When the Army launched its PC-based video game, America’s Army, three and a half years ago, the service’s intention was to connect with young people, encourage teamwork and promote its core values. But now the action game is morphing beyond its original mission, becoming the platform for numerous other military and government training simulations.
“Before we even launched the public game, we knew from development that this type of technology was pretty powerful for training, especially small units—small infantry teams, special forces teams,” said Christopher Chambers, deputy director for America’s Army, in an interview with National Defense.
The game’s technology has been incorporated into a number of virtual training applications already, including embedded trainers, in which America’s Army software runs on the computers that drive their respective weapons systems, such as the Bradley, the Javelin and the CROWS, or common remotely operated weapons station.
At the Serious Games Summit in Arlington, Va., Michael Bode, a software engineer for the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, demonstrated the prototype of a Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) anti-tank missile system trainer—one of the newest simulations that was built with America’s Army software.
“We’re turning it around incredibly fast because of the high re-use factor” of America’s Army, he said.
But the game’s applications stretch beyond individual weapons training.
“What we can do is connect our visualization to real lessons, real vehicles and other simulations, and now we have a more complete set of training levels, from the team up to the division,” said Chambers.
The project’s next goal is to leverage the service’s simulation centers, which utilize computer technologies to prepare soldiers for battlefield scenarios.
By linking up the individual game-based virtual trainers with large-scale training operations, the Army can have multi-level tiers of virtual training going on, he said.
“The training need that we can service well is the live, multi-player interactions in a distributed fashion,” said Chambers. For example, the game could assist the training for National Guard units, which are scattered across a state and throughout the country. “The America’s Army product is designed, by its nature, to be Internet-capable and very easy to connect to across the country or around the world. So that allows us to do distributed training and secret training” without having to bring everyone together in one place, he said.
At the games summit, Jerry Hleiter, of Anteon Corp., gave a demonstration of how the technology is being incorporated into the Army’s simulation centers via a 360-degree immersive environment.
“The environment becomes the training medium, and that’s where America’s Army plays in,” he said. “We use America’s Army as the visual system.”
Inside such a simulation, soldiers can train on foot or in mock-ups of vehicles and aircraft. They wear vests with audio systems embedded in them that send out signals to the simulation’s location system, enabling a virtual player to interact with the live player and vice versa.
“By leveraging game technology and having that feedback, we can have consequence to an action,” said Hleiter.
In a convoy trainer simulation demonstration in which six vehicles are tasked with hunting down a bomb maker, the first vehicle, controlled by a live player sitting at a desktop computer, is engaged by snipers firing from a building. The second vehicle, manned by four live soldiers riding in a Humvee mock-up inside the simulation center, provides supporting cover.
The game technology also enables limitless replaying possibilities, which is beneficial in training, said Chambers.
“You could run through virtually the same environment multiple times, and multiple things happen that create that decision-making [process] that makes it a more robust training system,” he said.
America’s Army is working on ways to recall the data of a game for after-action reviews and other training applications, he added.
With video game technology proliferating, the impact of playing those games has come under scrutiny by institutions, including the University of Rochester and the Army Research Institute.
“Both of them concluded that gaming, and in particular, a first-person action game, like America’s Army, or its counterpart, does have an effect on training,” said Chambers.
The University of Rochester study found that 10 hours of playing a video game could have a significant impact on visual acuity. The Army Research Institute study discovered that procedural information is retained at a 12 percent higher rate than factual information in the same game.
“Games are designed with an entertainment focus, so by their very design, they engage the participant and keep him engaged, as opposed to the design process that brought the traditional military simulation where the fun factor, the engagement factor, wasn’t a paramount factor,” said Chambers.
Making simulations more fun not only can help train better soldiers but it also can help in the recruiting cycle, he said.
With 6 million registered users, the PC game has attracted new soldiers to the ranks; 20 percent of the starting class at West Point had played America’s Army prior to matriculating, and 20 to 40 percent of recruited soldiers had as well, said Col. Casey Wardynski, director of America’s Army.
“America’s Army.com gets 60,000 hits per day. That’s more than GoArmy.com. It’s one of the major referrers to GoArmy.com,” he said.
The America’s Army.com website costs $4,000 a year to maintain. By comparison, GoArmy.com costs the Army about $8 million a year, he added.
“A kid comes to us, believes in America’s Army and he see America’s Army, the visualization for all of these training devices. We’ve got a leap forward in terms of his confidence, and also he or she is more likely to be able to play it, because they’re familiar with the key conventions,” said Chambers.
Some of the pre-basic combat training will include America’s Army simulations, such as the future soldier trainer and the future soldier training system.
This month, the team will upgrade the public version’s game engine from Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 2 to Unreal Engine 3.
America’s Army also is reaching more young players with its recent expansion into video game consoles. Next month, San Francisco-based Ubisoft plans to release “America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier”—a game based on the original PC version— on Sony’s PlayStation 2.
Chambers said the new games could help extend the soldiers’ training day if consoles and other cheaper devices were placed in the barracks. He also said the team is working on cell phone games and other wireless applications.
“We don’t see America’s Army as the answer for every level of training,” he said. But the game’s visualization, high-quality graphics and the multi-player Internet-connected playing can help in improving many of the government’s training devices, he added.