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War Games
In the U.S. Army's first official computer video game for civilians, players will learn what it takes to be an American soldier in and out of combat. (U.S Army)

A Play for Better Soldiers

The Rise of Computer Games to Recruit and Train U.S. Soldiers

By Paul Eng
Aug. 21

— War can be hell. But training for one — or even finding soldiers to fill the ranks — shouldn't have to be. At least, not according to the U.S. Army.

For decades, the various branches of the U.S. military have been using high-tech training tools of one sort or another. Sophisticated flight simulators that mirror actual flying conditions have been used by the Air Force since the beginning of World War Two.

But as the military turns to more exotic and expensive high-tech weaponry, ranging from computer-equipped tanks to remotely piloted aircraft such as the Predator, the need to find and adequately train tech-savvy troopers has become even more paramount.

And for the Army, the answer seems to lie with using increasingly realistic computer video games and simulations.

Operation: Game Time

Last month, the Army released its first official video game ever designed for civilians called "America's Army: Operations." Taking over two years — and nearly $8 million — to develop, the game is similar to popular first-person shooting games such as Doom, Quake and Counter-Strike.

But unlike many other commercial combat games, where players are rewarded for racking up tons of "virtual kills," the official Army game is designed to portray a soldier's life in a bit more realistic light, say officials.

For example, instead of a plethora of weapons and ammunition, players in the game are limited to what they can carry — just like a real soldier, says Lt. Col. George Juntiff, operations officer for the game's design team at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey Bay, Calif. And the Army models each weapon in the game — from a standard M-16 rifle to grenades to machine guns — after the real version currently in use.

The game also adheres to real-life military principles. Shoot a sergeant or a team member during the game, says Juntiff, and the player's character is sent to the stockade. Such programmed rules help to the game to stress teamwork above individual capabilities. "It's not Saving Private Ryan or Platoon," says Juntiff. "You have to work [with other players] as a team [to succeed]."

Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the Office of Economics and Manpower Analysis at the West Point Military Academy and one of the game's creative directors, says the game is designed to be entertaining yet educational as well.

"The main intent [of the game] is educational," says Wardynski. "We want to show kids that the Army links training to future success."

We Were (Virtual) Soldiers

But Operations is just one part of other games the Army is developing. By October, Wardynski hopes to have the next part of the free game called "Soldiers" completed and available from the Army's Web site, www.americasarmy.com.

Instead of a first person action game, Soldiers will be a role-playing game where players will create characters that go through the other challenges that accompany life in the Army.

Players will create a virtual soldier's life by going though basic training, selecting one of 20 military specialties such as communications, and pursing promotions and further training. "You come in basically as a recruit and see what [Army life] looks like," says Wardynski.

While Wardynski admits that such a game might not have a wide appeal to gamers, there is a good reason for players to go through the role-playing portion as well.

Just as in a real soldier's life, how well a player succeeds in the non-combat portions of the game affects the combat part. Electing for additional classroom training in the Soldier's portion of the game, for example, may help players avoid "friendly fire" incidents in the Operations portion.

"The [Operations] game becomes much more entertaining once you go through the Soldier's portion," says Wardynski.

Wardynski is also careful to note that both parts of the game won't contain any overt messages of recruitment. But he says that it wouldn't be illogical that the game could be used as some form of outreach.

"Let's say you play a lot and you've done very well," says Wardynski. "You could get a message that says guys that perform like you do in the game do really well in the Army."

Whether such a feature will be in the final CD-ROM version of the games isn't clear. "We're pretty conscious not to step on any toes and act like Big Brother," he says. "We don't want to go down that road."

Power From the Common PC

Such virtual simulations of the modern Army life are just the tip of the iceberg, however.

For years, the Army's Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) in Orlando, Fla., has been developing advanced simulation and training tools that are meant to give America's soldiers a combat edge.

And Michael Macedonia, the chief scientist at STRICOM, says the rapid advancements in personal computer technology is helping to make virtual training even more attractive to military planners and leaders.

In fact, he says that over the last few years, STRICOM has been working to move many of the military's specially-developed virtual training systems over to much more powerful — and cheaper — consumer-based platforms.

"Game consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox are more powerful than a 1975 IBM mainframe," says Macedonia. "Essentially, we can do a lot of simulation and apply them to training and analysis purposes."

All Virtual Training, All the Time

One of the things STRICOM is looking at, for example, is creating a huge online network that would link tens of thousand of soldiers, sailors, and aviators to train in a virtual battlefield using simple handheld computers. "That's where the future is," says Macedonia. "I can get soldiers to collaborate and train at any time."

So far, STRICOM has spent about $6 million doing research on such a capability. But Macedonia says it's most likely still three to five years away.

Still, most military experts note that sophisticated computer simulations will become an increasingly unavoidable part of the military for several reasons.

The primary reason is cost. The recently concluded "Millennium Challenge" training exercise involved over 13,000 military personnel from every branch of service at a cost of about $250 million. And as weapons become more sophisticated, they're also becoming more expensive — and too costly to be used during such "field exercises."

"In the past, you really had problems doing high-quality training" says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online military research firm in Alexandria, Va. "To get well trained used to mean a lot of field training exercises where you burn up a lot of expensive bullets."

But with many of modern weapons being controlled by computer technology, computerized training systems offer near-perfect simulations at fractions of the cost, says Pike.

Still, he notes that not every aspect of training a soldier for war can be simulated — yet. "At the end of the day, there's no way you can simulate being cold, wet, and hungry," says Pike. "You might be able to do that on the holodeck on the next millennium, but there are some parts of it that have to be physically experienced."

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