The Army's Growing Dependence on the Gaming Industry

Seems videogames are good for anything these days: Critical thinking AND basic military training – at least according to the US Army. Popular Mechanics reports on how the military complex utilizes interfaces that evolved in the gaming industry as the development of controllers evolved to a point where the army can learn from the interactive entertainment business and not the other way round.

Says Mark Bigham, director of business development for Raytheon Tactical Intelligence Systems (a company using Xbox controllers for controlling unmanned aerial vehicles):

"In the past, the military far outspent the gaming industry on human-interface technology, but that's changed. It's never going to go back the other way. The gaming industry is such a huge market. The investment in R&D that they're going to spend on human factors is going to dwarf even what the Department of Defense will spend."

Apparently it's all in the thumbs as analog thumbsticks have become the common standard for gamepads. For good reasons:

"[W]hen we've talked to our human factors experts, what they've told us is that the thumb is the most precise pointing instrument and requires the least energy." Bigham explains.

Hardcore PC gamers will probably roll their eyes at this stage, telling you that the time-honored keyboard/ mouse combination will beat a controller anytime. But in a military environment this simply doesn't apply as a pad is superior in terms of portability, durability and easy ergonomics (starting with the fact the soldiers won't have to worry about a flat surface).

So will the future war just be like playing a videogame? Complete with achievements (medals) and cheating (terrorism)? As the piece points out:

There is, of course, a real concern that appropriating the game interface into the military space will also bring with it an emotional and moral disassociation from the act of fighting wars, and experts say that the answer may be to experiment with even more immersive technologies that allow soldiers to feel the full impact of the battlespace.

The salvation, here as anywhere, is of course the Wii: Raytheon has already been experimenting with Wii controllers to explore the possibilities for training simulators and other applications that require physical movement. I wonder how Nintendo's waggle boy will ultimately be able to convey moral choices and emotional attachment but at least the physical component is indeed more distinct (after all this was one of the reasons why Manhunt 2 on the Wii was so controversial).

Wired in a similar fashion reports on how the top U.S. military intelligence agency uses videogames to teach recruits critical thinking skills.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has just taken delivery of three PC-based games, developed by simulation studio Visual Purple under a $2.6 million contract between the DIA and defense contractor Concurrent Technologies. The goal is to quickly train the next generation of spies to analyze complex issues like Islamic fundamentalism.

Games like Rapid Onset, Vital Passage and Sudden Thrust put the player in the shoes of a rookie DIA analyst who has to go through different scenarios like tanker under attack in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. The question he has to solve is: Who attacked the tanker and how by using the approved analytical process to analyze and choose among competing hypotheses of his colleagues.

The DIA isn't the only agency using videogames for training purposes. The U.S. Army Intelligence Center even uses a custom made game to train its "human collectors" (=interrogators). The torture already starts with the name of the title: "Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Tactical Proficiency Trainer Human Intelligence Control Cell."

What IEWTPTHICC does is teaching the player how to work through an interpreter, use culturally appropriate speech and analyze a detainee's body language; it currently does not teach coercive interrogation techniques, like waterboarding. But it may eventually be modified to show how offensive or abusive questioning will cause detainees to become less cooperative.

Again this shows the strengths of the digital game medium: its simulational nature which allows the trainee to go through all kinds of possible scenarios. The question remains though which scenarios are included and how their rules are defined. The Wired piece acknowledges this too:

[G]ames as teaching tools are only as effective as the assumptions behind them, says John Prados, a designer of hobby war games as well as an historian who has studied U.S. intelligence. For example, prescripted events in a game will tend to reflect the biases of the game's designers as they steer the player toward certain decisions.

Obviously these assumptions are the most crucial part of the whole game. Assumptions which can be highly politically charged. E.g. should waterboarding be used? Will it be effective? Which other options are there? Would a round of chess work better? Do they incorporate the irrationality of fundamentalists and its effect on the interrogation process? And on a more basic level: how do you turn irrationality into rules? How do you turn a whole culture into rules?

Despite the challenges one thing should be clear: If it helps to protect the country, it can't be too bad for you either.