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.
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There are signs that the work of Krogh and his colleagues is bearing fruit. Last month, the Army's National Training Center in California rolled out new virtual-gaming stations that allow soldiers to train in conventional and unconventional warfare. The plan is to do two or three training rotations for various units each year, says Col. Robert "Pat" White, deputy commander of the Combined Arms Center-Training in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.Skip to next paragraph
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At Fort Benning in Georgia, military officials are also experimenting with avatars, with the eventual goal of also creating a more realistic enemy, White says. "It's what I call a 'thinking enemy,' so that when you run an exercise and hit the 'go' button on it, the enemy doesn't always do the same thing."
Military officials hope the Army's new crop of video games may teach US soldiers how to behave better, too. Young soldiers tend to play "massive online player games" in the barracks late at night, allowing them to form groups and train without having to physically be in the same space.
What Krogh grapples with is "how do we control the training so we can critique what they did wrong and right – and stop the negatives?" he adds. "We don't want to reinforce bad habits."
The answer may lie in the ability to tie the avatar to previous gaming sessions – and to store those records for higher-ranking officers to peruse, he says.
"Think about Afghanistan – the worst thing I can do is create a game where we have soldiers that can go on at night and do ROE [rules of engagement] violations" like shooting civilians, he says.
But if the Army stores records of those gaming sessions, the senior noncommissioned officer might review them and can ask a soldier, "Why were you walking through the village by yourself and firing all these rounds?" Or, "You played last night and had six ROE violations."
The games could also help hone the more nuanced ways that soldiers interact with civilians. When he was doing relief work for hurricane Andrew, civilians responded differently based on the behavior of the soldiers, Krogh says.
"Some units took their weapons, another unit I was in chose not to," he notes. "I show up with water, ice, food, and people approach me and my soldiers. Other units who carried their weapons were viewed as security forces – people gave them a wide berth, even when they were bringing water."
Right now video games don't give any feedback on the impact that soldiers have on the people around them.
"They are not reinforcing how you behave and how [the way] you're postured changes your environment," Krogh says. New video games might weave in civilian reactions based on whether or not, say, soldiers go in with their guns drawn.
Ultimately, military officials hope the games may not only reinforce optimal behavior, but also encourage soldiers to be more physically fit – if only to build a better avatar.
Krogh recalls asking his 20-year-old son, who is in ROTC at a university, "If I were to tell you that the only way to improve your avatar in Call of Duty 3 is to go out and run in real life, what would you do?'
"He said, 'I wouldn't sit here playing – I'd be out running.' "