The collective perception of the video game industry is that defense and homeland security remain largely untapped markets.
Insiders believe it is only a matter of time before government decision-makers fully appreciate the potential of gaming technologies as training tools.
A mix of cultural barriers and misconceptions about gaming make many companies reluctant to seek government business. The upshot is that the military and homeland defense establishment could be missing valuable opportunities to improve their training, experts contend.
“We need more program managers in the Defense Department who understand gaming, and what they can and can’t get from the technology,” says Ben Sawyer, chairman of the 2006 Serious Games Summit — an annual event that was created to promote the use of gaming technology in non-traditional markets such as government and health care.
“The biggest thing holding us back is a lack of understanding between developers and program managers,” Sawyer says.
Only a handful of companies have been able to “figure it out” and thrive in the military market, he says. Many other companies — which prosper in the commercial entertainment industry — choose to stay away from the government sector because they perceive the “serious game” market as humdrum and bureaucratic.
“We need more capacity … more companies involved,” says Sawyer.
One hurdle for the industry to overcome is the widespread belief, particularly in military circles, that games create a false sense of reality because they don’t rely on “accurate models,” Sawyer says.
“Critic try to paint a broad brush against the technology,” he argues. The truth is that expecting game designers to build accurate models may not be the best use of their talents.
Training-oriented games for military users, for example, are most effective when they challenge the player’s decision-making skills under high-pressure situations. If the customer wants the game to also have accurate models that replicate the battlefield exactly as it is in the real world, they have to understand that what they are asking for is not what typically game companies do.
“Game developers are good at building representative models based on imperfect information,” Sawyer says. If the goal is accurate models, they have to clearly communicate that requirement to the developers.
“I’m telling clients that sometimes we need to purposely stay away from realism,” Sawyer says. Skills such as team building or decision-making under stress don’t always need realism to be taught.
“Most people keep pushing for real ‘downtown Baghdad’ simulations,’” and in doing so, are missing the big picture, he says. “If the idea is to create better games, we cannot get caught up in issues of fidelity.” If the goal is to teach soldiers to be more culturally sensitive, “You don’t want to focus on a specific environment, but rather on the greater issues of how to adapt to any culture … War games should be about improvising.”
Military buyers of training systems should not assume that video games have to be bland to be taken seriously, says Ian Bogost, a software engineer and founder of a gaming firm called Persuasive Games. “I’m of the opinion that games don’t have to be lightweight and fun to be useful, but they can be entertaining and meaningful.”
One of the growth areas for gaming technology in the military market is the “interface” of a simulation — the outward look-and-feel that makes it easier for users to interact with the system, he says. “The military already has many sophisticated simulations and models that only need better interfaces.”
“Serious games” to the military mean an actual video game, Sawyer says. “But it’s really also about improving an interface to their simulations.”
Business opportunities in the homeland security arena, meanwhile, remain unsettled. The government’s poor performance in its response and relief effort following Hurricane Katrina last year is expected to foster the demand for disaster modeling and gaming, Bogost says.
“There is increased interest in modeling disaster scenarios,” he says. Traditionally, models have focused on predicting weather patterns and the levels of flooding after a major storm, but what the government also should war game is the response in the face of chaos — as when citizens break the rules of social conduct and thousands of people are stranded. Gaming these scenarios would help officials make hard decisions such as choosing whom to help first.
The Department of Homeland Security also might be seeking new technologies to model epidemics, Sawyer says. “In general, there isn’t as much activity, due to the scattershot nature of DHS.”
The Katrina debacle, which is a classic example of a breakdown of the command-and-control chain, only proves that training has to be made available to a much wider population of decision makers, not just to a select few, Sawyer contends. Only those who can afford to participate in the large-scale tabletop exercises favored by DHS get proper training. That leaves thousands of federal, state and local officials who never get an opportunity to war game disaster-response scenarios at a national level.
The tabletop war games are expensive and time consuming, Sawyer says. “They are not scalable. You have to bring everyone together … There’s nothing wrong with them except that nothing gets filtered down.”
DHS should provide access to PC-based war games such as “Incident Commander,” Sawyer says.
Incident Commander models real-world situations within a community—allowing for training at the management level. It is based upon the command structure mandated by FEMA.
“Incident Commander can democratize this training. It goes to everyone,” he says. One of the reasons for the ineffective response to Katrina is that officials at different levels did not know what their peers were doing. The awareness of what other players are doing at any given time is the “crux of videogame design,” says Sawyer. The one group that seemed to perform well during Katrina was the Coast Guard. “They democratize the training like the military does. The other groups don’t do that.”
DHS currently is planning its next major war game, called “Top Officials,” scheduled for next fall. This will be the fourth of a series of annual war games, which are mandated by Congress. Each takes up to two years to plan and costs up to $20 million. Expanding the universe of players who have access to these game is a priority for the Department of Homeland Security, says Cary Ellis, vice president of AMTI Corp., which was hired by DHS to organize the 2007 event. “Outside the military community, national level exercises are a relatively new thing,” he says.
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