Serious Gaming is Serious Business
Photo from Mike Elgan

Tactical Language & Culture Training System from Mike Elgan

Two American soldiers stand guard on a street corner in a remote village as a Black Hawk helicopter circles overhead. Onlookers, many of them armed, gather. Additional soldiers arrive, and the situation deteriorates rapidly. Something must be done—quickly. You hold your breath and step forward to address the man who appears in charge.  

Now, you might be speculating that I’m describing a scene from the hit game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I’m not, however. This is a hyper-realistic scene from a high-tech military simulation (a war game) that enables soldiers to hone their decision-making skills prior to deployment to actual combat situations. The military began using video games for training long before Call of Duty appeared.  

Photo from Cornell Student Project

Battlezone Screenshot from Cornell Student Project

Atari released their 1980 cabinet arcade game Battlezone, a vector-based product viewed through a 3-D first-person perspective. Its highly realistic play became a smash hit and quickly caught the attention of both gamers and the US Army. Could a video game be used to train American tank crews during the height of the Cold War? Soon the army took an unprecedented step and commissioned Atari to design and build a combat simulator for gunners manning the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Although Atari’s effort yielded only a few prototype systems, their work planted the seed for future use of electronic military training aids.

While virtual training does not replace actual field training, the military believes serious gaming is a useful educational tool. Over the past decade, the American armed forces have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advanced gaming technologies that allow military trainers to embed soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in increasingly realistic environments. Computer-based simulations such as the Tactical Language & Culture Training System incorporate foreign language instruction and cross-cultural communication skills. Trainees practice both routine and atypical real-world mission situations in a multiplayer, networked convoy training simulator called DARWARS Ambush! As a former instructor on active duty in the US Army, I can attest to the fact that soldiers learn valuable skills through these highly interactive serious games.

Big Wheels

The military relies heavily on the commercial gaming industry to produce these training aides. Professionals in many fields outside of the armed forces, including medicine and engineering, also use serious games to train and educate personnel. These uses, along with the 2010 Serious Games Summit and the dozen or more sessions on serious gaming at the concurrent Game Developers Conference, illustrate the importance of this game genre.