Defense gaming fine-tunes soldiers' skills

Who's playing?

America's Army. Considered one of the most successful government-related games, America's Army is an official recruitment tool that lets users experience what it's like to be a soldier. The online game plays like many console-based action games and has nearly 4 million users worldwide. Try it at www.americasarmy.com.


Darwars. A project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to apply persistent, massively multiplayeronline gaming principles to training. To see the game, go to www.GCN.com and enter 290 in the GCN.com/box. One of the first companies to work on Darwars was Cambridge, Mass., simulation company Mak Technologies Inc. Learn what Mak does at www.mak.com.


Institute for Creative Technologies. ICT was formed at the University of Southern California to develop active learning systems. In 2003, its games project spawned the Defense Department's Full Spectrum Command, recently ported to Microsoft's Xbox game console. Learn more at www.ict.usc.edu.


Serious Games Summit. The first summit, an offshoot of the 2004 Game Developers Conference, was held in San Jose, Calif., in March. It was such a success that organizers have turned it into its own conference, scheduled for Oct. 18 and 19 in Washington. To learn more or register, go to www.seriousgamessummit.com.


ThoughtLink Inc. Founded by former researchers at the Institute for Defense Analyses, the company has done simulation and gaming projects for DARPA and is conducting a study for DHS on effective methods of computer training. Learn more at www.thoughtlink.com.


Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Washington think tank's Foresight and Governance Project co-founded the Serious Games Initiative to study the use of games in the public sector. It hosts workshops such as 'Game-based Learning Models and Simulations: Expert Blueprints for Project Success.' Learn more at wwics.si.edu and www.seriousgames.org.

ICT's Full-Spectrum Warrior game was developed for DOD, but now it's on the X-Box, too.

Where can the military find software to meet its needs for training and simulations?

At a gaming convention.

Military brass and game developers will meet in Washington Oct. 18 and 19 for the Serious Games Summit, a conference designed to bring together government officials, systems integrators and gamers to identify ways games can help agencies function.

The first summit, held in March in San Jose, Calif., attracted 300 attendees. Organizers expect 500 at October's meeting.

Since 1997, when the Marine Corps used the popular game Doom from id Software Inc. of Mesquite, Texas, as the basis for a training tool, agencies have experimented with computer games for purposes ranging from e-learning to analysis. But over the last year and a half, developers said, experimentation has evolved into a full-blown market opportunity.

Games for Uncle Sam

Doug Whatley, chief executive officer of BreakAway Games Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Md., said only a quarter of his company's business comes from its entertainment titles such as 'Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Battle' and 'Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom.' The rest comes from Uncle Sam.

'We try to keep a 50-50 balance between entertainment and so-called serious games for the government, but there's just a lot of government interest right now,' Whatley said.

Experts said game developers and systems integrators on the leading edge of training and simulation technology can provide the military with new and better ways of conveying information.

Consider the Defense Department's Training Transformation program. 'They're looking for alternative methods for doing training and exercises, and they're looking at games,' said Julia Loughran, president of ThoughtLink Inc., a Vienna, Va., consulting firm. Integrators 'should start thinking that way and steer away from massive, multimillion-dollar simulations.'

The military is turning to the game industry for two reasons: lower cost and improved user experience.

Computer games cost significantly less than a large-scale simulator, in which trainees sit in a cockpit, or another life-size system. Lockheed Martin Corp. in July won a contract to build convoy simulators for $9.6 million. The biggest government-related game projects cost less than half that, Whatley said, and some, such as Incident Commander developed by BreakAway Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Md., for the Justice Department, cost much less than $1 million.

What's more, games can be deployed cost-effectively online or via CD-ROM. With simulators, the military must bear the cost of bringing trainees to the simulators.

Games can be more effective than simulators or conventional desktop-based training programs, experts said, because users enjoy them more.

More fun

'There is a feeling that standalone simulator training isn't a full or compelling experience for the trainee, and that the gaming industry has a more compelling format,' said Henry Lowood, a technology historian at Stanford University.

Games by their nature are competitive, fast-moving and entertaining. They also tend to have better and more realistic graphics and sound than simulators and e-learning software do. And, unlike today's training software, which tends toward linear story lines and repetition, games are different every time they're played.

'The key for DOD, Homeland Security and others is that they want to increase the frequency that people train, increase the number of people who actually do the training, and cut cost,' Loughran said.

In 2000, ThoughtLink developed a simple online game, ScudHunt, for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Wargaming the Asymmetric Environment program. ScudHunt is a command and control game Loughran compares to the popular offline game Battleship. It's played by teams, and players must share information to win.

More recently, ThoughtLink has begun working with the Homeland Security Department's Office for Domestic Preparedness to study how games can be used to train first responders for emergencies.

'Studies have shown that if you're having fun, you're learning better,' Loughran said.
No one expects that games will fully supplant simulators or training software in government agencies. Stanford's Lowood said simulators would still be critical tools for teaching how to do things, such as fly the latest fighter planes. But games can teach decision support skills and train people to respond in different situations.

And they're not just for government workers anymore. America's Army, an online recruiting game developed at the Defense Department, has nearly 4 million registered users worldwide. It's meant to put players in the role of a soldier to learn teamwork and responsibility through real-world deployments.

Full Spectrum Command, a Defense Department game developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, has been ported to Microsoft's Xbox game platform under the name Full Spectrum Warrior.

Both titles are often-cited examples of successful government gaming programs. Experts believe the trend is just beginning.

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