You're playing a game like Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty, shooting and grenading left and right. And you're thinking, "Wow, what an awesomely realistic game. The Navy Seals should be playing this."
Well, they probably are. The U.S. military has embraced video games. In fact, the Pentagon can't even fight a war without games, because it's too expensive to train soldiers the old-fashioned, face-in-the-mud way.
Training an infantry battalion means shipping it to a big training base, wear and tear on equipment, and a plethora of expenses from environmental cleanup to hiring actors to be Afghan villagers. Games are cheap and portable.
So now Virtual Battlespace 2 (the militarized version of Bohemia Interactive's Armed Assault video game) is a cornerstone of Army and Marine training. Pentagon research outfits like DARPA are constantly looking for new games, from virtual worlds to Miss Manners cultural trainers that remind soldiers to take off body armor and sunglasses to avoid offending their Iraqi hosts. The Army's Games for Training program alone lists five different games, and more are on the way.
Yet before you have visions of Seal Team 6 using your favorite shooter game to practice taking down the next Osama Bin Laden, there are a few things you should know. I have been covering the military and games for nearly a decade, and while Army games may look like the games on your Xbox, they are not the same and they will never be.
Do you want your heart surgeon to practice on a game because it's fun, or because it trains him to keep you alive?
First, the military doesn't play games. It uses training tools that happen to be games. The fun and competition of games is merely a means to induce students to learn, just like cherry flavor is a means to get kids to swallow disgusting medicine. Indeed, medicine is turning to video games to train surgeons. Do you want your heart surgeon to practice on a game because it's fun, or because it trains him to keep you alive?
People who sell games to the military don't think like gamers. They think like schoolteachers, with learning objectives and performance metrics. This may sound po-faced, but that's how they convince some cold-eyed bureaucrat that their game is better than a Powerpoint lecture at teaching Private Schmuckatelli to spot that IED hidden in the garbage pile by the road. Or, they need to show that the lazy Schmuckatelli will be more motivated to pay attention if his squad is competing against another squad in Virtual Battlespace 2. Making a game that's more interesting than Powerpoint would seem to be child's play, but it's not that simple. Games that will train hundreds of thousands of soldiers require plenty of computers, technical support and a generous donation of your tax dollars. Fun is good. Useful is better.
Second, everything bought by the military boils down to lots and lots of requirements. Someone has to have a need for a game, and the game will need to have very particular features. Sometimes the requirements don't make any sense, but that's how the military thinks. Boasting of your shooter's ultra-realistic physics model is pointless when the Army needs a game to teach soldiers how to butter up the natives not to shoot at them. In a burst of over-optimistic creativity, I once asked the Army why they couldn't use the Wii to practice physical tasks like fixing a tank. They replied that if they needed to teach a soldier to turn a wrench, they would get him a real wrench. Games are a solution, but never assume that they are the only solution.
Boasting of your shooter's ultra-realistic physics model is pointless when the Army needs a game to teach soldiers how to butter up the natives not to shoot at them.
Third, despite occasionally needing $600 toilet seats, Pentagon requirements really are different. Military games need to be secure so they can, for example, accept classified data such as terrain images taken by spy satellites. They have to be easy to use for both students and their instructors, because if the training session is an hour, they may only have 10 minutes to learn how to play. They have to be federated, which is a fancy way of saying that your game must be able to connect with different types of games, or maybe a real tank on a training range 3,000 miles away, so everyone can participate in a joint exercise. And they have to be easily moddable, because a rifle company might find itself in Korea or Kandahar, and it won't have professional coders to tailor the game for its next assignment.
I'm not defending military gaming. The system has a lot of problems. There are many game designers, some with extensive military experience, who cannot convince the Pentagon to buy extremely impressive games that look better, cost less, and would do a better than what the military is using now. Often these designers run into an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy, the nightmarish labyrinth of the defense procurement system and its favoritism toward large defense contractors, and the "not designed here" mentality of various military fiefdoms who don't like the idea of outsiders crashing their party.
But it is also true that a good video game for you may not be a good game for the Army. Playing at war is not the same as preparing for war.
Michael Peck is Games Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for Training & Simulation Journal at Defense News
Top image from Virtual Battlespace 2