherwise encountered in the game. In other words, it takes more than a mouse and keyboard to operate a large tank.
The conclusion of the report highlights a potential paradox in the evolution of training procedures: Whereas expensive simulators replicate actual tank or flight controls, less expensive gaming software fires weapons with mouse clicks and flies planes with keyboard functions.
In any case, the next commercial video game to be released with any sort of military theme might very well be a product from this seemingly military-gaming complex, if not directly funded and developed by the Department of Defense itself.
While military-developed gaming systems will inevitably affect or alter former training methods, the motives behind the continued investment of these games by the Department of Defense indicates its recognition that military training must adapt to changing security archetypes into intrastate conflict, urban combat, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian operations.
Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.
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