In the military, the word “training” can mean a lot of different things.
It could mean running around and whooping while simultaneously learning the value of cold water and shade.
It could mean sitting in a classroom and playing the Stay Awake Game (incidentally, I’m not so great at this game).
Sometimes that means you’re going out into the field. Maybe in Korea. During torrential rain season. To learn what it’s like to be caked in mud for days on end (you know, for example).
And sometimes – sometimes – it means something many service members already do in their spare time anyway; video games. Yes that’s right. The military is using video games and simulations as a tool to train and teach service members.
I’ll just…let that sink in for a moment there.
Now, this is nothing new. The military has been integrating technology and virtual applications into their training fold for a while, but I wanted to take a real good look at these games. Specifically what their application means for the men and women of the armed forces.
“Video games in the military today are focused – as they should be – at the tactical level,” Mr. Foster explains. “They’ve really been innovative in our ability to do training quickly at lowers costs, and to bring in multiplayers from a number of different areas and have people compete.”
Okay, so the Army isn’t putting people in front of an XBOX and telling them to have at it…Oh wait. That’s something they have in mind?!
“So what we’re hoping to have is something as simple as an XBOX network that would run on a classified network that would allow you to have an opposed multiplayer game that could play at the strategy level.”
Wait, did he just say classified console network? Like I could play on a wide network of my peers only without a subscription fee? That sounds too good to be true!
Okay, okay, let’s reel it in.
Obviously there are more practical applications to this idea than free-wheeling XBOX360 tournaments (fun though those may be). You’re not going to be running all over a digital map with Master Chief laying waste to the Covenant or anything.
It’s a more strategic approach, which comes at a good time, since strategy games definitely aren’t dwindling in interest. Far from it, really. Steam is filled with strategy games that are fun and popular. Wouldn’t it be interesting if service members had the chance to play (quite possibly) the most realistic strategy game of all?
Turns out, we’re already working toward that.
“At higher levels we’ve integrated our simulators to be able to fly all our airplanes together so that’s really a great move – a great leap forward – in our capability that costs less [and] gives us training that’s on par with what you can do with real equipment out in the real range. [This] is the opportunity to do it on a more repetitive basis to increase your skills.”
So what are some of the benefits that might come from training in a digital environment? Other than the simply awesome factor I mean.
“The biggest thing that we find useful in these games is thinking through time,” explains Mr. Foster. “Thinking through the time and logistics that are required to do something.”
And that means more than just time management and situational awareness.
There’s a level of immersion in games that changes the way the game feels to the gamer. If you’re committed to the game it makes a huge impact on how you play it. That comes into play (zing) here.
The idea is to tackle two ideas at the same time, Mr. Foster says. One is to allow people to play both sides of the coin in battle; that is, the good guys and the bad guys. Having both perspectives is helpful when developing strategy, and a gaming environment would allow for just that kind of cerebral consideration. The second is the PVP aspect. A lot of training is geared toward learning how to mitigate real threats, and what better way than to pit real people against one another instead of just combating pre-programmed AIs?
Especially because we’re not actively engaged in fighting AIs IRL (yet).
“War is a human endeavor. Having the man in the loop and the action/reaction is the thing that you want to get out of these games,” says Mr. Foster.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a job that paid me to play video games. Especially the type of game that would have practical applications to my real life.
Not that saving the Weighted Companion Cube isn’t important (because I think we all can agree that it is), but to train for real life on the digital screen is an interesting idea.
Because let’s face it; real life scenarios are intense.
They’re not well-structured, predictable circumstances. They can be loud. They can be chaotic. They can be confusing. Real life combat scenarios (especially) are full of unknown variables, and making critical decisions in the cacophony of conflict is something leaders ought to know how to do. This type of gaming training could provide the opportunity to learn how to do just that.
“This is a chance – without spending literally millions of dollars – to go through the experience of being a mission lead where you go through the decision-making piece. It feels real.”
Mr. Foster hopes to focus on the operational and strategic level of gaming by using this digital strategy concept.
That is, learning how an opposing force will react, what are the moves/countermoves against each other, taking losses, acquiring logistics over time, etc. All those things that make up the map of a strategic environment beyond the boots on the ground. So how does one create a game that is designed to be immersive, learning intensive, and allow for leaders to develop different strategic approaches?
That’s exactly what Harry Foster is hoping to find out.
“This is the essence of what we train generals to do, and we are really still using what we did in the 1920s frankly,” Harry Foster says. “We’re using the same techniques, and they’re all done by hand and on paper. There are opportunities in the gaming space that would really improve this.”
But more to the point, this kind of training can help service members to learn to deal with real time situations. Especially emotional real-time situations.
“The old Star Trek Kobayashi Maru really happens,” Mr. Foster says. “So how do you deal with that? Do you leave that guy who is out there that’s been wounded? How many losses will you take to go get him? Those are the kinds of real time snap judgments people make that you can simulate through some of this.”
That’s why this kind of training is important. To know what to do when it’s time to make the hard choices, and to know how you’re going to react when you do. When you get into the no-win situation, when do you cut your losses and when do you stand your ground?
Knowing how you handle situations like that – especially in the military – could be vital knowledge to have. Training through gaming is a chance to think though those kinds of things in real time before being faced with them in real life.
And our parents said video games wouldn’t teach us anything.
So what holds the greatest benefit for this kind of training through gaming?
“To the extent that you can get there, it provides you with the opportunity to live through and build a set of experiences based on a set of conditions,” says Mr. Foster. “Experience is living through things plus what you learned from it. It’s really the sum of lessons from what you learned.”
When can we expect soldiers to be issued their game consoles along with their TA-50? Well don’t get too excited just yet. This gaming training strategy is still in the planning stages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it in execution within the next few years.
As we move away from the pen and paper strategic methods and transition into a more technological approach, it will be interesting to see how this affects the dynamics of the modern battlefield. I look forward to seeing how this will unfold.
But until that time comes, I guess we’ll just have to keep on gaming with what we have.
Don’t want to get out of practice, after all.
Want to hear the whole interview in entertaining audio glory? Click here!
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
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