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Constructive progress

U.S. Army embraces games - sort of

Dec. 24, 2007 - 03:45AM   |  
By Michael Peck   |   Comments
  • Filed Under

As proponents of serious games attempt to gain a toehold in the military world, gamers can take heart in the development that the U.S. Army has created a new project office for games.

But don't break out the Doritos and Jolt soda just yet. The Army is not about to issue "Halo 3" as a training aid, and officials say it is far too premature to expect commercial games to gain traction in the military training culture. "I haven't seen a game built for the entertainment industry that fills a training gap," said Col. Jack Millar, director of the service's Training and Doctrine Command's (TRADOC) Project Office for Gaming, or TPO Gaming.

In fact, TPO Gaming itself is something of a misnomer. A more accurate title would be "TPO Gaming Technology." The new office, part of TRADOC's National Simulation Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., will focus on integrating video game graphics into Army simulations for soldiers and small-unit leaders. "We will focus on the visualization piece of those technologies, not so much the entertainment piece," Millar said.

For TPO Gaming, what video games offer are graphics that allow realistic and immersive 3-D visualization of the battlefield. "Immerse that soldier into a virtual or synthetic environment, then have them conduct a training task, using their SOP [standard operating procedures], and then AAR [after-action review] that capability," said Robert Bowen, civilian chief of TPO Gaming.

TPO Gaming is creating an Army simulation tool kit that allows users to build and customize their own training scenarios without needing a contractor to do it for them. "We will empower that soldier to build his own scenario rapidly so he can train for his specified task," Bowen said. The Marine Corps has already pioneered this concept with its Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2), an adaptation of the "Armed Assault" first-person-shooter from Australia-based Bohemia Interactive. VBS2 is one of the candidates under consideration for the Army tool kit, which is scheduled for deployment between 2010 and 2015.

A very early prototype saw the VBS2 engine mated with the JCATS (Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation) constructive simulation, the Army Battle Command System (ABCS) interface, and the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) command-and-control system.

"You can take a leader, chaplain, sergeant major, anyone, and put them in front of two or three laptop screens, and they're using gaming technology that's integrated with the constructive simulation," Bowen said. "They're seeing the constructive entities. They're represented in the game. Their icon shows in the JCATS screen or the FBCB2 screen. They're in both worlds."

Brig. Gen. Thomas Maffey, the Army's director of training at the Pentagon, said he sees games as tools in a training tool kit, each supporting different training capabilities. "While one game might provide excellent battlefield visualization, another might support training bilateral negotiation techniques," he said to TSJ in written remarks. "In some instances, these games provide highly desired capabilities, merit formal adoption and interoperability with existing simulation federations. In other instances, they are simply an inexpensive, throwaway training solution.

"We are finding many uses for games and it is just the beginning," Maffey said. "Currently, we are focusing on first-person shooter and real-time strategy games, but there are many other genres of games that have desirable training capabilities. They provide an immersive environment capable of stimulating thought within a given context, thus giving us the ability to exercise cognitive skills along with functional tasks."

Gaming visualization may also unlock the key to the elusive holy grail of military simulation: designs that are accurate and accessible enough to be used for mission-planning rehearsal. Most important is the ability to rapidly import geospecific terrain. "The long pole in the tent is terrain," Millar said. "It's taken a long time to build terrain."

For a simulation to be suitable for scenario development, Millar said, it must be immersive, scalable, feature an intuitive interface, model behavior at the entity level, contain an after-action review capability and allow easy distribution.

And it is for these same reasons that Millar makes clear that commercial games are not suitable in themselves for Army training. In particular are the lack of detailed AAR playback, the inability to quickly import geospecific terrain and difficulty federating with other Army simulations.

The key question, as far as TPO Gaming is concerned, is not what a game can do, but what requirement it fills. "The difficult part is they have to meet requirements," Bowen said. "Just because someone has the latest and greatest graphics engine, and the gameplay is great, doesn't mean it meets training requirements."

Millar said he is open to considering commercial games in themselves as training tools. "We would look at that game and determine if it meets a training capability gap. If it can do that without any modification, we may use it to fill that gap. But I doubt it. I haven't seen that happen yet."

However, he admitted that the Army "has not conducted any analysis to date of civilian off-the-shelf games for training." Will TPO Gaming conduct such an analysis? "That's a hard question," Millar replied.

The creation of TPO Gaming comes as senior Army leaders worry that units are heading down to Best Buy to purchase video games for training. Maffey expressed concern at a recent conference that units were spending their training funds to acquire commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games. "Units should not have to spend training dollars to purchase training simulations," he said. "If Army units are expending training funds to purchase games, there is probably an unfilled training requirement."

"We do not want to tell the commanders in the field they cannot spend money and train with games. However, we do want to ensure that commanders get the best training tools and that the Army spends its limited resources wisely in the procurement of those tools," Maffey added.

Millar said units should approach TPO Gaming with their requirements rather than go out and buy games. "I don't have the authority to tell commanders what they can and cannot do. But what I do have is the responsibility to speak for the Army on what gaming technology fills which gap.

"We are the single point of contact within the training domain of the Army, for gaming," Millar said. "We represent the user."

But some users say the Army is missing an opportunity by focusing on gaming visuals rather than games as complete packages. They argue that games are cheap, can be designed more quickly than in-house military simulations, and even if they don't fill 100 percent of a training requirement, they're better than no training tool at all.

"If all they're looking for is visualization, then they've shot themselves in the foot," said a contractor who works with Army simulations. He believes that units will be tempted to acquire their own games because they "don't have to go through umpteen layers of bureaucracy, only to find out that your requirement didn't make the cut."

Pat Proctor, an Army major and designer of intensive hobby war games such as "Air Assault: Task Force," said that COTS tools in general "offer the market-tested best products. In just about all cases, this means more stable applications. But in the war-gaming market, this also means more exacting detail and accuracy, as this is what the war-game market demands. You also get applications that are easier to learn and more user-friendly than big defense contractor sims."

Another field-grade officer familiar with simulations said soldiers like games for quick training. "The controls are easy to use to move, shoot, communicate and link things up. They can't do that now in our normal training venues down at the local sim centers. They basically have to use their barracks and use their personal computers."

What counts isn't whether the Army uses a COTS game or a custom-built military simulation, but whether the instructor and his training materials are up to the task, the Army contractor said. "A good trainer could take a dire COTS and do very good things with it. A bad trainer can take a perfectly tuned solution, and it will be crap."

Even proponents of COTS games admit that not every commercial game would be useful for the military. But games have advanced to the point where some could be excellent tools.

"The off-the-shelf technology and AI [artificial intelligence] behaviors are probably commensurate with what we thought were high-end Army training tools 10 years ago," the field-grade officer said. "We were able to train with them just great. Are games perfect? Do they have all of the fidelity in things like logistics? No. But these tools allow us to get to the blocking and tackling in this business."

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