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Playing Games at NATO

Interactive tools aid visitors and Defense College students

May. 31, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By MICHAEL PECK   |   Comments
'Inside NATO: How It Works' uses computer gaming technology to guide visitors through NATO headquarters in Brussels.
'Inside NATO: How It Works' uses computer gaming technology to guide visitors through NATO headquarters in Brussels. (SimIS)
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NATO has not exactly been in the forefront of using computer games for training. But it is starting to catch up. First came the “Boarders Ahoy!” anti-piracy training game in 2010. Now, NATO has two new games coming this spring.

The first, called “Inside NATO: How It Works,” will guide visitors through NATO headquarters in Brussels. The second, “Virtual Capitals,” will be used to train students at the NATO Defense College.

“Inside NATO” is essentially the organization’s White Book guide, said Wayne Buck, a Virginia-based modeling and simulation analyst for NATO Allied Command Transformation.

“It takes that book and turns it into a game,” he said.

“Inside NATO” runs in VBSWorlds, from Bohemia Interactive Simulations. A brief video demonstration of the game shows avatars in the headquarters building. The player’s avatar can move around the building and meet key NATO personnel, as well as representatives of international and non-governmental organizations. For example, one of the avatars that the visitor meets is wearing an Arab headdress.

The game system is task-based, with players asked to perform about a dozen tasks that take them to various parts of NATO headquarters. Johnny Garcia, CEO of SimIS, the Portsmouth, Va.-based developer of the two NATO games, said the game is intended to be a quick introduction to NATO.

“Due to the size of the organization and the relatively short period of time people serve at their posts, it can be difficult to comprehend the big picture and how they will fit into it,” he said. “ ‘Inside NATO’ aims to let users behind the scenes on multiple committees and departments. The aim is to combine the power of perspective with a simple tasking system in order to help build a concrete comprehension of an incredibly complex situation.”

Buck said it will also help familiarize visitors from non-member nations.

“One problem that the NATO Defense College has is that students come in with such a variance of knowledge about NATO. We think gaining ability for them to do it on their own time at home beforehand will make a lot more sense.”

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Garcia said a major challenge has been simply digesting the immense amount of documentation that NATO generates.

“Half of the subject matter experts we’ve talked to simply hand us 1,000-page volumes of text to deconstruct and somehow convert into a compelling game,” he said. “Thankfully, we have talked to several experts with the first-hand knowledge necessary to help us craft something more compelling. We’ll use that practical know-how to help free future NATO members from having to read those 1,000-page volumes.”­

The second NATO game, “Virtual Capitals,” is a bit more complicated than “Inside NATO.” (Both games together cost about 98,000 euros, or about $125,000.) “Virtual Capitals” can best be described as a scenario inject system and stress-inducer. It came out of a NATO study that found that there was a need to put operational and strategic leaders in stressful training situations.

However, “it is almost impossible to get to NATO leaders to stress them with an exercise,” Buck said. “So the next best thing I could do is their advisers.”

The game is aimed at the students participating in the final graduating exercise at the NATO Defense College. About 80 to 100 students attend, typically majors and colonels. About 75 percent come from NATO nations, with the remainder from members of NATO initiatives, such as Partnership for Peace and the Mediterranean Dialogue, plus a sprinkling of observers from countries such as South Korea.

Students will usually go on to an assignment in a NATO post, a position in a member nation’s military related to NATO, or a post in a non-member nation such as political adviser, military academy instructor or military attaché.

“Currently, they are running a training simulation that hasn’t changed in 62 years,” Garcia said. “Students are buried under stacks of paperwork as they participate in the training exercise.

The exercise focuses on staff training for the International Staff, which serves the North Atlantic Council, and the International Military Staff, which serves the Military Committee.

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“The relationship between the two staffs, one at the political level and one at the strategic military level, is complex,” Buck said. “To understand this relationship and be able to work within it is one of the most difficult things that students at NDC will need to know.”

Students will role-play members of the North Atlantic Council and the Military Committee as well as their respective staffs for five days during a simulated crisis. The exercise objective is to reach a consensus, but it is designed so that consensus will prove difficult as various nations pursue their own agendas. Traditionally, the simulation acts as the governments of these nations, with the back room dispatching instructions to their “ambassadors” and their aides through written notes.

But pieces of paper are not ideal training tools.

“Giving them a piece of paper doesn’t do much in terms of stress,” Buck said. “You can read it at your leisure. We think students will react much quicker and we can deliver more volume through a device.”

Instead, “Virtual Capitals” will deliver messages on iPads, which NDC has just started issuing to its students for the first time.

“In the real world, that doesn’t sound like much, but in a very conservative NATO educational establishment, it is a huge leap forward,” Buck said.

“Virtual Capitals” will use a VBS World-based simulation to feed multimedia messages to the players.

“This is the way it actually happens,” Buck said. “Not that ambassadors use iPads. As we all know, ambassadors tend to shy away from electronic devices. They prefer to meet eye to eye. But their staff uses electronic devices a lot. If there is going to be a video that comes up in five minutes with instructions, the staff officer will have eyes glued to it and will not only record it for his boss, but will take copious notes.”

Because consensus is the glue that holds NATO together, it is a key part of “Virtual Capitals.”

“One of the cooler concepts we created was a consensus slider app for the iPad that would allow those listening to a speaker to communicate their level of consensus with the swipe of a finger,” Garcia said.

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Beyond enabling consensus, the slider also alleviates one of the drawbacks with using tablets in the classroom.

“The consensus slider was devised in order to slip right into that space between falling asleep or doodling, which many admit to, and abusing an iPad by surfing the Web during another speaker’s turn,” Garcia said. “Listeners have a simple, non-invasive method to apply feedback to the situation without having to interrupt the speaker, and the interactivity keeps listeners engaged during some of the longer points that are sometimes necessary to make during the session.”

Garcia said that the lack of technology within NATO training makes it difficult to use more sophisticated technology, such as game engines with lip-synching avatars. But he sees Virtual Capitals as just the start of a coming revolution.

“ ‘Virtual Capitals’ ” will begin as a more pedestrian message-based communication platform, but it will also provide the backbone necessary to integrate a slew of other diplomatic training tools that may someday influence the greater NATO environment at large.”

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