Gaming is More Than Just Play for Military Services
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 30, 2005 A team of eight U.S. soldiers is engaged by a larger enemy force. The team is hit by three rocket-propelled grenades and three improvised explosive devices, yet they still fight, killing several enemies.
Army Sgt. Tommy Rieman plays with an explosive ordnance disposal robot simulator at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 30. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
This may soon be one of the many scenarios introduced into "America's Army," a video game created for the Army which is available online or on compact disc, and recently was made available commercially to the gaming community. But the virtual reality that may someday be a click away from millions of gamers is based on a soldier's personal reality.
That firefight was real. In 2003, Cincinnati native Army Sgt. Tommy Rieman was in Iraq fighting for his life with his fellow soldiers. His actions that December day earned him the Silver Star and a Purple Heart for the gunshot and shrapnel wounds he suffered.
Today, the infantryman is assigned to the Pentagon, detailed to work with the Army's video game project and the "Real Heroes" program, which attempts to put a face on today's military heroes.
"They're trying to take people who have been in the fight and incorporate them into the game," Rieman said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he added. "How many people can say, 'I'm going to be an action figure'?"
America's Army was launched in 2002. Today, according to the game's Web site, it has more than 6 million registered players. More than 3 and a half million have completed the basic training phase, and more than 160,000 have joined the game since Nov. 1.
Each day, 500,000 to 600,000 missions are played, and more than 50 million hours have been played overall. The game is available as an online download. The MOVES Institute -- Modeling, Virtual Environment and Simulation -- at the Naval Postgraduate School was the birthplace of America's Army. Initially sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, the game's development has since left the institute.
The game is a squad-based, first-person shooter game consisting of basic training progressing to a series of team-based missions that involve operations, Special Forces and combat medic specialties. The game is different things to many. To the new recruit, it is a familiarization tool; to the soldier, it is a training tool; to gamers, it is simply fun.
"It's good for kids that are going to join the Army," Rieman said. "I know a lot of people who play the game and enjoy it."
The basic training portion prepares and familiarizes recruits with what they will face in basic military training. At the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference here, two soldiers watched an exhibitor explain the basic training program. On the computer screen, a virtual soldier demonstrated the correct way to execute a push-up.
But Rieman said the game also helps retain soldiers and enables the public to get to know their soldiers through the game, which incorporates the Army's core values throughout.
"It's a morale booster," Rieman said. "It's a way to look up to a normal person - a role model."
Rieman said he was in a dead-end job before he enlisted in the Army. The game takes soldiers' heroic actions in combat and shares them with the world, showing that "This is an everyday guy who did some good things."
The Army is not alone in its venture into the gaming world. The National Guard began distributing "Guard Force" in 2002 just months after the Army released its game. The game is available at Army National Guard recruiting offices to U.S. residents.
Guard Force is a real-time strategy game using modern military equipment and units, including M-1A1 tanks and M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles. The game contains six missions that take place in snow covered mountains and lush jungles, performing covert assaults, counter-insurgency and rescue.
The game focuses on the Guard's combat and non-combat missions, and includes missions like training foreign forces, base protection and flood rescues: all missions the Guard has been involved with in recent years.
The Navy's Recruiting Command launched its new online video game July 15 to build interest and awareness of Navy high-tech jobs. Since then, gamers have completed more than 3,000 missions in the "Navy Training Exercise Strike and Retrieve" game. The game, Navy officials said, "provides those age 17 to 24 a chance to participate in a highly sensitive, top-secret mission, and tests their skills in different areas that sailors in the Navy experience in their everyday life."
Using video games as a way to reach potential recruits makes sense, a Navy Recruiting Command official said. "Gaming and interactive electronic media have increasingly become an aspect of this audience's daily lives," the officials said. "Accordingly, the Navy is working to reach them via these new avenues."
In one of the Navy game's scenarios, players are challenged to locate and secure top-secret documents from within a downed unmanned reconnaissance plane while navigating underwater terrain, battling deep-sea creatures and racing against enemy forces trying to locate the downed aircraft.
Players also have an opportunity to learn more about the Navy while searching for special codes that guide them through the game. The game directs players to www.navy.com to find the special codes. The game is available online as a single-player download online.
The Air Force launched its video game, "USAF: Air Dominance," in the last year, and according to Air Force recruiters, the game's purpose is not only to attract recruits, but also to highlight some of the service's missions to the public.
The game ordinarily is available to be played at high-profile public events, such as major sporting events. Players can select to fly three missions using the Air Force's most advanced technological hardware: an F-22 Raptor, a Predator unmanned air vehicle and a C-17 Globemaster III transport.
But unlike the Army, Navy and National Guard games, the Air Force game can be played only on computers in Air Force mobile recruiting centers. The game is designed to give gamers a short experience of about five minutes at public events, enabling them to get a feel for the Air Force, but also opening the doors for recruiters to perform their outreach, Air Force officials said.
The Marine Corps' video game venture coupled experiences from combat Marines with technology from the private sector to create "Close Combat: First to Fight," a game solely distributed to Marines to help them hone their combat skills. It involves a team of four Marines battling insurgents in the Middle East. The game can last more than 20 hours.
But video games are not just being used by the services to recruit, for community outreach, and in retention; they also are being used to prepare the force. For example, games like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored "DARWARS Ambush!" is a networked, multi-player, PC-based trainer that allows troops to experience lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq and to construct scenarios based on field experience. Up to 64 trainees can practice together to anticipate and respond to ambushes, IEDs, and other threats.
The Air Force is developing "Avant Guard" for the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate. This game models an urban convoy protection mission using UAVs. The player directs the UAV and manages the sensor stream to search for hostile personnel. The objective is to detect an ambush ahead of the convoy's arrival.
And the Naval Air Warfare Center has created "Bottom Gun," a periscope training game that allows players to practice missile firing. "I'm not a big PC gamer," admitted Rieman. But he insisted that the games help develop soldier skills.
"It's a great trainer," Rieman said. Anyone who spends a day training on the devices that use the America's Army platforms, such as the lightweight robot trainer used to conduct explosive ordnance disposal missions, or an anti-armor weapon system, will be successful in live fire exercises, he added.
As one who has seen the realities of war firsthand, Rieman said the games are "as real as it gets."