ORLANDO, Fla. — A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency military gaming platform called RealWorld — intended to let users quickly create their own simulations based on the latest battlefield scenarios — received some negative reviews at a recent industry conference.
The contractor that helped create the program briefed attendees on the system, and demonstrated how users can manipulate the software to make virtual worlds.
Some audience members were underwhelmed with the results of the $52 million project, and not shy about expressing their opinions.
“This technology has been around for a decade,” said one. The graphics seemed outdated, said another. Others asked how DARPA — as the military’s premiere research arm — could produce game technology that appeared to be behind the curve.
The dissatisfaction with the platform underscored a theme that emerged at this year’s Defense GameTech Users’ Conference: Many military recruits grew up playing video games, and they expect training simulations to stack up with the latest Xbox or PlayStation products.
“We have young folks today who are very experienced with gaming, and they’re not going to be impressed if we have simulations with pop-up targets,” Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, said during a keynote address.
Experts from the government, industry and academia offered advice on how to make military simulations stand out. The RealWorld overview illustrated many of their points.
The platform, which has been in development since 2008, allows users to build their own scenarios, settings and objects. For instance, during the demonstration, Solitaire Moffett, a spokeswoman for the contractor, Total Immersion Software Inc., created a two-story compound for her avatar to explore. It took about five minutes to design the facility and drop it in the terrain.
Moffett said that an updated version of RealWorld will debut next year and that a third version is also in the works. The source code is owned by DARPA, and special operations units have already started using the software for mission rehearsals, she said.
During a question-and-answer session, attendees continued criticizing the product. One audience member asked who would pay to develop software updates for the program once government funds dry up.
Moffett insisted that what makes the platform unique is its versatility — an aspect that military officials had called for. The system enables commanders to rapidly generate their own simulation scenarios to prepare for new situations and technologies they encounter in the field, she said.
“We’re trying to do for video games what Word did for writing,” she said. “We give you the toolkit, and you make the games.”
RealWorld does incorporate technological advancements, Moffett said, including vehicles that turn more realistically and virtual soldiers who move more fluidly than in other simulations. The platform is meant to account for the complexities and changing realities of unconventional warfare — a quality that panelists urged game makers to consider. Confusion can be a good thing, they said.
“Soldiers shouldn’t be learning new skills during their first firefight,” Mattis said. “We’re very much aware that our tactical advantage over our enemies is decreasing, and we have to enhance our human factors.”
He said the military needs to license games with service agreements that would apply across the entire Defense Department. For example, the Air Force should be able to use Navy simulations and vice versa.
Other officials stressed the importance of interoperability, or the ability of one game engine to communicate with another. During the RealWorld demonstration, participants asked whether the system interacts with Virtual Battlespace 2, a game engine that is used by the Army and the Marine Corps. The first version of the software does not have that capability, Moffett said.
Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, commanding general of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, said games should be constantly updated to account for changes in the field. He also said developers need to craft their software so that it later can be integrated with new technologies.
RealWorld, for example, allows users to design plug-ins — such as buildings — through a Google software package called SketchUp. These objects can be saved and dropped into other game platforms.
“We want open architecture,” Spiese said. “Many games now are built for narrow, discreet needs, and they’re not necessarily part of the larger picture.”
Anya Andrews of the University of Central Florida said that six factors motivate people to play video games: challenge, competition, distraction, arousal, fantasy and social interaction. “There can be too much and too little of each dimension,” she said.
Rudy McDaniel, also from the University of Central Florida, discussed the power of narrative storytelling to make gaming a more valuable learning tool.
“You can change user attitudes with compelling fiction,” he said. “You need someone to identify with, you need a time and a place and you need an antagonist.”
He suggested that Army training simulations that teach simple skills could involve troops proving themselves to a tough drill sergeant. “The story allows users to more logically arrange their own experiences,” he added.
Advanced Brain Monitoring Inc. has also been researching ways to help game players learn more from simulations. Company engineers have developed a headset that measures a wearer’s heart rate and brain activity while he or she plays video games.
The goal is to create games that become easier or harder as headset wearers become overwhelmed or bored. The company is working to implement this strategy for the Virtual Battlespace 2 engine.
“From a simulation standpoint, you want players immersed in the game,” said Joel Ellazar, a marketing manager at Advanced Brain Monitoring. “You don’t want people sitting around with the game set to ‘easy,’ and you also don’t want people overloaded because then they’re not learning.”
Company engineers have pinpointed when a player’s concentration is at levels that translate to optimal game performance. A gauge can tell players once they’ve reached these levels, which the company calls the “green zone.”
Lt. Col. Michael Newell, of the Army program executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation, said that one of the most valuable aspects of gaming is the ability to increase and decrease the level of difficulty to accommodate individual troops. He said that simulations that teach cultural norms are now able to provide soldiers with immediate feedback, as opposed to having to wait until the simulation is over for an after-action review.
“If you do something successfully, you can be put in a harder situation,” Newell said.
“Gaming brings the ability to create rapidly changing scenarios,” he added. “And we have to make sure we’re positioned so that we can transition from system to system.”