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October 22, 2009: The U.S. Army is investing another $80 million in highly realistic video training simulations, using video game and movie special effects technology to make it real enough to teach the troops life-saving lessons. This is nothing new. For the last decade, the U.S. Army has been pioneering the use of video game technology for combat and command training, especially for unusual situations. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Army PEOSTRI organization (which is in charge of developing simulations and wargames) has taken the lead in using commercial video game technology for military training systems. Noting that the civilian action and adventure games now possess very life-like graphics, and have no trouble holding the attention of military age males, PEOSTRI set up an operation in Los Angeles (the Institute for Creative Technologies, ICT) to help adapt these technologies for military training.

Many simulation products have been produced, taking advantage of the movie and video game talent available in California. The army simulations that are most impressive are those that put the user (a soldier headed for peacekeeping duty) in a foreign village or city. There (in the arcade like, but very life like, game) the soldier had to deal with local civilians (friendly, hostile and neutral) and various situations that are typical of peacekeeping duty. The troops could interact with local civilians, who spoke the local language and moved realistically. The body language is important, because different cultures have a different set of physical moves. Some such gestures are similar to those Americans use, but have very different meanings. The video game based simulation proved to be very effective in teaching the troops this new "language" before they encountered for real (and reduced the risks of violent responses to crossed signals).

CTA has produced realistic games for battalion and brigade commanders (like UrbanSim), running them through the many tricky situations they will encounter where they and their troops are headed for. These simulations are customized for the specific destination (Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on.) There is also a similar simulation that concentrates on the negotiations that commanders have to conduct with local leaders. Cultural differences can cause problems, and simulations like BiLat enable commanders and civil affairs troops to practice, a lot, before they have to do it for real.

Troops have long asked for systems like this, often pointing out that they see technology that can do it on video games they buy and play in their spare time. The CIA has lots of young analysts with no military, or peacekeeping experience, or exposure to the nasty end of the war on terror. The CIA saw the army "peacekeeping simulation" as an approach they could use to prepare their analysts. Interestingly, the army, not the CIA, proved to be the best source of information on foreign cultures in a combat zone. That's because two decades ago, the army established CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned). This organization came about because of the growing realization that the army constantly relearned valuable combat lessons. CALL provided a source of detailed data on how things worked in combat, just the kind of stuff needed to produce an accurate video game.

After September 11, 2001, the army got a lot more money for this sort of thing. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the video game technology enabled the army to quickly develop training simulations to help troops learn how to deal with roadside bombs and all manner of new dangers they encountered while fighting against al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni terrorists. The army went onto develop realistic video game type simulations to aid recruiting ("America's Army") and infantry combat.

Now, as the army amps up operations in Afghanistan, a new bunch of simulations are being developed to help deal with the complex tribal relationships, drug gangs and religious fanaticism. As with the earlier video game training simulations, the new ones do not replace actual training, but complement it. Troops can play these sims on their own time, and be better prepared for training exercises using real people playing civilians and Taliban gunmen. The troops have found that these video game sims are very useful, especially because of the growing trend of including scenario building tools in video games. This allows for rapidly upgrading these military simulations. The army uses the Internet to get feedback from the troops, especially those who have gone from simulated to actual combat. This made it possible to constantly tweak the video games to keep the realism as compelling, intense and accurate as possible.

 


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