How the Army Uses Videogames to Train Soldiers for War

Not nearly close to actually shooting.

Seemingly often I read articles or see news reports of the military using “videogames” to train soldiers for combat operations. I've been in the Army for 5 years and this isn't on the scale as one might think nor are we playing Arma to prep for war. More often than you might think I've even seen folks look at America's Army and say something along the lines of it being used to "teach soldiers how to carry out the real life mission."

A lot of Army training is half-assed and the virtual reality portion is probably the greatest example. I can appreciate a lot of it might be proof of concept and might just be planting the seeds for the Holodeck. However, most of it is an incredible waste of money and the soldier's time.

So what are my qualifications for critiquing a commonly used training device? I don't have a particularly unique or impressive career, but I've been around the block.

-I've been in the Army for 5 years, since I was 17.

-I'm a Cavalry Scout, a combat arms job that mainly deals with recon and is expected to be proficient with all the Army's standard weapons. Cav Scouts also have more tasks that they are expected to perform as a Private than most other entry-level military occupations.

-Deployed with an Infantry Company to Afghanistan 2011-2012. Conducted combat patrols and trained Afghan National Army.

The military have created the Engagement Skills Trainer (EST) in hopes to cut the crazy cost of actually shooting weapons. I don't know if the Army gets some deal with arms manufacturers, but a single .50 cal round on the public market costs around $8. Imagine a single soldier firing 200 rounds with .50 cal machine gun? And that's typically the minimum amount of rounds an individual will receive to fire at the range.

Watch this short video below to get an idea on what EST is:

Ok, and here a few more videos. But you get the point by now probably.

Another EST video.

Annnnnnnd one more.

Ok, great!

Soldiers show up to a building to practice shooting in an ideal environment. However, these artificial weapons might share the weight and feel of the real thing, but the air compressor doesn't allot the same recoil as firing the real deal.

The fundamentals of marksmanship the Army teaches are as follows:

-Steady Position

-Aiming

-Breathing

-Trigger Squeeze

Some simulators try to stress the soldiers out, making them question whether to fire or not.

Due to the lack of recoil, I can fire a rifle in this training without using any fundamentals. Hell, I was chatting with my friend next to me holding the M4 in one arm knowing it's pointed at the target that will pop back up in 3 seconds. I got a perfect score. Normally on the yearly real M4 qualification I will shoot around 35/40 targets.

I recently had to do my yearly M4 qualification. This comprises of using 40 rounds of ammo to shoot 40 pop up targets that range from 25m-300m using three different firing positions during daytime outdoors. It also comprises of using certain equipment for firing during the night.

For whatever logistical errors, I wasn't able to be hooked up with doing a real night fire qualification. Our Squadron set up an EST training sight. For the night fire, we shot at a small blinking light on a black screen...

...not exactly Special Forces training.

For me this is ok. I've had plenty of experience shooting at night. However, a lot of younger soldiers aren't well-versed with using the night time optics and infrared lasers. Those soldiers got cheated out of some possibly good training.

EST does have some redeeming qualities. One element I appreciated in Boot Camp was the Judgement Skills Training. Here, the screen will play an interactive video. Imagine this as a live-action first person shooter with moral choices. Mind you I have zero control over the movement, but with my rifle I choose when to fire.

One scenario was built to reduce hesitation seen in a lot of early Iraq operations.

My “squad” and I were conducted a search in a suspected insurgent building. We kicked down the door with weapons raised expecting contact. We saw two men in the house dazed in confusion as the result of our violent entrance. One of the men said he had a bomb strapped to him and said he'll blow himself up if we didn't leave the home.

The dilemma was that there was no evidence the man was strapped. He also had no trigger in his hand. However, the man to his left had his hands in his pockets. Did he have the trigger? The answer was to immediately shoot upon receiving a threat that severe. If the man is strapped, it would've killed the entire squad and possibly civilians outside.

When entering a room after kicking down the door all action happens within seconds. No one has the situational awareness to truly assess the situation well enough to see if the man is bluffing. You just have to believe the threat.

Of course there are other good scenarios for not shooting people like entering a room and a man jumps off his couch scared as shit. These scenarios try to help the soldier build quick judgement skills on what is a threat and what isn't. The ultimate lesson is that if someone can be captured/questioned then they shouldn't be shot. Or to put it more simply, shoot only if someone's life is in danger.

There are also a lot of virtual driving scenarios that soldiers will use often before getting on the road. I went through virtual training before getting my license to drive the MRAP vehicles. It placed me in the cockpit of the vehicle but the windows were TVs. This was good training because those vehicles roll-over easily and it taught me how to use the vehicle's features to prevent me from killing the crew inside.

I'm sure tankers and fighter pilots receive similar training.

Regardless of recent advances, nothing is as good as getting out and doing "real" training.

The military is playing around with a lot of virtual reality training tools. Some of it is a huge waste of time, money, and resources. However, there is a place for some of it. Regardless, a soldier learns best with hands-on training. In order for any of this stuff to be successful, the military has to make sure these tools are accurate and give the soldier scenarios that can't be duplicated in regular training.

@stevenbeynon

22 Comments
23 Comments
Posted by Giantstalker

Really well-written piece. The Canadian Army uses a similar system, but it's older and more primitive, known as the SAT trainer (by Meggitt, not sure if it's the same company).

Most US military ammo is made by the Lake City arsenal (stamped LC on the back of the casing) and I imagine they can get it pretty cheap, though .50 ball would probably still be relatively pricey.

In Canada, locally-produced IVI (Industries Valcartier Inc) ammo is relatively inexpensive but I don't even know if they make any of our .50 cal rounds. The gun is not used as widely up here as it is down south. At any rate, tracers cost more, as do armor piercing rounds, making SAT-style devices inherently useful for such a low-budget military.

We had/have no virtual driving equivalent for our LAVs, though, so I ended up doing all that training the old fashioned way. It might be the "best" but it's really hard on the vehicles. Considering the fuel/maintenance costs I bet that we could've saved a lot of money, over the years anyway, with something virtual to get started.

Posted by D0tti

Nanomachines!

Posted by Pie

Nice post!

All I could think about was

@d0tti said:

Nanomachines!

...

Edited by EquitasInvictus

... nor are we playing Arma to prep for war. only used training device? I don't have a particularly unique or impressive career, but I've been around the block

I'll (hopefully) be commissioning into in USAF within a year, but I've actually seen Virtual Battle Simulator 2 in the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center and it's basically ArmA; it's even developed by a subdivision of Bohemia! I was really surprised to see it when I was down there for training last year.

Near by where I live there's a Joint Base that basically has a simulator similar to the one you mentioned, though, with simulated scenarios that throw dilemma's at you. The version I saw was for Security Forces, so it was a little less extreme. It was extreme in a sense that if you picked a choice that got you, your people, or someone actually innocent killed you would get shocked. Really interesting to see that Pavolovian conditioning twist added to that simulator!

You also mentioned pilots; because of the sequester causing USAF to stand down 1/3rd of our combat Air Forces, they're actually going to be doing a lot more ground training via virtual simulators to make up for the hours they won't be able to get anymore because of the cuts. I can definitely see this not being good for the pilots, but I guess it's unlikely for us to be getting into a full-scale air war anytime soon. Nevertheless, it's a bummer a bunch of pilots will be grounded as a result.

I definitely agree that there's a place for some of the virtual training that exists, but in some of the scenarios you mentioned regarding weapons training and from what I know about what's going on with pilots now I can see how we're spending too much money on systems that are not refined enough to provide an accurate experience for some situations. Hopefully this improves as technology and support for technologies become more refined and readily available.

Edited by EpicSteve

@equitasinvictus said:
@epicsteve said:

... nor are we playing Arma to prep for war. only used training device? I don't have a particularly unique or impressive career, but I've been around the block

I'll (hopefully) be commissioning into in USAF within a year, but I've actually seen Virtual Battle Simulator 2 in the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center and it's basically ArmA; it's even developed by a subdivision of Bohemia! I was really surprised to see it when I was down there for training last year.

Near by where I live there's a Joint Base that basically has a simulator similar to the one you mentioned, though, with simulated scenarios that throw dilemma's at you. The version I saw was for Security Forces, so it was a little less extreme. It was extreme in a sense that if you picked a choice that got you, your people, or someone actually innocent killed you would get shocked. Really interesting to see that Pavolovian conditioning twist added to that simulator!

You also mentioned pilots; because of the sequester causing USAF to stand down 1/3rd of our combat Air Forces, they're actually going to be doing a lot more ground training via virtual simulators to make up for the hours they won't be able to get anymore because of the cuts. I can definitely see this not being good for the pilots, but I guess it's unlikely for us to be getting into a full-scale air war anytime soon. Nevertheless, it's a bummer a bunch of pilots will be grounded as a result.

I definitely agree that there's a place for some of the virtual training that exists, but in some of the scenarios you mentioned regarding weapons training and from what I know about what's going on with pilots now I can see how we're spending too much money on systems that are not refined enough to provide an accurate experience for some situations. Hopefully this improves as technology and support for technologies become more refined and readily available.

The biggest issue with virtual training is that it can't replicate the ultimate learning lessons of random things fucking up. Little things like soldiers slowly learning the best ways to wear their rucksacks on long distance patrols or learning little field craft tricks here and there that's probably impossible to teach in an environment with perfect conditions.

Good luck on your commission.

Posted by dudeglove

A Hind D?

Posted by audioBusting
Edited by EpicSteve

And here I thought the U.S. Army uses DOOM mods for training! Thanks for the posts duders.

And here I was thinking that wouldn't get brought up! Talk about poorly representing the military.

Posted by cassus

This is what I've been saying for ages. The shooter style army training "games" have NOTHING in common with CoD or any of those arcadey games. Nor do they have much in common with ArmA, even though those games are way closer to being actual sims than any other shooter out there. It will not teach you how to use a gun, it will not teach you how to drive or fly any vehicle. It will, however, be a pretty decent tool for learning how to plan strategies before engagements... But that is only true if you or someone on your fire team actually has some training. Most of the time you see fire teams trying to land a chopper on a roof, everyone laughing their asses off when the chopper starts flipping over, gets caught on a stray polygon and suddenly gets propelled 50 meters into the air upside down.. That's what ArmA is all about!

Think about it. Hardcore pc simulators are ALWAYS flight sims or racing sims. In the case of flight sims, these are sims that take AGES to master. Actually, they take ages to even kinda sorta understand, sorta. This is why actual sims don't even have boxed versions in stores. They are pretty much exclusively downloadable titles because the market is so tiny. Notice that whenever a school shooting or some fuckwit going on a killing spree in a mall, action heavy games like CoD and BF get the blame.. Games that teach you that as long as you own a gun, you can probably point it at people and kill them.. Most people already knew this, cause the NRA love telling everyone that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun..

Guess who thinks they're good guys? The bad guys. Guess who feels that it is necessary and right to kill kids? Bad guys. Guess who had his gun out first? The bad guy..

Idiots with access to guns kill people... And games don't do a fucking thing... Unless you get your hands on an A-10 or a P-51, at that point I guess someone would be right in blaming a sim, at least in part, for the ensuing carnage.

Edited by Salabrin

I was a tank commander in the IDF, and I can tell you that the IDF uses simulators to great effect. They either hook it up to an actual tank, and you see the simulator through the sights and an Oculus Rift style VR for the commander, or a screens and joysticks style thing. While it doesn't really simulate anything for the loader or the driver, because it's nearly impossible to simulate the actual movement of the hull and the turret, it does provide a lot of scenario training you wouldn't be able to practice other wise.

Posted by Brodehouse

Hell of a topic, should be promoted.

Posted by SpudBug

killing simulators

Edited by ThePhantomStranger

Wow this was informative and well paced. I agree with Brodehouse that this should get promoted.

This may sound ignorant but can you get in trouble for sharing this information?

Edited by crusader8463

Back in 2005-2006 CFB Gagetown -a local military base here in New Brunswick Canada- brought myself and a bunch of fellow students from the Art and programming game design courses at our community college to a show to try and see about hiring a bunch of us to work on a mod for games that they wanted to use to train soldiers. They were apparently interested in using a SWAT game that had come out around then, but they really didn't care what was used just as long as it did what they wanted. Their goal was to use it as a means to teach the soldiers formations for entering buildings, breaching, and to include graphics to teach them the various hand signals that they used and in the proper situations to use them in. Something they could dick around with on their free time to have fun with and still be learning useful skills at the same time. They were not idiots and knew that that kind of training was really all games would be good for, and that anything beyond that simply had to be taught in real life with real equipment.

They were also working on making an old school live action adventure style game where they acted out scenes and situations to try and test officers to see how they would react in certain leadership roles and to show them how bad decisions could get people killed. They had a rough demo to show us of a straight up binary good/bad split and it was really interesting to watch and see how hard it is to be an officer and how a decision that seems perfectly sane can lead down a dark path real quick. I would love to see what it ended up becoming after a few years of work as it was super interesting to watch.

EDIT: Just remembered, they had one of those virtual shooting gun things too. They had one with some kind of sniper rifle and you had something like 5-10 min to kill as many targets as you could without hitting civies and if you missed a guy you would get virtually shot and the game would end instantly. It was funny seeing real soldiers go up and doing super bad then a bunch of us asshole from a game design school that never held a real gun before go up and destroy their scores. They had some kind of machine to simulate recoil, but it had a separate battery powering it and it was dead by the time I got to try so it took some of the experience away. Still was really interesting. I was not expecting the guns to be so damn heavy too. Holy hell just lifting one of those around let alone setting it up seems like a dam nightmare.

Edited by EpicSteve

@thephantomstranger said:

Wow this was informative and well paced. I agree with Brodehouse that this should get promoted.

This may sound ignorant but can you get in trouble for sharing this information?

No. A lot of people have misconceptions of how guarded the military is on standard training. One of those Youtube videos in the blog is posted by the Army and pretty much explains the whole EST thing.

You can Google virtually all Army training doctrine for weapons, Infantry movements, vehicle diagrams, medical, you name it, you can download it. Most of that stuff is on official Army websites that are available to the public.

The only training stuff I know are a guarded secret is some testing standards for Special Operations schools. For instance, in Diver school they won't publicly disclose one of the underwater stress tests. This is so the students can be surprised. They also don't state certain physical standards one has to hit in Special Forces school. And the military still doesn't publicly acknowledge Delta Force exists even though we all know it does. SEAL Team 6 was also supposed to be a secret, but Obama fucked that up and got a lot of flack from military commanders.

Clearly if I was in a combat zone right now I couldn't disclose mission details like where we're going and our resources/strength. That would endanger everyone. There are also certain capabilities of equipment we aren't allowed to disclose, but it isn't as crazy and James Bond as it probably sounds and the enemy probably has all the info anyway.

I'm sure there are a bunch of high-level and Special Operations hush-hush stuff. But a typical soldier on my level doesn't have much knowledge I couldn't freely give out.

Posted by Slag
Posted by TheManWithNoPlan

This was a very interesting piece. Good job.

Edited by core1065

EST sucks, I can never zero with that thing, and the night fire sucks. i can never see the tiny blinking dot.

Edited by sarge1445
Edited by MrSpaceMan

@patrickklepek should let you start writing bits for the site. Informative and entertaining. thanks!

Edited by Pvtporter

I was an Army duder from 1996-2002; I attended basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. We used video games to assist with marksmanship training as well -- a modded Super Nintendo: http://www.siliconera.com/2007/01/25/the-super-nes-also-trains-the-army/

I was 18 when used it for the first (and last) time, and I still remember thinking how phenomenally dumb it was. The plastic M-16 we used was nowhere near the correct size/weight, and we ended up shooting at the range the next week anyway.

Still, while its value as a training tool is suspect, I definitely appreciated the break from the 8-hour classroom session.

One more interesting tidbit: When I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy, we actually had to use an indoor range to qualify on the rifle. Our base was too tiny for a full-sized range, so every few months we were bundled into a freezing room (the temperature helped keep the gases/dust from the gunfire under control) to shoot at paper targets.

Posted by Corvak

Great article, and interesting to hear the real-world accounts of some of the training being done.

@crusader8463: Aww yeah, Grew up near gagetown, could hear the shells going off on the artillery range from time to time.