As priorities shift on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, experts point to an array of non-combat skills that U.S. forces will be expected to learn, and that will require novel training tools.
"The reason for this is that, for the first time in U.S. history, non-combat troops are taking more casualties than combat troops," asserted James Dunnigan, a pioneer in the development of so-called serious gaming. He has advised Wall Street and the Pentagon on using models and simulations.
"You can take any situation and make it into a game," he said. "And any of them can be made entertaining-maybe not as entertaining as Doom, but entertaining."
Like shooter games, virtual instruction needs to be honed by physical training, Dunnigan and other experts said at the Serious Games Summit, in Washington, D.C.
"It's a tool, not a panacea," he said.
Other participants said the gaming world is growing in stature. Instead of being cheap, fast alternatives, games can be developed to teach vital skills and lessons to troops.
"[Combat games] are maybe the easiest to do and the hardest to do in the real world," said Brian Williams, who heads a simulation center at the Institute for Defense Analysis, which is charged with adapting off-the-shelf games for use in the Defense Department. "We're seeing a maturing of the market."
One new application on the Army's radar screen is filling the cultural awareness gap that exists between combat soldiers and the civilian population in Iraq. One project under development at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute not only teaches soldiers snatches of Iraqi Arabic, but also fosters cultural sensitivities that can lead to better intelligence gathering.
The tactical language skill builder immerses soldiers in scenarios through which they have to talk and gesture. They use verbal and body language to navigate through the challenge. Although originally planned to react to actual soldier motions, cost constraints forced designers simply to allow soldiers to pick gestures from a menu while they speak. Simulants react to the phrasing and gestures, and when players puzzle through the games plot of intrigue, they win. An "intelligent tutor" program corrects errors in syntax or highlights any cultural faux pas.
"One thing the Army wanted us to do is build in its procedures," said Hannes Vihajmsson, a USC researcher on the project. "For example, when they enter a building, soldiers take their hats off."
Computer games are already being used in other sensitivity training efforts. A computer program called Saving Sergant Pabletti, made by WILL Interactive, is used by 80,000 Army soldiers annually to prevent sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
A similar effort is under way at CHI Systems Inc., where a cultural training program sponsored by the Army Research Institute initially concentrated on interactions with Iraqi Kurds.
"We have a cultural anthropologist who works with us and subject matter experts who have been deployed to Iraq," said Tom Santarelli, the senior cognitive technician at CHI. "The eventual goal, and it's kind of ambitious, is to have a plug-and-play with different cultural models."
According to Santarelli, the growing use of games is a reflection of "a change in the demographics of those who are fighting wars and the nature of the wars they're fighting."
Younger soldiers already are exposed and comfortable with video games, while the challenges of operating in hostile parts of the Middle East require solutions, he said. He added that games can be applied specialized tasks, such as the simulations CHI Systems is developing for the Air Force to practice flight crews' communication skills and situational awareness aptitude.
Another company is using video games to assist in deploying unmanned aerial vehicles in urban environments. Big Fun Development created products for the military that are aimed at training operators in the complex nuances of unmanned aerial vehicle overflights.
One product, AvantGuard, was made for the Air Force's human effectiveness directorate to teach UAV strategy to controllers. The operators must deploy their five aircraft to assess the route of a convoy as it winds through city streets. Suspicious people abound, but only by determining who is in place for an ambush and who is an (albeit armed) innocent can an operator guide the convoy to safety. "It's actually a combat avoidance game," Jacobson said, built to instill judgment into UAV overwatch assignments, bringing limited sensors onto the optimum places to avoid casualties. Big Fun also built a UAV game for the Navy that is meant to assist operators model the behavior of UAVs.
Even those responsible for America's Army, a textbook effort to teach combat strategy to troops with a first-person shooter game, are entering the realm of non-combat gaming. Modified versions of the game include practice runs with bomb-disposal robots that are operated with identical controllers as units in the field, said Bill Davis, of the U.S. Army Game Project.
War college instructors are turning to gaming to familiarize students to the macrocosm of strategic planning.
"Combat veterans live longer," said Col. Matthew Caffrey, professor of war gaming and planning at the Air Command and Staff College. "One reason we use war games is to make virtual vets."
Computerized strategy games can assist in officer training programs. The complexities of big-picture, strategic planning can be captured through gaming, although some war-college instructors content that they do not have time in their schedules to indulge in games, even if they are simple or quick to learn.
At the Army captain's career course in Fort Benning, Ga., students use a game called Full Spectrum Command to hone their skills. A player is in charge of a light infantry company. He sets plans and gives orders to subordinates. The game then shifts to a first-person point of view to show the effects of the plan that requires the commander to improvise directions as the action unfolds. During later analysis, a playback can be viewed with 360 degrees of rotational angles.
"This is not a skills trainer," said William Fisher, president of the company that made the game, Quicksilver Software Inc. "We're training your mind . You're not the one holding a gun."
Fisher said that his company was working on three follow-ups based on the Full Spectrum Command model, including a similar game that places players at the platoon-leader level.
There is some debate as to the efficiency of teaching students with games, with some questioning if the lessons learned are associated only with the game, or if they apply to real world scenarios and judgment calls.
Experts at the Serious Games Summit said that games were only one part of a robust military education, and could be used to condition soldiers and officers in a low-risk, highly individualized manner. Games also can be used to reinforce earlier training and lessons.
"What we're trying to do is build tools, not curricula," Fisher said. "One has to avoid creating a product that teaches the wrong lessons."