Tuesday, February 23, 2010

First-person shooter

FOREIGN POLICY has an article by P.W. Singer, "Meet the Sims … and Shoot Them", which is an interesting account of the emergence of the first-person shooter game as a key component in military training. There is a companion article, "War Games", also worthy of your perusal.

Personally, I find first-person shooter games an adrenaline rush (currently, I'm stuck on level 6 of Return to Castle Wolfenstein). As far as I know, ID Software created the genre, with Wolfenstein and its successors, like Wolfenstein Spear of Destiny, Doom and Quake. When Doom arrived, with its new "engine", or rendering package, the game was used by the USMC as a training tool, because it was the first multi-player first-person shooter game. Now, you could work with a team of others, co-operatively. The ID engine allowed hacks, like replacing a particular monster, with say, purple Barneys, and with the release of Doom2, the tailoring to specific military needs became possible.

But the game revolution goes beyond learning how to do house-to-house, winkle-out-the-wogs: there are now simulations that train the use of robots, and training for handling personnel problems, and training for making command decisions:

America's Army quickly expanded from a potent recruiting tool into a valuable training system for soldiers already in the military. Military contractor Foster-Miller's Talon robot, for example, is used widely in Iraq and Afghanistan to dismantle roadside bombs, the most deadly weapon used against U.S. troops there. The game's Talon training module cost just $60,000 to develop, but took training in how to operate robots in war to a whole new level. "Prior to this, the only way to train was to take the robot and the controller to the trainees, give them some verbal instruction, and get them started," Bill Davis, head of the America's Army future applications program, told National Defense. "This allows them to train without breaking anything."

But with these advances, it's getting harder to figure out where the games end and the war begins. In Talon the game and the real-life version, soldiers are watching the action through a screen and even holding the very same physical controllers in their hands. And these controllers are modeled after the video-game controllers that the kids grew up with. This makes the transition from training to actual use nearly seamless. As one Foster-Miller executive explained to me, describing the game's training package for the Talon's pissed-off big brother, the machine gun-armed Swords robot, "With a flip of the switch, he has a real robot and a real weapon." Because of "the realism," he said, the company is finding that "the soldiers train on them endlessly in their free time."

Such "serious games," as the Army calls them, go well beyond the America's Army series. One program trains aerial drone operators while Saving Sergeant Pabletti teaches some 80,000 Army soldiers a year what is and isn't sexual harassment. This use of gaming extends across the entire experience of war. Virtual Iraq is being used at 40 clinics around the United States to help the thousands of veterans returning from war cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The game platform allows them to re-experience traumatic episodes in a safe environment.

These training tools are not just for raw recruits. For example, Gator Six is built around 260 realistic video clips that simulate many of the difficult judgment calls an officer might have to make in modern wars. Designed with the help of 20 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, it is broken into three parts: pre-deployment, combat, and transitioning into post-conflict.

The collective effect is potentially revolutionary. Game-based training can be tailored to specific scenarios as well as to an individual's own rate of learning, sped up or slowed down based on how quickly he or she acquires knowledge. The result is an enormous gain in efficiency. The Navy, for example, switched to such programs for its communications technicians and estimates that it saved some 58 man-years in training time. Virtual training is also appealing because it allows soldiers to learn and exercise their skills, again and again, without the accompanying physical risks. "Combat veterans live longer," Col. Matthew Caffrey, professor of war gaming and planning at the Air Command and Staff College, told National Defense. "One reason we use war games is to make virtual vets."

For simple-minded sociopaths like yours truly, who delight in god-mode with a BFG9000 (below), there's Serious Sam. Training? Hell, I just wanna blast something.

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