Halo 3 Meets Second Life

Video games and military training are a natural fit. Any exercise that can sharpen physical reflexes and shooting skills has obvious applications for soldiers preparing for war.

For researchers at Sandia National Labs and BBN Technologies, however, the video game platform is being used to prepare soldiers for much more genteel aspects of modern warfare. Sandia’s specialists in computer simulation and human interaction have developed a new interpersonal skill-building and cross-cultural awareness video game to prepare troops for difficult communication situations in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and other global hotspots.

"We are talking about training for nonkinetic engagement?interpersonal communication, negotiation skills and interpersonal rapport," says Dr. Elaine Raybourn, lead scientist on the nine-month project. "The goal is to make soldiers better thinkers and communicators under stress."

Raybourn expects 20,000 soldiers a year will be trained with the simulation game, which was funded through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dubbed "DARWARS Ambush NK!" the multiplayer simulation game will first be given to the U.S. Army for testing before being distributed to the other military branches.

Up to 64 players can participate in the new game on networked computers. While the game technology is Internet capable, Sandia officials said the military prefers to run the games on small, closed LANs with participants from a single unit all working together. Players direct their avatars through the realistic war-zone landscape while communicating with each other via headset or, as many prefer, by military field radios. Participants serve as either role players or evaluators with tasks and experiences that vary according to their role.

Instructors can create or modify scenarios, monitor training, and jump in and change the direction of the game at any time, according to Raybourn.

"They have the perspective of a typical first-person shooter," says Raybourn. "But we don’t just drop them into the game. There’s a lot of preparation and after-action work built into this training."The interactions practiced in the game help soldiers deal with local customs, build trust with natives in foreign war zones and equip and train locals to aid U.S. military efforts. Those skills, long the purview of special operations forces, are now in demand for many combat troops including military police, Raybourn says.

In fact, it was a similar game that Raybourn created specifically for the U.S. Army Special Forces in 2005 that led DARPA to seek her help in building the new game. The previous game, still in use by special operations soldiers at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina is a precursor to the famed live-action Robin Sage exercise which hones the Green Berets’ skills in adaptive thinking, negotiation, conflict resolution and leadership in cross-cultural settings, Raybourn says.

DARPA officials had already been developing a training game with BBN Technologies, but wanted to augment the game’s focus on physical elements such as improvised explosive devices and ambushes. These "nonkinetic" modules include social and cultural intelligence for a geographical area linked to key events and the traditional roles of civilians.

"DARPA wanted a thinking piece for the soldiers, to learn how to negotiate with tribal leaders, for example," Raybourn says. "When things go wrong, troops have to learn to shift how they think in environments that are potentially dangerous."

"I found Raybourn’s idea of using a set of soldiers as observers and assessors particularly innovative and hope the Army can adopt it with its digital training tools," Ralph Chatham, former DARPA program manager who selected Raybourn to work on the project, said in a statement. "The Army is the only big organization in the world that has institutionalized introspection in their after-action review [AAR] process. Sergeants can talk back to lieutenants in an AAR, and both are pleased with the process. That part of the [Adaptive Thinking and Leadership] simulation game Raybourn and the team produced fits the Army perfectly."

The game’s content was developed by a number of military experts from the Army’s Battle Command Training Center in Fort Lewis, Wash., along with several current and former Army and Marine Corps officers with real-world experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We hope this training will help soldiers better understand the cultural environments they are exposed to and better handle difficult situations," Raybourn says.