Four Times the U.S. Army Tried to Turn War Into a Game
Some good, some terrible — combat simulators have a checkered past
by JAMES SIMPSON
These kids are our future soldiers. So it should come as no surprise that the Army has tried at least four times to create a game simulating combat. These war sims are meant as training aids, recruiting tools and, in their worst incarnations, propaganda.
Sometimes passable, occasionally pretty cool, the Army-sponsored games are rarely great.
Improving on the incredible degree of realism in Bohemia’s civilian games, Virtual Battlespace 2, the current release, deploys players onto a huge battlefield where they can learn group tactics, command and control and individual combat. The Army uses the game in basic training.
Most importantly for training staff, VBS2 is customizable. Trainees can be placed in any scenario the Army can think of, with detailed After Action Reports available to debrief on their performance. It’s a safe, relatively inexpensive form of training that leverages the basic computer skills today’s recruits already possess.
A battalion commanded by Lt. Col. J.C. Glick tested VBS2 for basic training for the first time in a 10-week pilot program in October 2012. “When new soldiers go out to the woods, the time they spend there is more productive because they’ve done the homework and other requirements in a controlled environment,” Glick said by way of praise for the new software.
The Army is clearly happy with VBS2. The ground combat branch is paying Bohemia and other firms $5.3 million to develop a new version.
The VBS game is merely the latest in long line of official combat sims.
The most well-known is America’s Army, a government-developed online first-person squad-based shooter released in 2002 as a recruiting tool — and to promote a good image of the Army abroad. A.k.a., propaganda.
The game features plenty of action, an honor and rank system to promote good play and several training missions that teach real-life skills such as first aid and vehicle recognition. It’s been so successful that it has spawned two sequels including the latest America’s Army 3.3.
There is also a government-use-only version used for Secret Service training and in a multitude of applications by the Army, including live-fire projected killhouses, which are exactly as awesome as they sound.
‘Full Spectrum Warrior’
An early flirtation with gaming-as-training was Pandemic’s Full Spectrum Warrior, now kindly available for free with ads from the Army. FSW is a squad tactics simulator in which you command a squad of soldiers through series of missions in urban — and distinctly Middle Eastern — terrain.
Unable to fire for your soldiers, you have to seek out cover, set weapons arcs and adapt to threats. Unlike the PC-based America’s Army, the FSW originally ran on an Xbox console, whose development contract required a commercial version.
This led to a 2005 release of the game in stores with the military version unlockable by a code. While it was a commercial success for the developer and even spawned a sequel called Ten Hammers, the Army was criticized for not keeping a tighter control on the development to ensure it met their requirements.
Regardless of the success of this particular project, it spawned two other command simulation projects by Quicksilver Games and pushed the Army back to the PC. The game was also reportedly used to create a virtual combat environment to treat post-traumatic stress.
The 2001 release Real War is a real-time strategy game based on the Joint Forces Employment training tool developed for the government in 2000. The game was commissioned by the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to teach high-level war command to cadets at the U.S. military colleges.
Almost identical to the commercial release except for a more education materials and finite resources, the game envisioned a war on terrorism before 9/11 had even occurred. Real War was a commercial failure and was critically slammed. If you really want to play it, you can pick up a sealed copy for $999.95 on eBay.
With gaming an ingrained part of growing up in America, there are sure to be more crossovers between the commercial and government game markets.
But considering how bad some of the military-sponsored games are, it’s pretty clear that major franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield will do more to encourage recruitment than any America’s Army or Real War.
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