CNN Executive Producer and Author
Just over a year ago, a U.S. staff sergeant in Iraq decided to practice his shooting skills. His target: the Koran, Islam's holiest book. The military issued a formal apology, promptly dismissed the soldier from his regiment and reassigned him back to the U.S.
But news of the shooting had already made its way onto YouTube, and a firestorm of outrage ignited across the Islamic world. Protests turned deadly in Afghanistan, with several people killed, including one of the NATO soldiers trying to control the crowds.
Back at the Army's Intelligence and Cultural Awareness Center at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, commanders knew they had a problem. The Army is no longer living in the age of the old-fashioned boots and firearm soldier. Now it's sending young soldiers into cultures they don't know.
And the meteoric rise of social networks, on which anyone can post messages or video, means whatever these soldiers do can be reported - or undermined - instantly around the world.
"The advent of social networking has changed the world. The soldiers who I see coming from basic to the intel center, what is the first question they ask? Are you wi-fi?" says Maj. Gen. John Custer, Fort Huachuca's top officer.
Custer says the Army now needs not only trained linguists, but also soldiers who understand the cultures in which they're fighting. We've entered the age, he says, of the "strategic private."
And that means it needs a quick but high-impact way to train them.
A third of the men and women the Army has deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are 20 to 24 years old. And many, Custer says, were reared on video games. And that presented an opportunity.
Custer turned to a group of former military men who know the video game world. Like Russ Phelps, who spent a career in the Navy before starting a gaming company called InVism.
"I was watching the rise of the gaming world and the impact and the power it was having over how people were interacting with information and I thought there is something here," Phelps told me.
An Arabic linguist, Phelps worked with two other companies, Combat Film Productions and Quest Pictures, on the Army's mission to create a vivid, engaging cultural training tool that would also allows soldiers to see the consequences of their battlefield decisions. The Army also wanted to track how much cultural knowledge soldiers were retaining.
The result is an immersive cultural simulation that is part video game, part Hollywood blockbuster in the style of action-film director Jerry Bruckheimer. Check out the intro video here. The training game itself is not publicly available.
Here's how it works: the movie-like game puts the soldier into a mission in Iraq and then stops along the way to ask what the soldier what he or she would do. Then the game continues based on their decisions. The soldiers see people in the movie hurt or helped, or killed or saved, as a result of their decisions, just as they would in a real-life scenario.
Ken Robinson, a former Army Ranger and CNN contributor now working as a Hollywood guru, is the project's executive producer. He's convinced that by grabbing the soldier's attention with stunning graphics and compelling characters, and then engaging them in the decision-making process, the project will pay off on real-world battlefields.
"They're gonna live," says Robinson. "They're gonna make choices on the battlefield that will prevent their first choice from being to use their weapon. They're gonna use their mind."
Using realistic story lines and actors with military experience, Robinson believes that soldiers will more deeply connect with the real human beings in the video game more than they would with the more generic and simplistic virtual characters, called avatars, that are used in other training exercises.
"Nobody cares about an avatar that gets killed, you just get another avatar," Robinson told me.
Steve Wilson, Chief of Training at Fort Huachuca, says the realistic characters also help give soldiers a stronger sense of connection with fellow soldiers, and be better able to deal with the shock and stress of the life and death situations they'll soon face for real: "It's a band of brothers mentality. You are building a camaraderie."
Can cultural sensitivity save lives? Does it really matter if a U.S. soldier knows the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni? General Custer thinks so:
"If an untrained soldier walks through a market, he's gonna come back and tell you 'there are a lot of tomatoes here today,' " Custer tells me. "The guy who has cultural training is gonna come back and say 'all the Sunnis in the market are talking about al-Dari, a meeting tonight."
Pvt. Nicole Wright, 20, has taken the training, doesn't know yet when she'll be deployed, but knows it's coming. "I'm going to be a little more aware of what I'm looking for, the people and the environment."
Spec. Andrew Omernick, 23, who grew up playing video games, called the training "a significant step forward."
The previous training used lectures and textbooks. Is a video game the answer? What about criticism that video gamers are detached, that they don't really understand the value of life? Custer dismisses that criticism, saying the first time a car bomb goes off in Iraq, soldiers will know what real death is.
Every soldier who takes the DVD immersion course is given both a pre- and post-test to measure the change in their cultural acuity. But there is an even more immediate feedback about whether or not the Army has achieved its mission of connecting with young privates. "If it were a video game" in the commercial market, says Omernick, "I'd buy it."
Editor’s Note: Suzanne Simons is author of “Master of war: Blackwater’s Erik Prince and the Global Business of War.” (Collins/Harpercollins June, 2009)