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02-09-06, 08:19 AM
Games molding military minds
February 09,2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a five-part series looking at the evolution of video games.

If it were real, Ajas Island wouldn’t be the safest place to go.

But the Marines of 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company are there anyway. They’re tangled in all manner of trouble.

One convoy, on the western edge of the island, is hit by a roadside bomb and in the sights of a sniper. Another group moves cautiously toward a village brimming with insurgents. A third stumbles upon rebels loading ammunition onto trucks.

While the island itself is nothing more than a digital construct — a videogame modified for military use — the situations it forces Marines to confront aren’t imaginary.

That’s the role of Camp Lejeune’s Simulation Center, a place where videogames are anything but fun. Inside the center’s computer labs, Marines face realistic scenarios that force them to make life and death decisions — without the consequences.

It’s a concept that’s spreading rapidly throughout the military and defense industry. As digital technology becomes more realistic, its training value has increased, said Glenn Spradling, a military analyst who helps operate the exercises at the Camp Lejeune center.

But despite the realism — the increasingly detailed environments, character models and weather — the games are designed for mental exercise.

“This is not to make them a gunner, a rifleman or a driver,” Spradling said. “It teaches them to make choices and cope with a situation. The more often you’re exposed to something, the more speedily and confidently you’ll make decisions.”

Not only do the scenarios help build “muscle memory,” but they’re cheaper and safer.

“Instead of taking expensive Marine Corps equipment, we can do it at a fraction of the cost, and it’s inherently safer,” Spradling said. “We’d rather they make mistakes down here first.”

‘A training tool’

Virtual Battlefield Systems, the convoy program, was brought into the training fold after 9/11. Based upon a PC game called Operation Flashpoint, the Marines were given permission to take the game and modify it to suit their needs.

Spradling and the Marines who work at the center have become VBS-1 gods. They take the game and do almost anything they want to it. They create their own landscapes or load a real city like Baghdad. They toggle between day or night or any kind of inclement weather imaginable. Equipment used by the Marines — from compasses to Cobra helicopters — can be added to the simulation.

VBS-1 runs in a computer lab separated by a moveable wall. On one side sits the Marines with ANGLICO, who are training for the first time with VBS-1. Groups of four Marines huddle around two computers. One drives their digital humvee, another operates the 50-caliber gun. The third communicates with the other vehicles over a headset and a fourth gives orders.

Before setting out on missions, the Marines are taught how the program works. While most young Marines from the videogame-saturated generation catch on quickly, Spradling said there are some habits that need to be broken.

“You have to unlearn them a little bit,” he said. “They are used to running around looking for extra lives or collecting items. We have to force them to resist shooting everything on sight.”

They are next briefed on the details of their mission. But like the real world, unexpected things happen.

The twists and turns in the operational narrative come courtesy of the Marines on the other side of the room. These terminal operators are assigned to the simulation center. Some act as bad guys, others control the air support that ANGLICO will be calling in.

One of the challenges for the terminal operators is not to show-off, said Spradling. They have a god’s-eye view of the whole situation and get more practice at it than the rookies in the other room.

So guys like Cpl. Blake Kizer, one of the sim center Marines, need to slow down and simply force the training Marines to make decisions.

“It’s a decision-making training tool,” Kizer said. “You can’t really simulate a convoy on patrol. But they can get the feel for timing of getting out of the vehicles and not shooting each other in the back of the head.”

Serious games

VBS-1 is only one example of how video games are becoming a staple of military training. A Pentagon program called DARWARS, designed to get video game training programs to the armed forces overseas, is one of the reasons they are spreading throughout the services.

One program for the Army teaches special operations officers how to bridge the cultural gap between Americans and Iraqis. For example, they’re shown how to deal with a nervous Iraqi family at a checkpoint. Another game, tellingly called “AMBUSH!,” is being used to get soldiers ready for the likelihood that their convoys will come under attack.

A company called Vcom3D is developing technology to create virtual avatars that behave more like members of a certain culture. For example, a digital Iraqi man will not only look like one, but his gestures, reactions and modes of speech will be more real.

There’s also larger, more command-centric simulations that help battlefield leaders improve decision-making.

A 2004 article in Wired Magazine examines a massive game called “Urban Resolve.” Developed by the U.S. Joint Forces Command for $195,000, the game is a combat simulation depicting a city under siege and two groups of soldiers fighting for control.

The teams can take various actions — such as destroy an electric plant or a sewage processing facility — and watch what happens.

At Camp Lejeune’s simulation center, there’s a similar program called the Marine Air Ground Task Force Tactical Warfare Simulation (MTWS). That program is like a computerized and realistic game of Risk. It pits commanders as high as a four-star general and his staff against as many as three other opposing generals.

The program simulates equipment and actions on land, sea and air and forces commanders to make decisions against a breathing adversary, said T.A. “Tess” Reavis, the simulation center’s civilian manager. Everything that a commander must consider in a real situation must be dealt with, from logistics to casualties to civilians.

“It’s the only model that has all those capabilities in it,” Reavis said.

‘The technology exists’

While MTWS is designed for battalion-sized and larger simulations, VBS-1 is made for smaller, deployable units like infantry or tank and Amtrak units. The program can be modified to suit a specific unit’s needs. For example, ANGLICO, which specializes in coordinating artillery, naval gunfire and close air support for the Marines, Navy and Army, needed a simulation that emphasized calling in supporting fire.

Staff Sgt. Johnny Pyles, with 2nd ANGLICO, said the VBS-1 program offers a lot of training benefits.

“It’s a good platform to train on,” Pyles said. “They see things blow up, they see bullets flying. There’s an enemy. There is no enemy in the field.

“Logistically, its a lot better because all we have to do is bring the Marines here.”

Sgt. Marc Harris with 2nd ANGLICO said he’s used other battlefield simulation programs and this is his favorite one so far.

“It gives you flexibility to fight as if you are in the field,” he said. “There’s casualties, IEDs, birds coming in. You’re being engaged. If you can’t train how you fight, why train at all? This is very lifelike.”

In actuality, it doesn’t even scratch the surface, said Spradling. Twenty years from now, he envisions a meshing of virtual and real-world training. For example, a team of Marines may be driving a virtual convoy down a computer-simulated road. They may need air support. That will come, perhaps, from an Osprey pilot, sitting in a simulator aboard New River Air Station.

Maybe an enemy bird — a real AV-8B Harrier deployed from Cherry Point — will “electronically” try to shoot down the Osprey. The Osprey pilot will have to evade that missile and also complete his mission.

“The technology exists,” said Spradling. “This is not cutting-edge stuff. The only limiting factor is imagination.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact staff writer Chris Mazzolini at cmazzolini@freedomenc.com or at 353-1171, Ext. 229.