Two years ago, when a new convoy of Army Humvees arrived in Baghdad, a problem soon surfaced: Soldiers stationed there didn't know how to use the swiveling gun turrets on top of the vehicles. What did the Army do? It called in its video game experts.
In just six weeks, developers at the Army Games Project at West Point devised a computer game that taught soldiers how to use the new weapon, known as the Commonly Remote Operated Weapons Station (CROWS). Now, at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers learn to use CROWS in mock Humvees from which they fire laser machine guns at screens that simulate enemies along a virtual convoy route. Air pumps shake the dummy vehicles to register explosions and enemy fire. "This solution and ones like it are ideal because they're quick to develop, very realistic, easy to deploy because they run on regular computers and cheap to deploy because it's commercial technology," says Colonel Casey Wardynski, head of the Army Games Project.
Deploying Commercial Game Technology
The Army has used video games since 1999 to help recruit would-be soldiers, and more recently it has drawn on virtual reality and other game technology to treat post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq war veterans (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/26/06, "A Dose of Virtual Reality,"). Now the Pentagon is using games to train a wide array of troops, from rookies in the infantry to experienced Special Forces operatives.
By next year, every recruit will learn to fire a weapon on a virtual shooting range on a PC or the Web from home, at school, or at a recruiting station before arriving for traditional basic training. Pentagon officials say the games, which also teach military time and map reading, appeal to a generation steeped in online competition and virtual interaction. So far, the government has spent nearly $11 million on video game technology.
"Nothing will be any better than actually firing and putting you in different positions, but you can't always do that, and most units only get to fire serious machinery once or twice a year," says Sergeant Tommy Rieman, a Silver Star-decorated soldier who works with game developers to make training situations more realistic. "With the trainer, for about a third of the cost of older systems, you can put everyone up in your team area and go over basic drills and in the end it makes you a better soldier."
Training sessions using the game, called America's Army, begin with the instructor clicking "start." Trainees then begin virtually moving through towns, either on foot or as part of a convoy. Once the games have run their course, instructors can use a playback option to review sections of the session.
The Army has used simulation training since the early 1980s, when individuals could click through a computer program commanding virtual troops on low-resolution terrain. According to officials at the Army's National Simulation Center, this basic technology still serves as a foundation for the simulators in use today, but advancements in technology have upgraded the systems to include playback features and higher-resolution images. Whereas the first simulators had the resolution of old Atari (ATAR) games, the newer-generation machines can display vivid images of specific terrain—now, mainly Baghdad and Afghanistan—down to the foliage on the ground. Soldiers can also train in groups in what the Center calls virtual simulators. In rooms full of boxes that physically simulate real equipment, for example, crews to go through the motions of running a tank mission.
Paper Targets, Real Guns
To be sure, video games can only go so far, and a lot of Army training remains traditional. In California, for example, soldiers preparing for tours in Iraq stage man-on-man combat in desert heat, a practice necessary to acclimate trainees to pressure situations and physical strain. "You can teach techniques on simulation training devices, but you still have to go out and apply those techniques," says Colonel Randy Zeegers, who trains special forces at Fort Bragg. "This is not meant to replace the physical aspect of training—that's always going to be there."
Still, Pentagon officials are convinced the computer has an important role to play in training soldiers. Video game technology elevates the quality of training by simulating elements of the battlefield that traditional training methods cannot easily replicate, says Zeegers. For example, in "shoot houses" where there were once paper targets, the Pentagon is now investing $7 million to have avatars projected onto the walls—virtual combatants that move quickly and have more realistic reactions to getting hit. Sometimes, targets are killed; other times, they're merely injured. "We're supposed to be some of the world's best-trained soldiers, and we're still shooting at paper targets!"says Zeegers. "Gaming technology is so realistic and advanced. We should really transition some of it into training devices."