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Games Could Teach Troops Foreign Cultures
December 2008
By Matthew Rusling
The military has incorporated into its doctrine the idea of trying to prevent wars before they occur. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pressed that issue of late, saying that it is better to help stabilize volatile states than to become embroiled in armed conflicts.

To do this, soldiers need to understand how to appropriately interact with people of foreign cultures, in order to win them over and curtail the influence of anti-Western extremists, experts have said.

Computer simulations may be able to help in this endeavor. Already used in a variety of training scenarios, games could help educate troops to better understand the societies in which they are operating.

Jennifer McNamara, director of strategic partnerships at BreakAway, a video game designer, said there is a rising interest in the Defense Department in interactive technologies that teach military personnel about the sociological factors that cause insurgencies.

When countries become unstable, their citizens run a greater risk of joining militant movements than people living in economically and politically stable countries, experts have said. When unemployment is rampant and people become desperate, radicals often appear to have a solution.

BreakAway is developing games aimed at helping troops halt the influence of insurgencies before they take root.

“[The games would entail] working with the local population so you can really start to understand what issues they are experiencing and … come up with interventions to try to prevent them from joining an insurgency,” McNamara said.

Other games would focus on how to counter such movements after they have already taken hold. Players would learn how insurgent networks form and how they derive support from local communities, McNamara said.

Simulations can help soldiers see how different individuals play into an overall terrorist network, McNamara said.

In one recently designed game, entitled Troublemaker, the user’s goal is to build a cell that makes improvised explosive devices. He has to complete such objectives as finding financing or employing a skilled bomb maker. The game is intended to teach players to understand what goes into setting up such an organization, in order to prevent such groups from forming.

Other games, which would teach how to engage the local community in order to gather information, are in the early stages of design, McNamara said. Stories abound about well-meaning U.S. units in Iraq that have seen their humanitarian projects backfire. A force engaged in reconstruction efforts might incorrectly decide that villagers need a school when they really need better roads. Months after the school is built, it is still vacant and the community is still dissatisfied.

BreakAway is working on games that teach trainees how to better collect data from the local population. They would learn which community members they should talk to, McNamara said. “Rather than going in with a plan fully written and implementing it … you can go to the market, you can go into the village, you can go to the political officials to determine exactly what is going on,” she said.

Video games could be based on particular countries or be generic. Some customers in the Defense Department have asked for extensive models of Iraq or Afghanistan, McNamara said.

The “soft” or “human” factors of games might include a number of background conditions through which a user would have to navigate in order to fulfill certain goals. A player could find himself in a country with a faltering medical system or economy, for example. The country could be gripped by religious conflict and have a majority Muslim population. Or there could be an equal split between Christians and Muslims, McNamara said. The gamer may be tasked with setting up a sewage system or power grids, gathering intelligence or providing protection and stability. To better mirror real-world situations, games of this sort provide editing features that allow trainers or human terrain experts to model societies of interest and have the learner experience a virtual world that closely reflects reality.

BreakAway has in the past built games that require critical thinking to fulfill political objectives. In A Force More Powerful, gamesters try to unseat a local dictator through grass roots movements. The company developed the idea for the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict. Otpor, a group that was influential in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian dictator, advised the company on that project.

Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory is building first-person games in which players would interact with neutral characters who could be swayed to either the user’s or the enemy’s side.

In one of many possible scenarios, a participant’s character might act in a culturally insensitive way while talking to a local shopkeeper. The storekeeper would be offended and decide to support a local terror group as a result. In a contrary scenario, that character would be aware of the local cultural norms and behave accordingly. The shopkeeper would then share information with the player during their next encounter, said Steve Phillips, asymmetric warfare analyst at Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics lab.

The university is developing other games that could teach troops to keep a close eye on the movements of people in crowded urban environments. In one level, a user might enter a crowded Baghdad neighborhood with his unit. A man in the background, sitting in an apartment building window, would be seen picking up a cell phone. Moments later the unit would come under small arms fire from a militia. A player would learn that the man in the window was actually tipping off a local terrorist safe house. He would learn to watch the local population carefully to detect danger, Phillips said.

Dawn Morrison, a geographer at the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction engineering research laboratory, said that most virtual training misses a key element — people.

Military analysts have said that the United States will be fighting in urban environments for many years. While games can teach crews such skills as how to navigate military vehicles through cities, virtual environments do not include people socializing on street corners or riding bicycles. They often lack images of motorists, children going to school, vendors selling snacks on roadsides and people congregated in front of cafes, churches or mosques.

Morrison’s team has developed a geo-cultural analysis tool (G-CAT), which is a database of typical human patterns of movement within different societies. It can tell the user when the workweek of a specific region or country takes place, when rush hour is and when the weekend begins. All of these daily activities are influenced by culture, Morrison said. The tool can be embedded in computer games. Morrison’s group is working to partner with organizations that could apply it that way.

The G-CAT has used a variety of sources to compile this information, such as the CIA World Factbook and other relevant publications. A prototype was completed in August, and Morrison’s group is in talks with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about potential applications.

“It is a realistic reflection of how the local population acts and moves around,” she said.

On Friday, July 4, it could tell the user that in the United States, crowds would likely assemble at parades and kids would be on vacation from school. On that same day in Iraq, worshippers would congregate at a mosque, being that Friday is the Muslim holy day. In Australia, July is a winter month, and children would be assembled mostly in schools. Parents would be usually at work.

The tool could also be used in games involving route planning. U.S. troops in Iraq are cautioned to avoid crowds, as insurgents could more easily hide in the urban clutter and stage an ambush, Morrison said.

The G-CAT could teach troops to recognize cultural abnormalities by helping them better understand the routine activities of everyday life in a certain culture, Morrison said. Soldiers could be trained to recognize the regular times and locations of local markets. So if any of them do not take place at their normal time and place, this could be an indication that locals know something about planned insurgent activities, Morrison said.

A G-CAT that is embedded in a game might also help troops to think about how even non-violent acts can have implications. If U.S. forces set up a checkpoint at a crowded intersection, it could cause a massive traffic jam in a place such as Baghdad. Motorists by the hundreds could be late for work.

In a game depicting this scene, a caricature of an unhappy commuter might get out of his car and start shaking his fist, Morrison said. A player might click on that image and see a message that explains that the reason he is angry is because he is in a hurry to get to the office.

The user would learn that the activity that is blocking traffic, although intended to create more security for locals, may in fact have the opposite effect by disrupting the everyday routines of the city’s individuals.

Lt. Col. Simon Goerger, a combat simulation analyst and a student at the National War College, said that such games would have limitations. A game cannot replicate emotions such as stress, fear, exhaustion, anger, hatred, sadness or despair. And people make decisions much differently when these emotions are factored in.

Since many younger soldiers have grown up with computer games and understand that they are not real, questions arise of the danger that a student might not take the lessons seriously enough. New recruits are still untested, and culture shock could at times overpower sensitivity training.
That is why these simulations should be used in a group setting, Goerger said.

“It’s a tool. You have to have the trainer there to assist to make sure the trainee is drawing out the right lessons,” he said.

One way they could have more impact is if they were arranged in progressive levels, he said. At the beginners’ stage, a game might present just a handful of parameters that form the background of the virtual world through which a player would have to navigate in order to complete certain objectives. These variables could be the level of religious fervor, the local economic climate, the rate of inflation or how well the sewage or electricity system might be working. At an intermediate or an advanced level, the user might be dealing with dozens of other circumstances.

This would help appeal to different ranks of enlisted troops and officers. An officer with a good deal of knowledge of urban warfare would obviously view situations differently than a new recruit, Goerger said.

As for the advantages of such games, they could help teach a player the importance of viewing issues as a local would.

“People have to get out of their Americanized way of thinking,” Goerger said. “Not that Americanized thinking is bad, but it is not always appropriate."