G.I. Joystick: the new video games that are training today's troops

War isn't a game, but it's beginning to look like one.

US training games are a huge departure from civilian titles like Army of Two -- often, the in-game weapons cannot be fired.

US training games are a huge departure from civilian titles like Army of Two -- often, the in-game weapons cannot be fired.

This Talk Isn't Cheap

The last game I get to play is called BiLAT (as in bilateral), which teaches negotiation skills.

I begin the day in my military office with a problem: The Army has set up a marketplace for Iraqi civilians to use, but they're not using it. On my desk is a set of briefing documents, TV reports, local newspaper clips, and a prep sheet that I am supposed to fill out with the information I need. The prep sheet is important because it keeps track of the Iraqi characters' objectives as well as my own.

In BiLAT, I must solve the problem so that all interested parties win, not just the U.S. Army. If I complete my mission by crossing the business mogul who is behind the marketplace boycott, I won't get his cooperation later on. To get him to help out, I have to do my homework: If I fill out the prep sheet well, I'll have better negotiation options. If I fail to prepare adequately, I'll be sent packing.

Because I sped through my prep sheet, I failed with Farid, an Iraqi police officer: Though I won points with him for removing my protective gear and weapons and chatting with him about his family, I ended up talking business before he was ready. Had I prepared well, I could have connected with him on the subject of soccer and won him over.

BiLAT isn't perfect (it assumes that the player is male, for starters). But it's not hard to imagine a BiLAT-based scenario in the commercial market that plays like a business negotiation trainer -- or even a dating sim.

Deploying America's Army

The most widely known military-made game is -- unlike BiLAT, UrbanSim, or Virtual Iraq -- completely free for the public to play. It's none other than America's Army, a "recruitment tool" (read: first-person shooter video game) that was developed with American taxpayer dollars and has been going steady since July 4, 2002.

"We started the America's Army project in 1999," says Colonel Casey Wardynski, who heads the project, "because we [the Army] were basically irrelevant to young adults. So we decided to try making a game, because, well, we were in a crisis, and people were more open to trying something new."

Earlier recruitment efforts, Wardynski explains, were unrealistic and ineffective. "Eighty percent of the people in our commercials weren't even holding weapons," Wardynski says. "People were more likely to get their information about the Army from watching the movie Full Metal Jacket than from our commercials."

Straight From the Source

America's Army is realistic in a different way than Call of Duty or Battlefield 1943 is. "We wanted to provide a realistic picture of soldiering," he says, "There's no invincibility or unlimited lives." Many games out there advertise realism as a selling point, but only America's Army keeps it realistic when it's not fun.

One example of America's Army's realism is the in-game medic training. Where most commercially produced games make healing wounded comrades as easy as selecting the Medikit and clicking, America's Army strives to make it as true-to-life as possible -- so much so, in fact, that it has been credited with helping save lives outside the game. This level of detail and accuracy cost the development team 25 percent of its budget for the year.

Impatient players can cheat through the in-game medical training, but if they can't do it on a battlefield, they're useless to the team -- just as in the real Army. "What separates the U.S. Army from a gang of armed thugs is our value system," Wardynski says. "America's Army was designed to reflect that."

Mission Successful

At its core, America's Army is designed to show a potential recruits what Army life is like before they join. The idea is to give the Army a pool of recruits who are more likely to succeed -- and it works.

Though the game doesn't track personal information, Wardynski says, America's Army players rank as the second-likeliest group of people to enlist, surpassed only by children of military families.

America's Army isn't as visually appealing or easy to play as other first-person shooters, and those shortcomings would be serious flaws in a commercial game. But since generating sales wasn't the point of America's Army, the developers could include features like medic training -- and these additions ultimately enhance the game experience.

The development isn't stopping there, either. New versions of America's Army will add communications specialists that can jam the enemy's in-game voice chat -- a level of realism that would be unacceptable in a commercial game. Meanwhile, the ICT is well positioned to bring its Army games back into the entertainment industry. Like the microwave and the Internet, today's Army games might end up becoming a killer app.

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Patrick Miller

PC World (US online)

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