Air Force College Using Video Games to Develop Leadership, Teamwork

By Valerie Insinna
ORLANDO — An Air Force officer dashes through a compound with two compatriots in tow, while a team navigator shouts directions from a remote location. The mission is simple: locate three prisoners of war and bring them to safety within 15 minutes. But just as the rescuers find the first captive, an unmanned aerial vehicle fires a laser, hitting one of them and sending them back to the starting position.
This is not an actual battle, but one of the educational role playing games developed for the Squadron Officer College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. The college is using video games such as this to introduce leadership concepts, build teamwork and simulate foreign cultures. 
Since fiscal year 2012, the college has developed 17 games with H2IT, a Orlando, Fla.-based small business focused on information technology, said Fil Arenas, a professor at the school. 
Arenas has taught the elective 16 times for handpicked classes of about 15 students, he said during a panel at the Defense GameTech Users' Conference held April 17 in Orlando. The simulation described above, called “Compound,” has been the most widely praised by his students.
"Everyone seems to like that one, and I think I know why,” he said. “It's because we're blowing stuff up and they're not getting killed." 
The H2IT team built the games using Second Life, a online virtual platform where users can create their own avatars and interact with each other. The team used two software developers and one 2D/3D artist to create the scenarios, said H2IT Vice President Patrick Hayden. 
The biggest challenge was creating an engaging virtual environment that was able to effectively teach the lessons at a low cost, Arenas said. The military has fewer resources than the commercial gaming industry, he noted. 
"You have to work really, really smart, and you have to find some really good talent,” he said. “That's how I found H2IT. They're hungry programmers, and they're an up-and-coming company."
Using Second Life was inexpensive, readily available and easy to access, but working within an established platform brought challenges such managing accounts among developers, Hayden said. 
“If developer A goes in there, starts the development process on a particular scene, me coming in there afterward to try to help out and help complete the coding, you couldn't do that because of permission issues,” he said.“If you purchase an asset with one account, you cannot share [those], you cannot give those assets away.”
H2IT is working on adapting the games for the Unity engine, which has better graphics and gives the developers more control over the scenarios, Arenas said.
Students begin the course by creating their own avatar. After that, they can play the games on their own computers from their dormitories or any other place with a good internet connection. 
Arenas, who teaches the class in-game via his own avatar, said sometimes his students are already so well-versed in video games that they are able to anticipate what needs to be done before he has given instructions.
"You get gamers in there and they're 10 steps ahead of you,” he said “You love the fact you have zealous students, but they can be a distraction to other students."
Aside from team building games like Compound, students also engaged in learning exercises where their avatars acted as audience members on the sidelines of major events such as the Battle of Agincourt. In another scenario, students watched a virtual Gen. Douglas MacArthur deliver his farewell speech at West Point.
“Where else can you sit down with the cadets in West Point in 1962 and listen to a bot of Gen. MacArthur come out and give his duty, honor, country speech?” Arenas said. “We got permission to use the actual audio and we broke it into sections.  … That enabled me as  a facilitator to stop at certain metaphors and certain sections and get that teaching moment.” 
The team is finishing up a cultural immersion simulation where students would move through a fictitious village, progressing through conversations with “local” characters animated with artificial intelligence. The players gather tokens for good interactions with the native population, and the goal is to meet the elder and get permission to build a UAV base.
Answer too many questions incorrectly or insensitively, and the students' progress bars will turn from green to red, Arenas said. "They can actually get booted off the island. It's like real Survivor." 
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Videogames

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.