- Games Could Teach Troops Foreign
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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 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
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,
“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,
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