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. 

Sgt. Mary Katzenberger/U.S. army
Soldiers conduct a simulated fire-control mission using Virtual Battle Space 2, designed to mimic a live fire-control exercise.

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

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.

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.

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.' "

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