How the Army Uses Videogames to Train Soldiers for War

Not nearly close to actually shooting.
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



-Trigger Squeeze

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