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Computer games train soldiers for the dangers of war

WASHINGTON—The Defense Department is turning young Americans' fascination with computer games into a serious training tool for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

"They love it," said Col. Casey Wardynski, the director of the "America's Army" video game, which he developed at West Point. Young men and women are "used to thinking about the world this way," he said. "You can call them `digital natives.'"

The Pentagon's DARWARS (rhymes with "Star Wars") program, for example, uses personal computers to teach soldiers headed for Iraq such skills as how to avoid an ambush, handle a hostile crowd or navigate an urban environment.

Each military service is acquiring or using computer games to instruct its members, safely and cheaply, on the tactics of modern warfare.

The Air Force put out a request this month for private companies to create a video game to practice combat in space. The object is to "develop and demonstrate a game-based approach to ... detect, identify, track and disrupt activities from space vehicles," the proposal said.

The Navy has procured a "Kill Chain Naval Tactical Simulation" game developed by Neil Byrne, a retired Navy captain, to demonstrate battle tactics involving helicopters and surface ships such as destroyers. The Navy also wants to acquire a game to practice its Tactical Tomahawk missile-control system.

Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., produced a computer game for the Army to teach special operations officers to bridge the cultural gaps between Americans and Iraqis. For example, they're shown how to deal with a nervous Iraqi family at a checkpoint.

"We try to prepare them for culture shock, for novel situations," said Elaine Raybourn, a video game expert at Sandia who developed the "Adaptive Thinking and Leadership" program. It was tested at the Army's John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"Our goal is to create an environment where they can practice skills and learn for themselves, in community with others, what their strengths and weaknesses are," she said.

"You can take soldiers into a virtual world where it's too dangerous and expensive to do live training," Wardynski said at West Point.

Civilian agencies, such as the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security, also are using video-game training technology. Police and fire departments are interested.

Shanna Tellerman, a video game expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is developing a program called "HAZMAT: Hotzone" to teach New York firefighters how to handle hazardous materials in the city's subways.

DARWARS enthusiasts acknowledge that computer games can't provide much of the real-life training that a soldier needs. Game-based learning "doesn't replace training efforts but reinforces these efforts," Raybourn said.

DARWARS is a $35 million military-game system developed by BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., at the request of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military's kitchen for cooking up far-out ideas. Many DARPA initiatives, such as the Internet, are now in everyday use.

Bruce Roberts, the head of the DARWARS project at BBN, said computer game technology was well-suited for the modern military.

"This is a generation of men and women entering the services who grew up with games," he said. "They learn by practice in acceptably realistic environments."

DARWARS "supports training for individuals, teams and teams of teams, involving hundreds of students at PCs all over the world interacting in a virtual environment," Roberts said. "It keeps track of what each student does in the simulation in order to offer individual and group feedback."

One DARWARS computer game, "AMBUSH!," is being used in stateside training and has been deployed to Iraq. The game uses interactive role-playing techniques to get soldiers ready for the likelihood that their convoys will be ambushed on Iraq's dangerous roads.

"The soldiers you see on the screen are learning how to prepare for and deal with a convoy ambush," DARWARS director Ralph Chatham told a video-game trade show last November in Orlando, Fla. "We believe that our DARWARS tools will prepare our forces to meet the unexpected challenges of future conflicts."

DARPA also sponsors a "Tactical Iraqi" language game developed at the University of Southern California. It's been tested with soldiers at Fort Bragg and in Germany who are preparing to go to Iraq.

"It teaches phrases and gestures and cultural things you need to deal with situations you are likely to encounter," BBN's Roberts said. "How do I walk up to a door and get invited inside? How do I ask questions, find a site, defuse a tense situation? You are a character in this game. You encounter an Iraqi and have to interact with him or her."

Other DARWARS "training packages" teach such matters as crowd control, medical emergencies and getting around in an urban environment.

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To see a video of the "Adaptive Thinking and Leadership" game, go to www.vcom3d.com/Training.htm and click on "Iraqi Checkpoint Scenario with Mentor."

To see a preliminary version of the "HAZMAT" program, go to www.etc.cmu.edu/projects/hazmat, click on "About Hazmat" and move through the menu displayed.

For more information on DARWARS, go to www.darwars.net

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): DARWARS

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