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NATO Uses Games To Promote Civil-Military Understanding

Jun. 19, 2012 - 03:40PM   |  
By MICHAEL PECK   |   Comments
In the Village Survey simulation, a player assumes the role of either a soldier or civilian who is part of a NATO joint military-civilian assessment team sent to an Afghan village.
In the Village Survey simulation, a player assumes the role of either a soldier or civilian who is part of a NATO joint military-civilian assessment team sent to an Afghan village. (Engineering and Computer Simulations)
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When it comes to modeling and simulation, NATO members such as the U.S. and Britain tend to get the lion’s share of attention. But the alliance as a whole is also pursuing its own M&S efforts.

One project that has borne fruit is a computer game to teach boarding parties how to board vessels. In the works now is a virtual world that trains soldiers and civilians to understand each other’s points of view during civil support operations.

The boarding game, called “Boarders Ahoy!” is a first-person-perspective game that is being used by the NATO Maritime Interdiction and Operational Training Center. Players learn proper boarding procedures as they inspect various ships that may or may not be carrying contraband, and whose crews may or may not be cooperative.

“Boarders Ahoy!” won the People’s Choice award for serious games at the 2010 I/ITSEC conference. Originally designed for the PC, it is now available for Android smartphones.

The PC version uses the Nexus virtual world from Engineering and Computer Simulations (ECS), Orlando, Fla. The Android version, downloadable as an app, uses the VBSWorlds mobile platform from Bohemia Interactive.

In “Boarders Ahoy!” players are confronted by the challenge of examining a cargo vessel with lots of nooks and crannies, and hundreds of crates that may contain weapons of mass destruction and other contraband. In addition to teaching boarding parties about the physical difficulties of searching a ship, the game teaches diplomatic skills in dealing with ship crews who, even if innocent, may not be pleased about being boarded.

From the waters of the Mediterranean or the Horn of Africa, NATO is moving to the mountains of Afghanistan in “Village Survey,” a virtual world designed to foster cooperation and understanding between NATO military and civilian personnel in assessing Afghan villages, as well as questioning the villagers.

“When we work operations now, which is a military and civilian mix in many circumstances, there tends to be friction between the military and civilian sides,” said Wayne Buck, a modeling and simulation analyst for NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT), which focuses on long-range improvements to the organization’s capabilities.

“ACT has been doing a lot of work on the civilian-military interaction,” said Buck, who is based in Norfolk, Va. “We built a beta version of a virtual world where you, as a soldier, go into a village and survey it. You ask what’s happening, complete your checklist, and so on. When you are in there and in the military mode, every animate and inanimate object you interact with treats you as if you were military.”

But a military player can click a button so that the villagers treat him as a civilian (and vice versa for civilians who want to see how villagers treat a NATO soldier) and offer different responses.

“You can toggle a switch, and now everybody treats you as if you were a civilian,” Buck said. “If you see rubble along the road, you’ll think there’s a sanitation problem in the village instead of an IED.”


TSJ had a chance to sit down with an alpha version of “Village Survey.” Players can assume the role of a NATO soldier or a civilian from a nongovernmental organization (NGO), private voluntary organization, or the United Nations. They are part of a NATO joint military-civilian assessment team sent to an Afghan village.

The background situation is as follows: There has been an earthquake in a neighboring region, there is a horde of refugees on their way to the village, and it is up to the joint assessment team to determine how well the village can absorb them and complete an assessment form.

The background briefings make clear that the soldiers and civilians may be on the same team, but they don’t have the same goals. Civilian players are told that they must determine if there is sufficient food, water, transportation and electricity for the refugees, and the impact of a flood of newcomers on the village.

The briefing for military players tasks them with determining the current threat level at the village, and whether the refugees pose a threat to village security.

The Afghan village comes completely furnished with a mosque, NGO camp, market, main road, police headquarters, water wells, and the obligatory checkpoint and village guards.

The game begins with the player in the street of an Afghan village. The player (who could be a he or a she — an important feature in an Afghanistan simulation) clicks on a villager and picks from a menu of questions, which for a military character include, “What can you tell me about the crime and security here?” and “other than the two gates, are there any other ways to get into the village?” In the alpha version, the villagers offer answers such as, “I feel very safe in this village. We protect our gates and allow only good people to come in.”

As the player’s avatar walks through the village streets, pop-up screens offer information, such as one stating that the village is a sanctuary that cannot be entered, but has been known to hide weapons in the past.

“Village Survey” currently can accommodate 14 or more military and civilian players. It uses the Nexus virtual world also found in the PC version of “Boarders Ahoy!” though it might be ported to VBSWorlds.

Player assessment and scoring will be added later, and “Village Survey” can be linked to a learning management system, said Matt Spruill, chief technologist of ECS. Other features to be added include non-player characters who walk around for extra realism.

“Village Survey” was built as a proof of concept to test whether it is possible to have a civilian view a situation through a soldier’s eyes, and vice versa.

The goal was “to determine if there was value in the idea of gaining insights while the objects around you responded as if you were someone else,” Buck said. “While the accuracy of those responses is important, in this version, they are not as critical as testing the hypothesis. If the idea is accepted, the answers will be refined through working with subject matter experts.”

“Village Survey” was designed with the help of former NGO workers at NATO’s Civil-Military Fusion Center, “who are big fans of the concept,” Buck said. “The CFC maintains a working relationship with the U.N. and several NGOs, and they are keen to share this idea.”

Buck estimated the cost of developing “Village Survey” at about $100,000.

Command Decisions

Buck also is working on a project to examine whether games can teach commanders to make better decisions.

“We recognized a gap in our training,” he said. “At the operational and higher levels, we don’t train commanders very well. We don’t put them under a lot of stress. We put their staffs under a lot of stress.”

The study, called “Strategic Decision Making Training through Serious Games,” is being conducted by Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, the University of Genoa, and the NATO Modeling and Simulation Center of Excellence.

Erdal Cayirci, head of the CAX (Computer-Assisted Exercise) Support Branch at NATO’s Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway, points to several NATO M&S initiatives underway, such as inter-cloud computing among multiple clouds. Another interesting angle is modeling how cyber attacks affect human behavior.

“Headquarters and commanders should continue making rational decisions even under cyber attacks,” Cayirci said. “We modeled human behavior effects of cyber attacks to analyze this issue. Trust in available information and information systems seems a very important parameter. We try to simulate similar effects.”

Games and virtual worlds may turn out to be important tools for NATO, which finds itself dealing with a smorgasbord of new member states with rusty militaries and small defense budgets, even as NATO’s budget is itself limited.

“NATO has no money to bring to the table,” said Paul Thurkettle, an education and training technologies specialist. “But what we do have is the ability to bring nations like the U.S. and U.K. that have spent millions on serious games and virtual worlds, and bring them to the likes of Albania, Croatia and those other new nations. And say, ‘Here is some of this research, guys, and here’s capability.’ It’s sharing ideas and technology.”

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