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How can Army keep soldiers fighting fit after Afghanistan? Avatars

Military officials are using video games to evaluate troops, but making soldiers' avatars – their virtual selves – more closely mimic the soldiers' actual skills is the next frontier. 

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / May 3, 2012

Soldiers conduct a simulated fire-control mission using Virtual Battle Space 2, designed to mimic a live fire-control exercise.

Sgt. Mary Katzenberger/U.S. army

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Washington

For Col. Anthony Krogh, the approaching end of more than 10 years of war seems more like a call to action.

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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll, but they have also left the US Army battle-tested. As peacetime draws nearer, the Pentagon is grappling with a vital question: How can the military keep its soldiers engaged and fighting fit, both physically and mentally?

Krogh thinks he knows one answer: video games. Short of building fake villages "with goats wandering and smells and all that," video-game training is the only way consistently to put soldiers in environments like the ones they have operated in since 2001, says Krogh, head of the Army's national simulation command.

But just how helpful can video games be in guiding the next generation of troops? Can cutting-edge video-game technology give commanders a realistic idea of how well their troops will fight a war, or climb a mountain, or shoot a rifle under stress? Can they even help troops to be more ethical?

Krogh's job is to make sure the answers to all these questions are "yes," and his latest challenge in this quest is making sure each soldier's virtual self – his or her "avatar" – is as realistic as possible.

The reason? When military officials began evaluating the effectiveness of video-game training, they discovered that the games were dramatically overestimating the ability of the young soldiers/players. In a war-game exercise in January, the Army found, for starters, that it took "real soldiers" one-third longer to complete a mission than it did their avatars.

"We were honestly quite shocked at the difference" between how soldiers would perform in the virtual world versus in real life, Krogh says. "We had kind of an 'aha' moment that we really needed to dig into this more."

It turns out that the virtual training was rewarding gaming skills more than soldierly discipline.

"If your thumb-eye dexterity as an X-box player is better than mine, you're going to appear to be a better soldier than I am," Krogh says. This is particularly true if a soldier is overweight, for example.

And so Krogh approached the entertainment industry with a plan: From now on, the Army wanted avatars to mirror the actual abilities of the soldiers.

"The beauty of the Army is that we test our soldiers on a regular basis – how they run, how they use their weapons. We now have a digital system that manages that," Krogh says. Today, game designers are linking digitally stored physical fitness and shooting range scores into the avatars and the games themselves, "so that if you're really heavy or shorter than the soldier next to you, [you'll] be able to tell."

Krogh uses the example of a soldier who is an expert marksman and a skilled gamer. But the marksman is also overweight.

"If he went and ran 1,000 yards and came back, he'll go from being the best to the worst marksman," he says. The heavy breathing that exercise and altitude induce wreck his shooting ability under stress.

In this case, he will not be the best "point man," because "he's going to be dragging behind," Krogh notes.

The video games with more realistic avatars will drive this point home, allowing commanders to better mix and match soldiers in their squads, he says. "It opens up opportunities we've never even considered to give us a chance to figure out the best combination of soldiers" in a unit.

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