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Computer Game Trains 'Art of Battle Command'

By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2010 – A computer-based game is helping to support the training of military commanders and their staffs in counterinsurgency and stability operations.

The Army is working with the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies in developing UrbanSim, a computer game built to help in training for operations in urban environments such as those encountered in some areas of Iraq and Afghanistan.

UrbanSim project is managed by the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command, Simulation and Training Technology Center.

"We're trying to help the U.S. Army better train in what we call the art of battle command," said Andrew Gordon, research associate professor at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, during a March 3 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.”

UrbanSim is a simulated city rife with political, economic and tribal rivalries, Gordon said. The user takes on the role of battalion commander and is directing actions of subordinate units over a 15-turn period. The idea was to take the best components of video games and apply this talent toward the Army’s training needs.

The project began as part of a larger research project under an Army training objective, Gordon explained.

"The idea was to explore the creation of game-based training tools that could be rapidly developed to meet all kinds of different training needs as they arose," he said. "A lot of times, the training community doesn't know how to ask for the things they really need, or even what's possible, using today's technologies. So in a lot of ways, our job here as researchers is to help define what we call the art of the possible."

That allows trainers to think in creative ways about the problem they have and possible creative solutions to address those needs.

The team began a partnership with instructors at the School for Command Preparation at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and based the UrbanSim experience very closely on the scenarios they'd been developing at the school. This allowed a design in which each revision could be tested and put in front of students in a real classroom and for immediate feedback.

All of the concepts typically included in traditional Army schoolhouse training are in UrbanSim, Gordon said, but the program allows students to get hands-on practice with these concepts in a contemporary operational environment.

"One of the innovative things about UrbanSim is it also has this story-driven component where we're taking the real-world experiences of commanders from places like Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to find innovative ways of moving those real life experiences directly into the simulation environment," he said. "So that the real-world experiences of soldiers are the things that are driving the underlying simulation in the UrbanSim environment."

ICT did a large amount of research to ensure that UrbanSim was as realistic as possible. The team created complex multi-agent systems that allowed the game to model the political, economic and social relationships that exist in the fictional city and be able to run them in real time to be integrated in the game.

The group also focused on developing story driven learning environments that not only capture the students’ attention but also integrate real-world and nonfictional stories into the simulation.

The game also uses intelligent tutoring technologies since the game was designed to be used in a classroom environment.

"You need to provide the students with enough support, enough guidance, so they're simply not wasting their time playing a computer game," Gordon said. The tutoring technology should give them the tools to think about what's happening in the game, reflect on their own approach and strategy toward tackling the problem, and also reflect on their own thought processes, he added.

ICT also is traveling to run pilot studies to see where UrbanSim software might be applicable in other settings. "The idea is to help them either save time or do the same kind of training they're doing now, but more effectively," he said.

The program still is a research prototype and is slowly transitioning out of the lab and into the greater Army.

"I'm very optimistic that this project will have a long life outside of our lab, based solely on the enormous enthusiasm I've seen from instructors and students who've used this tool," Gordon said. "I think one of the competitive advantages of the U.S. military is the strength of its research community."

(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)

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