U.S. Army Turns to Videogames for Training

Geek Culture

Giving Soldiers the Tools They Need to Get the Job Done

Another team is hard at work on User Defined Operational Programs or UDOP. These applications cover a variety of tools to help soldiers in the field, but probably the most interesting is the Army’s adaptation of Google Earth.

Using its own mapping system, JTCOIC has created a website where soldiers can log in and download .kml files that are updated daily for specific locations. Based on situation reports, important details are added to a region’s maps. Schools, mosques and roads are all defined. Additionally, callout windows describe attacks in recent days, explosions and other important data that a driver or unit commander can review before setting out for the day (or night).

UDOP also creates maps with 3-D flyover capabilities. These maps allow the user to virtually walk the streets of an upcoming route. In addition to noting key elements like the other maps, the 3-D maps give soldiers a sense of what a route will be like, what rooftops, cross-streets and alleys to be aware of and potential fields of to keep in mind.

A couple of doors away from UDOP, is what appears to be a small sound stage. In the center of the room is a cube with sides about eight feet square. One of the sides slides open like a porch door. The floor is slightly elevated in what the JTCOIC refers to as “The Cave,” a moniker that conjures up the notion of a dark, damp space. But The Cave’s air is crisp, since there are plenty of machines to keep cool. The walls are a bright, white fabric for displaying images projected on them. There is no ceiling to the cube, but images can be projected on all four walls and the floor, creating an immersive experience. This is achieved by running a single simulation on what is, essentially, five displays, using five different in-game cameras.

A simulation of the Battle of Kamdesh is loaded and moments later, we are hovering above Command Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan. The simulation, created using the SIMS team’s VBS2 tools, illustrates how insurgents attacked a soon-to-be-deserted combat outpost in the mountains of the Nuristan province.

As Taliban commanders hid in a mosque, directing the attack, U.S. and Afghanistan soldiers in the valley below fought off attacks from all sides. Using the VBS2 software and The Cave to illustrate how the battle progressed, Army commanders and analysts were able to look at the battle from all angles, including enemy positions and their movement, and include the Army’s defense and response tactics.

It’s easy to see why JTCOIC has invested so heavily in the SIMS team. Despite the rough polygons and bland textures, in The Cave, the fight comes to life and it’s easy to imagine the battle developing around you.

“Before we started, there were reports that no one wanted to read, then there were PowerPoints that put everyone to sleep,” said Covey. “Now, in The Cave, we put you in the battle.”

It’s been a short three years since the JTCOIC was sketched out on paper. In the months since its inception, they have made great inroads on how the soldiers in today’s Army are trained. Resistance has popped up now again in the middle bureaucracy, but the commanders see the efficiencies and benefit of this type of training and the front-line troops, raised on Xbox and Playstations, expect it.

And, yes, there are times when the role of insurgent is played in these games, but there are stark differences between a gamer playing Medal of Honor for fun after school or work and a professional who’s trying to learn how to keep soldiers safe in the future. And that’s what JTCOIC has done — via SIMS and UDOP and the many products they produce — they have found ways to improve the safety of our soldiers. And for the moms and dads, brothers, sisters and friends out there in harm’s way, there really is no better mission.

Disclosure: The U.S. Army provided transportation and lodging for GeekDad to visit the JTCOIC.

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